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Sunday, 16 September, 2001, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Nation united in grief
Mourners in Long Beach, California
Shock and grief unite the US from coast to coast
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

I was not in New York when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, nor was I in Washington, my home, when another aircraft ploughed into the Pentagon.

By a strange quirk of fate and timing, I was in London and had to watch on television, an ocean away, as chaos and destruction descended on the United States.

Poster hung outside4the Pentagon in Washington
People are struggling to express their feelings
The distance from home gave me a small taste of the powerlessness many here in the US now feel in the wake of the attacks.

After waiting for two days for North American airspace to re-open, I was finally able to return to the US, and found my country shaken and in mourning.

Calling friends and family

Like many Americans, I made calls to friends and family to let them know I was safe and sound (in my case, in an airport near London) and frantically tried to reach people who I thought might have been in danger.

I have a friend who works for the US Air Force, and I spent much of Tuesday trying to make sure that she was safe. She was.

My own e-mail inbox was clogged with messages checking to see if I had been anywhere near the Pentagon. Using a mobile phone and laptop, I assured everyone that I was fine.

New York skline with Statue of Liberty
Smoke from New York's devastation is visible for miles
But some people, including my brother, were still waiting for news days after the attacks.

On Saturday morning, he was still frantically trying to reach a friend who worked for a major US accounting firm, Deloitte and Touche, which has offices just across the street from the World Trade Center.

By Saturday afternoon, my brother heard from his friend. He had been on the street outside the centre when the second plane hit the south tower.

He went to his hotel in the shadow of the towers where he thought he would be safe. The building was evacuated almost immediately. He literally ran for his life, north to safety.

The emotional toll

After two-and-a-half days of waiting with many other BBC journalists in London's Stansted airport, I was finally able to fly to Montreal.

Most of my colleagues drove from Canada to New York but I kept going to Washington, passing by Manhattan on the way.

Woman crying with child
Flags are everywhere, a symbol of unity
Heavy rain had fallen the night before and the skies were grey. Rising up from lower Manhattan, smoke still billowed from the shattered skyline.

The devastation is obvious, shocking, immense, but the human toll, the psychological impact on average Americans, is no less.

At a service stop along the New Jersey turnpike there was a shop selling old New York tourist kitsch.

Sitting there was a snow globe with New York attractions: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

I shook it up. I didn't think of snow. I thought of the ash from the fires.

A clock in the Pentagon - stopped at 0931
A clock in the Pentagon - stopped at 0931
Behind me, a woman saw what I was doing and put her hand to her mouth. She was a real estate agent in Tribeca, just north of the financial district that was home to the World Trade Center.

Her business was at a standstill. The neighbourhood was paralysed. But beyond the dollars and cents, the emotional strain was obvious.

She was leaving town for the weekend. She said she just couldn't take it any more - the pictures on television and the devastation that was evident all around her.

She could not take listening to the final desperate calls that victims in the twin towers or on board the hijacked planes made to their loved ones.

Country in mourning

The woman is not alone in her grief. The entire country is in a state of mourning.

Flags are everywhere, hanging from bridges over motorways, on cars and lorries.

It is not a simple show of patriotism, the kind one usually sees around the 4 July holiday in the US. The flag has been transformed into an emotional symbol of solidarity.

On Friday evening, many Americans stepped out at 7pm to light candles. I had just arrived back in Washington to find many people standing in the dying light of the day with candles and flags.

It was the end to a national day of mourning.

I do not personally know anyone who was killed in the attacks, but I know everybody has been shaken to the core by them.

My friends and family are like the rest of the nation, trying to come to grips with the sheer enormity of the tragedy.

One friend has had nightmares every night since the attacks. On Friday, shortly after I returned, she told me that she had not yet cried - but she was waiting.

A few hours later, she could wait no longer, and she began to sob.

I am not a very patriotic person. I do not wave flags on 4 July. But I returned home to nation grieving, and as an American, I grieve too.

Rachel Uchitel is coming to terms with the fact
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