A silent world, united in grief

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The Independent US

Across the globe millions of people stood, united in silence. Their heads were bowed. The only sounds were those of muffled sobs; the only movements were the discreet raising of hands to wipe away the tears.

Across the globe millions of people stood, united in silence. Their heads were bowed. The only sounds were those of muffled sobs; the only movements were the discreet raising of hands to wipe away the tears.

It was a silence that reverberated across Europe, through Asia and as far away as Australia, echoing far louder than the explosions that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. An estimated 800 million people observed three minutes of quiet reflection for the victims of Tuesday's terrorist massacres, in which more than 5,000 people are now believed to have died.

All over the world – in some 43 countries – at the stroke of 11am, shops, offices, schools, factories, railway stations, airports and city centres fell quiet. Television and radio stations suspended programmes. Stock exchanges ceased trading. Court cases were halted. Buses and trains stopped. Pubs, which were due to open, kept their doors closed.

Throughout Britain, in the biggest outpouring of public grief since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, millions stopped to pay their respects to the victims, among whom it is feared some 500 Britons number. It was a gesture that unified the nation. The Queen and the Prime Minister took part, as did taxi drivers, shop assistants and suspects awaiting criminal trials.

At Buckingham Palace the gates were closed so that no one could enter or leave during the period of mourning. And at the House of Commons, which was in emergency session to discuss the crisis, Michael Ancram, the new shadow Foreign Secretary, was interrupted by the Speaker, Michael Martin, in the middle of his speech, for the unprecedented three-minute tribute.

MPs – including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the new Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy – stood between the benches of the chamber as the chimes of Big Ben sounded outside. Some of the politicians looked near to tears as the clock ticked away the seconds.

Outside, tourists and other pedestrians stopped and turned to face the great clock tower. Traffic too came to a halt until a muted peel of bells from Westminster Abbey marked the end of the silence.

It was an image that was repeated across Europe. In Brussels, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, joined thousands of EU officials to observe the silence in the heart of the administrative district of the city. Alongside them stood Richard Morningstar, the outgoing US ambassador to the EU. Flanking him were the European foreign policy high representative, Javier Solana, and the EU commissioner for external affairs, Chris Patten, with a host of other European dignitaries.

In Berlin, a sign had been laid on the pile of white roses and carnations placed in front of the American embassy. It harked back to the words of solidarity President John F Kennedy delivered in 1963 to residents in the city, then divided by the Cold War. "Ich bin ein Berliner," he said then. "We're all New Yorkers," the sign said yesterday.

In Paris the bells of Notre Dame cathedral rang out across the French capital then fell silent on the same stroke of noon. At the Place de la Concorde the great Ferris wheel set up for millennium celebrations had come to a halt. Drivers on the Metro stopped their trains and asked passengers, over the intercom, to join three minutes of "homage to the victims".

All the television screens in the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysées were switched to a picture of the American flag at half-mast. Customers and staff stood to attention and, when the silence ended, John Lennon's pacifist anthem "Imagine" was played over the loudspeakers.

Elsewhere in France – in the National Assembly, in airports, offices, shops and in churches and in a service attended by President Jacques Chirac in the courtyard of the Elysée Palace – the silence was scrupulously observed.

In Italy, at the motor racing track at Monza, Formula One drivers, engineers and fans stood silent in the pit lane, and for another nine minutes no engines were turned on. For tomorrow's Grand Prix, the Ferrari team's cars will abandon their traditional red colours, they will not carry sponsorship, and drivers will be clad in black and white.

Fiumicino airport in Rome, the scene of a Palestinian terrorist attack in the early Eighties, was eerily silent as loudspeakers were turned off and conveyor belts came to a halt. The stillness was broken only by the sobbing of some American tourists still unable to return home.

Elsewhere new friends added their tribute to that of America's old allies. Outside the US embassy in Moscow yesterday hundreds of bunches of flowers were piled up, many of them laid the day before when Russia held its minute of silence. All flags on government buildings were flown at half-mast, a symbol of President Vladimir Putin's pledge to increase co-operation with Nato after Tuesday's attacks.

It was a promise which clearly was endorsed in the hearts of the ordinary Russian. A steady flow of people arrived at the embassy to sign six black condolence books. On their way through the embassy, they passed posters showing idyllic scenes of American life: one a view of the New York skyline dominated by the World Trade Centre. The notes attached to the bouquets of red and white carnations carried the same simple messages: "We are with you" and "You'll remain in our hearts forever".

The wave of sympathy – and revulsion at the outrage – extended well beyond Europe. Children knelt in front of the US embassy in Seoul yesterday as Asian nations also came to a standstill. In India an internet website condolence book was opened. At Friday prayers in the biggest mosque in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, sympathy was expressed for the death of so many civilians. In Australia, trade unionists attending a protest rally in Sydney after the collapse of the country's second biggest airline, paused to observe the silence.

But the closeness of the relationship between the American and British people gave the moments of mourning throughout this country a particularly sombre quality. In London thousands gathered in Trafalgar Square, where the fountains were switched off at the foot of Nelson's Column. All around flags flew at half-mast. Traffic did not just halt but most drivers turned off their engines.

In Oxford Street, an eerie stillness descended one of the busiest roads in Britain as shoppers, tourists and office workers stood to attention.

The bustling heart of Glasgow fell silent as 4,000 people gathered in George Square, which had been covered in gigantic black drapes for a multi-faith service which preceded the silence. In Cardiff, workers poured out of local offices to stand respectfully around the war memorial outside the Welsh Assembly's headquarters.

At Edinburgh Castle, workmen dismantling scaffolding built for last month's Military Tattoo raised an American flag; it became the focal point for the silence – which was broken, shortly before its end by a man who began singing the American national anthem. Many of those present wiped tears from their eyes as bright sunlight shone on the castle esplanade.

But it was not just the great cities that were determined to honour the dead. In hundreds of smaller places, tribute was paid. In the village of Dunham Massey, in rural Cheshire, 15 villagers and two passing ramblers stood in a silence broken only by birdsong at the 130-year-old church of St Mark. "God Bless America," said a card pinned to the post office window, accompanied by a small Stars and Stripes flag.

The village is close enough to Manchester to hold its own memories of terror. One of the locals, Hilary Heyworth, 62, recalled how her daughter had been working in the city's centre when the IRA bombed it five years ago. "When she heard about the US she went to pieces," said Mrs Heyworth. The sentiment was shared by the hundreds who gathered, in Albert Square, Manchester. When maroons were launched from the town hall roof, mourners visibly flinched. America's terror has bred that kind of nervousness.

It was not the only place where the explosions in New York and Washington stirred terrible memories. The people of Lockerbie, where 270 people died when Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky in December 1988, stopped to pay their respects; in the High Street people left shops and stood on the pavement, heads bowed, eyes closed.

Tens of thousands of subjects gathered, too, outside Belfast City Hall. And by the buffer line of military vehicles between Protestant and Roman Catholic streets in the Ardoyne district – where loyalist protesters have suspended their two-week campaign to prevent Catholic children going that way to school – a lone Scottish soldier piped a lament on Britain's most disputed patch of ground.

For just three minutes yesterday the world stopped turning. Instead it stood still in a simple but tearful homage.

And yet the result was not depressing. It was a moment of curious enrichment and inspiration.