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9/11: A week in the US with Peter Allen

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Lucy Grey | 15:31 UK time, Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Peter Allen

When I was first told I was going to the US for our 9/11 special programmes, I have to admit I didn't jump at the idea. Covering something that happened a decade ago, which (we think) we all know about, didn't feel newsy enough.

Also, the thought of trying to sustain Peter's interest in one story for a whole week, with his gnat-like concentration span, felt like a challenge too far.

So anyway, we started our series of programmes in Sarasota, Florida. A pretty unremarkable place, but one forever linked to that day of terror.

This is where President Bush was reading The Pet Goat to second-graders when he was told America was "under attack". The pupils from that class told us about his reaction to the news and how good it was he didn't react immediately because he didn't want to scare them.

But it's not only the school which is linked to 9/11 round here. Just half an hour's drive from Sarasota is Venice, where there used to be a flight school called Huffman Aviation. It was here that the hijackers who flew passenger jets into the North and South towers of the World Trade Centre learnt to fly.

When I found the owner of that school, he agreed to come on the programme because he wants people to know how his association with them has ruined his life.

Then there's Sarasota's former Police Chief Peter Abbott. He was with the New York Police Department on 9/11, standing next to Rudi Giuliani when the Mayor got the call saying two more flights were unaccounted for. A burly all-American cop, he became very emotional recounting the events of that day.

Then came Scott Bill, who lives in Sarasota. His son Brian was a navy seal with Unit 6, the one which got Osama bin Laden, and his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan last month killing him and 37 others. Scott is proud and so gracious.

And so we moved on to Tennessee. Our next programme was from Fort Campbell military base, home of the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne division. The soldiers, who are still on the front line of the War on Terror, launched just under a month after the attacks.

We headed into the nearby town, Clarksville, a place where all the surrounding roads are lined with fast food joints and if you try to be healthy and order a mango smoothie they put whipped cream on top. I wanted to try to find an army wife to interview about life with a soldier serving in Afghanistan. As I approached people randomly on the street, I came across a soldier in army fatigues with a girl, so I ran over just as she popped into a shop and explained to him what I'm doing. I asked whether I could interview his lady friend. "That's not going to happen - she's my mistress, my wife is at home." I moved on.

I made Peter get up at 04:30 to record the soldiers during their dawn exercise session. Heroic achievement. And then the programme: I think Peter is at his best interviewing soldiers. He managed to create a pub atmosphere even though we were sitting under a massive Second World War bomber, and when he talked to them they dropped their yessirs and just told their incredible stories.

One described a man on a motorbike driving into the centre of his platoon and blowing himself up. Another wells up when he talks about his buddy who was fatally wounded when they came under attack. He gave his friend CPR for 45 minutes, while the rest of the brigade provided cover. Such a moving interview: there must be about 30 or 40 men he'd risk his life for and who'd do the same for him.

And so to New York. I ccouldn't wait to actually be able to walk from one place to another. My chance came very soon. Our very rude cab driver dropped us off at the wrong hotel and we ended up walking for miles. I was shivering with mild sunstroke from doing a three-hour programme in the blazing sun, and when we finally got to our hotel and they didn't have our booking, I expected Peter to kick off. Thankfully, for a man well-known for his grumpiness, he was surprisingly stoical. Perhaps he sensed I was teetering.

We'd already heard some incredible accounts of what happened on 9/11, but the stories to come were still captivating. David Handschuh was one of the first photographers to reach Ground Zero. He says he's never run from a story before, but on that day he did. Not fast enough though: his legs were shattered when the first tower collapsed just yards from him.

And yet another extraordinary story came from Harry Waizer. He was in a lift near the point of impact around the 92nd floor of the North Tower, when the plane's fireball entered the lift and engulfed him. He tried to fight the flames, but suffered severe burns. The lift then drifted down to the 78th floor and the doors opened. He got out and walked the rest of the way down. He described the horror on people's faces as they saw him. He managed to get out and get medical help before passing out - he was in a coma for six weeks.

I must have spoken to seven members of Harry's extended family when I was trying to track him down. I'm so pleased I did reach him, not just because he has such an amazing story, but also because despite how much he's suffered, he has no bitterness for those responsible. On hearing of bin Laden's death he said: "I just can't find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama bin Laden."

So we did the three-hour special programme. The speakers around Ground Zero blared out the sound of relatives reading the list of names of the dead. Nearly everyone around me welled up when one woman broke down while saying her brother's name.

Peter was on sterling form throughout. At this moment I didn't really know why I had any concerns about the trip beforehand - those events and their repercussions still constitute the biggest news story of my lifetime.

The morning after: the road blocks were lifted and the crowds had dispersed. The shared emotion of the day before was replaced by New Yorkers hurrying to work. I saw a man wearing a t-shirt: "NY don't heart U". Things looked back to normal. Then the customs official at the airport said: "I'm done with 9/11. I was on the ground on the day. Yes, it was horrible, but I'm done remembering. It's time to look forward." Maybe he has a point.


Lucy Grey is a senior producer at BBC Radio 5 live

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