Remembering 9-11 (Part 10 - Coming Home)

After the 9-11 attacks in the United States, my crew of five stayed in Hong Kong for three more days. During these days, our comforts were not compromised. We did not sleep on cots or be detained for hours on an airplane. Our accommodations continued to be at the Renaissance Harbor View Hotel in Hong Kong, overlooking the harbor and convention center (which has been seen in many advertisements for Hong Kong).

Hong Kong Harbor
Hong Kong Harbor | Source


After the 9-11 attacks in the United States, my crew of five stayed in Hong Kong for three more days. During these days, our comforts were not compromised. We did not sleep on cots or be detained for hours on an airplane. Our accommodations continued to be at the Renaissance Harbor View Hotel in Hong Kong, overlooking the harbor and convention center (which has been seen in many advertisements for Hong Kong).


But as I went back to sleep that first night, the image of United 175 going into the South Tower over and over again – as so many millions across the world had also seen – created a vision in my consciousness which was impossible to erase. In Hong Kong, I was over 7,000 miles from Los Angeles and close to 3,000 more to New York City. As a result, it was impossible for me to comprehend all the activities happening across our nation, and the impact these activities would have on our future freedoms. I had no idea about the magnitude and complexity of what was really going on in the U.S. and Canada until I started writing these articles. And being so far away, I could not appreciate the trauma that so many people were experiencing in the U.S. that day. By being in Hong Kong, I was in a space not only 12 hours later than New York, but so far away from the attacks that the people around me did not even know -- or even care that much about --what had happened. (I am referring to the average person in Hong Kong, not the business leaders and CEO types.)

Recalling the details of those extra days made me realize that I was very selective in what I chose to remember. Most of my stay was a blur, probably because my brain was protecting me from this trauma. I think it was just too much to realize how much we were hated by some, and how those people took joy in destroying not only buildings with people in them, but thinking, while doing so, that it was a holy thing.

Was this supposed to happen to show mankind how absurd belief systems can be, or how belief systems can be distorted to support fanatical leaders and their views. Getting along should be the true focus. Why is it that some people have to kill to demonstrate their truth? How sad for us all!

As September 11th was happening in the U.S., I was waking to a new day in Hong Kong (September 12th). The news channel on the TV was CNN. So before I left the room to meet up with a couple of the other flight attendants, I knew all that CNN had reported.

As my day was ending in Hong Kong, the morning light was shining on the ash-filled sky in New York City. The early papers were coming off the press with bold TYPE headlines like:

US ATACKED (Hijacked Jets destroy twin towers and hit Pentagon in Day of Terror)”

New York Times


“America Attacked; Strike Against the Nation; Terrorists Attack New York, Pentagon”

Los Angeles Times

Other papers had one word to describe this day of war – BASTARDS! This word was used by the San Francisco Examiner as well as the Toronto Star up in Canada. This headline came close to capturing the depth of what many Americans must have been feeling that morning.

Across San Francisco Bay, The Oakland Tribune had another one word headline which captured feelings too – TERRIFYING! Other papers chose words like, “Day of Death,” “America Savaged; Forever Changed,” “The Day After,” “Darkest Hour,” “U.S. Attacked,” “Our Nation Saw Evil,” “America’s Bloodiest Day,”. But perhaps The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi said it best when it simply asked, “What Now? (Note 1)

As people woke up to these morning headlines across our land, I am sure a constant gnawing was felt by many – a feeling deep within – a sick feeling – a feeling that our world and our freedoms would never be the same. A new reality of our global world became apparent that day -- September 11, 2001!

As I spent another day in Hong Kong, we had an Inflight supervisor from that base come to our hotel, showing her concern over this unprecedented situation. She really did not have any answers, but at least she took the time to be there for support.

Part of international flying is having a “crew room” at our layover hotel. This is a regular hotel room which the company pays for and is converted into an office atmosphere. Computers, printers, desks and bulletin boards are part of the room’s décor. This is the place we crew members go to check emails, trade trips with other flight attendants and do any other company-related issues. Pilots also use this room for company business. During our extra days in Hong Kong, we met other crew members that were flying during this tragic period. Crews from San Francisco, Chicago, and even New York gathered in this space, sharing their fears, concerns and disbelief.

Flying the 747-400 (if staffed properly) would take about 20 crew members – three pilots and 16-18 flight attendants. This many flight attendants is needed because this plane holds over 400 passengers and has three different classes of service. Because our layover was over 50 hours, there were normally two different crews from our domicile staying at the hotel – one crew landing in the evening and one crew on their layover, leaving the next morning. So the crew that was landing that night left on September 10th and landed in Hong Kong around 7:30 p.m. September 11th, local time. That 7:30 pm equates to 7:30 a.m. on the east coast of the U.S. At that time, no hijackings had occurred.

Even though we would normally have 18 flight attendants on our flight from LAX-HKG, more than half were based in Hong Kong. So there were only about 10 Los Angeles flight attendants at the hotel –five from the inbound crew and five from my flight which was scheduled to leave the next morning.

I am not sure of the numbers from the other bases, but I think their bases flew almost all the positions. So guessing, there were close to 100 stateside flight attendants and pilots laying over at the Renaissance Harbor View Hotel (including two New York crews, two Chicago crews, and two San Francisco crews). The reason I mention this is that on the 13th of September, we were notified that a vice president for United’s Pacific Division was at our hotel, and he wanted to speak to us.

That afternoon we all gathered in one of the convention rooms, filling it to capacity. Even the Hong Kong based people attended. Lots of emotions were displayed – some happy at seeing old friends; most expressing disbelief; all anxious to find out who the crew members were on United flights 175 and 93.

Little did we know a few hours earlier (real time) evacuations had taken place at the Empire State Building (ESB) and Penn Station, just blocks away from where the twin towers had stood. This was because a bomb-sniffing dog had located a suspicious explosive device in the ESB. It was 10:24 p.m. EDT on September 12th when this occurred, but 20 minutes later an all clear was given. During those 20 minutes, people at Penn Station were told to get out of the building as fast as they could. (Note 2) Yes, our nation was on the edge – our nerves were frayed.

As the United VP stood behind the podium giving us as much information as he could, our real concern was, “what now?” Would United go bankrupt? How many furloughs would be involved? When did he think we could go home? And would we be safe? Of course, he could only guess at the answers to these questions, and as it turned out, most of his guesses were wrong.

As he was speaking, it was the early a.m. of the 13th in North America; and the FAA, the Department of Transportation, NAV Canada, and Transport Canada were working non-stop. Now that the planes were down, they had to come up with a plan to get these thousands of airplanes back into the sky safety and into position to start scheduled flights again.

As we sat in this large conference room, I do remember asking, “Will we go bankrupt because we spent so much money trying to buy US Airways?” People were a little surprised that I had asked that, but as a flight attendant who had survived both prosperous and challenging times, I personally felt that we had spent too much money on this merger (which did not happen). The VP was polite to me, and his answer was that he felt we would be OK. As it turned out, most of his answers were wrong (as will be discussed in a future article).

After the meeting, we were again on our own. As I slept that night in Hong Kong, the planes in the U.S. and Canada were getting ready to start flying again. At 11:00 a.m. EDT on Thursday, Sep 13th, the FAA allowed airports to open and commercial flights to resume on a case-by-case basis, with approval contingent upon compliance with the new safety rules announced by the FAA. Part of the changes included no knives, no scissors or corkscrews or even tweezers on the aircraft.

Here are a few examples of how the airlines got the planes flying again. Joy the flight attendant on the Narita to Los Angeles flight had landed in Vancouver, Canada on September 11th. She stayed in Vancouver two days and flew back to Los Angeles arriving at 6:oo p.m. on the 13th. She and her crew ferried (i.e., no paying passengers) their 747-400 aircraft back to their base in LA. So this crew stayed with their plane, but the passenger didn’t. On the other hand, the people up in Newfoundland returned home on the planes they were originally on. Their personal belongings had been left on the aircraft. For example, US Airways flight 27 from Paris to Philadelphia landed in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11th. After waiting 24 hours to deplane, and staying in a very small town of Gambo, 30 minutes away by bus, they all re-boarded their plane and headed to Philly on Sept 16th. (Note 3)

Behar, our daughter’s college roommate, landed in Montreal. She was on KLM’s flight from Amsterdam to Newark, NJ. After spending a few days at a ski resort north of Montreal, she and the rest of the passengers were bussed back to Newark Airport, arriving on Friday, the 15th after an 8-hour bus ride. That KLM crew no doubt ferried their aircraft to some location to get the plane in place for a normal scheduled flight.

Many domestic flights were resumed on September 13th. Logically, if passengers could make it to their destinations by car, bus or train, they probably did so. It would appear that the only people that stayed with their original aircraft were those like the people in Newfoundland who had no other choice but to go by plane.

As the next two days passed in Hong Kong, I did routine things like eat, shop, and get together with others for happy hour. On the top floor of our hotel was a beautiful restaurant and bar, with breath-taking views of the City. During happy hour free hors d’oeuvres were served, so many of us, especially our pilots, took advantage of this very nice perk. It was comforting being able to talk about what we thought was in our future. During this time we really had no comprehension of the scale of human devastation that was happening at home or the impact that the events in New York had had on the entire country. We were aware, however, that this tragedy was going to result in major changes in our industry, but we really had no sense of the depth of what this impact would be.

As we were admiring the skyline of Hong Kong, the FAA was hard at work crafting new safety policies for air travel. The Senate was also at work on $40 billion disaster legislation which would be passed on September 14th with a vote of 96-0 – what a rare display of unity. During this same period, Major League Baseball decided it would postpone all games until Monday, September 17th. The New York Stock Exchange also remained closed for this same period, and there was no NFL football played on that Sunday. (Note 5)

President Bush declared a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance” on Friday the 14th. In his proclamation for this day, the President asked nations to please take just three-minutes at noon local time on Friday the 14th to ring bells and have silence in prayer for all those who perished during the attacks of September 11,2001.

Nations across the world were very receptive to this request. In England, Queen Elizabeth attended church along with 1,500 others, and she arrived wearing all black to show her respect for our losses. In Berlin, on the western side of the city at the Brandenburg Gate, the Star Spangled Banner was played as people sang along. Up in Ottawa, Canada a televised memorial service was held on Parliament Hill and attended by over 100,000 people including the Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. Both Ireland and South Korea took this day of mourning to heart and made it a national day off. Back in Washington DC, the Reverend Billy Graham was delivering words of comfort to political leaders and the country. (Note 6)

While prayer vigils were happening throughout parts of the world, I was asleep. In a few hours, I would be waking up to go home. Yes, we finally were told we would be leaving on the 15th with the same pick up time only three days later. As we met in the hotel lobby that Saturday morning, we were all anxious to get back, not only to our families and friends, but also to our country.

As I look back, I realize I was quite selective in what I chose to remember. I don’t remember any big delays getting to the Inflight office area. (Remember, I am in the Far East where many of the flight schedules were not interrupted by the 9-11 attacks. It was mostly Europe and North America that felt the effects of the flight disruptions.) I do remember going to Inflight and being told things in our possession like corkscrews, scissors, tweezers and, of course, knives and box cutter, had to be thrown in a container and would be placed in the cargo area to be retrieved in the Inflight office in Los Angeles. I hadn’t in all my years of flying carried a box cutter, but those flight attendants that did lost a useful tool for cutting the twine around large bundles of newspapers and magazines that were boarded for our First Class and Business customers.

During this time, I thought these actions were too severe. Here we go; the innocent must pay for the actions of the guilty. Little did I know the depth of negligence of our security in Boston and New York that day. If I had, I probably would have said something out loud and would have gotten into a lot of trouble because extreme paranoia had taken over. I mean really, taking our tweezers?

Chek Lap Kok Airport on Lantau Island is Hong Kong’s international airport. This beautiful airport was built in 1998 with state-of-the-art technology. It was designed with expansion in mind, so when walking to our gate we usually allowed 25-30 minutes.

After our Inflight briefings, we gathered up our things – or those items we could legally gather, and started on our journey which included long corridors with turns and many high end shops to admire as we walked by. Further along the way were two levels of escalators which took us down to the tram area. Once on the tram, it would be just a few more minutes before arriving on the concourse where our gate was located. As we approached our gate, I heard a man yelling as he walked back in forth in this area. I think he was in his forties, with dark hair and skin. I heard him shout, “The U. S. brought this on themselves. They go where they don’t belong.” He said this over and over again. Why did I remember that? It was like Behar in the piece “Feeling the Effects” remembering the KLM captain when he said over the PA, “Because of the political situation in the United States, we will be rerouting to Montreal.” This man was making people angry, and they started shouting, “Don’t let him on the flight!” As it turned out, he did not get on and probably security came and got him.

As passengers boarded and got settled, I was approached by the Purser concerning one of our First Class passengers. We had been told in briefing that if we thought someone looked or acted suspicious, we could call the gate agent and have them taken off the plane. Remember the attacks against the United States had just happened and there were no guidelines or procedures set up for us. We were all experiencing our new environment in a totally different light -- a light not as bright as it had been in the past. The rules were changing, and we did not know what to expect next. We knew about hijackers, that’s why we had annual FAA videos and tests to take to stay current. We also had challenges with weather, turbulence, mechanical problems and maybe a drunk passenger or two, but now we had to add passenger profiling to our job description, just in case one of our customers decided to turn our airplane into a massive weapon – a huge missile carrying people. The passenger in question had been on my Hong Kong flights many times and had accrued more than a million miles flying on our airline. Because this man had dark hair, eyes, and skin, he now fit a profile. I, of course, said he was a good guy and nothing more was said. Thankfully, he had no idea he was being discussed.

United Flight 2 was finally enroute home to Los Angeles. It was such a relief to be on our way. Our First Class and Business cabins were pretty full, but our Coach cabin was extremely light. The flight attendants on the inbound Flight 1 landing in Hong Kong on September 11th, were “deadheading” (i.e., being passengers) home with us.

One of my last memories of our flight was that our Purser wanted to sing, “God Bless America” over the PA. She was one of the five of us that stayed at the hotel – the one that woke me up that night of 9-11. Normally one of the Hong Kong-based crew members would be in that position, but on this first flight back to Los Angeles, it was agreed that years of experience would take precedence -- just in case. Several of us thought singing over the PA would not be appropriate, but she did it anyway. Remember, this was the first time for all of us. We were in a totally different environment, and we each had our own way of dealing with it. It was one more challenge -- of many -- to be faced in surviving our chosen career field!

As I was enroute, and getting closer to Los Angeles, my flight attendant friend, Mimi, was in the Heathrow International Airport in London going through security with her crew. She was scheduled for a 9:00 a.m. departure on September 15th returning to Los Angeles. (London is seven hours behind Hong Kong and eight hours ahead of Los Angeles.)

Her extra-long layover in London was filled with many more challenges than I had encountered. On September 10th, she had left Los Angeles in the early evening and flew all night, arriving in London close to noon on the next day. After a long bus ride downtown and a 90-minute nap, she and flight attendant Diana headed toward Kensington Palace to view some of the late Princess Diana’s things that were on display. As she and her flying partner were walking through the beautiful Kensington Gardens/Park an old English woman approached them and wanted to know if they were from America. They acknowledged they were, but when this woman told them that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, they thought her a little crazy. Not believing her words, they continued touring the gardens.

Later, as they headed back to their beautiful old hotel in downtown London that afternoon, they stopped at a convenience store located two blocks away. As they entered the store to pick up treats for the rest of their stay, they noticed several people crowded around a little 9-inch “telly” (as the British would say). As she looked on and saw United 175 crashing into the South Tower, she did not believe it was real. She thought it was some horrible movie. And then suddenly it all clicked with the old woman’s words at the Kensington Gardens!

As Mimi walked back to her hotel and into her room, the message light was flashing. It was family members from the U.S. making sure she was OK. Because she was not in the room when they called, they got through to the front desk and learned that she had checked in. She was unable to return the calls because of the high volume on the London phone lines, but for some reason, her relatives were able to get through to her.

The rest of Mimi’s layover was spent counseling crew member having meltdowns from the stress of having to get back on an airplane. In the past, she had taken extra training and had taught different courses to us. Because of her caring nature and excellent counseling skills, she gave many of her personal hours to helping her peers with their fears.

In London, there were more flight attendants at her hotel – probably two-thirds more -- than in Hong Kong. There was a crew room set up just like mine in Hong Kong, and she told me the hotel was incredible at taking care of their extra needs. This was the main area where many of the distressed flight attendants gathered for support.

She got word they would be leaving on the 15th, with a departure of 9:00 a.m. (1:00 a.m. Pacific time). However, due to the extra security at Heathrow Airport in London, they were told they were going to be picked up earlier than normal. She also told me that parts of the airport had been shut down during this four-day period, and they were the first United crew heading back to the United States that morning. She said she did not remember many bomb-sniffing dogs, but did see lots of military and security people all around the airport facility. She remembers the crew suitcases were searched in three different airport areas, the last being at their departure gate. I don’t remember having that experience. I am sure if I did, I would have remembered part of it. I remember opening my suitcase for inspection, but not over and over again.

Through my years of flying I have thought about the distance between myself and other flight attendants as we meet up in one space and end up in another. Mimi was a great example of that. As we exchanged stories about coming home on the 15th, me from Hong Kong; she from London, I figured that I took off four hours (actual time) before her and landed in Los Angeles a little over two hours earlier. I calculated this with Hong Kong being seven hours ahead of London, so 9:00 a.m. in London would be 4:00 p.m. in Hong Kong. Our United Flight 2 left Hong Kong around 12:00 p.m. And with close to 13 hours of flying, we landed at LAX near 10:00 in the morning. Mimi’s flight time was scheduled to be about 11 hours, and she landed after 12:00 p.m. So here we were; so far apart just hours before, and now we were both home again -- me traveling 7,254 miles from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, and her traveling 5,451 from London to Los Angeles. It just seems amazing to me still.

Another facet to this happening was our location in the world. I was in a place controlled by the Chinese government. Mimi was in a place that had been friends and allies with the United States for nearly 200 years. In my space, most of the people were not aware of our tragedy, but in Mimi’s space, the people around her were very aware and very sympathetic.

Even though Mimi and I had different experiences in getting home, we both experienced the same scenario after we landed in Los Angeles. Nobody met us. Nobody from our Inflight office was there. Nobody was there to show us they cared. NOBODY!

As I walked through the terminal in LA, I could not believe the suffocating feeling of confusion and despair. But maybe that was just me. I had imagined our flight from Hong Kong would be met with concern and acknowledgement of what we had been caught in and what we had been going through. Yes, I had expected we would be met at the gate, but that expectation was replaced with nothingness – a total absence of caring.

Outside near the curb and waiting for the crew bus to take me to our parking lot, I still sensed confusion and anxiety, but mixed with a strong sense of patriotism. On this day, September 15th, 2001, the day my Hong Kong flight came home and Mimi’s Flight 935 arrived from London, it was announced by Continental there would be a major reduction in their flight schedule, and 12,000 of their employees would be furloughed. (Note 7) This was the beginning of the dominoes starting to fall.

As I drove my car past the barricades and road closures, I realize it felt like a different world. A major shift had occurred. It was frightening! But as I continued to drive and saw all the American flags being displayed and hearing the horns honking as they passed, I was astonished by the unity being displayed by these people, our people – our people being united. This display of emotions made me realize they knew what we had been through, and I didn’t feel as abandoned as I had after landing. Then it hit me. We had all been traumatized -- those of us in the air as well as those on the ground. I also realized I was probably the least traumatized because I had been so far removed from the events of 9-11.

As I approached my house and hit the garage door opener, tears filled my eyes. I had finally made it home.

Notes

1. These headlines can all be seen on a websitewww.September11news.com/USANewspapers.html.

2. CNN Breaking News 9-11. Available at www.pagetutor.com/misc/cnn/html See Sept 12th, 10:47 am dispatch.

3. Fulkerson, Norman, “Unforgettable Experience,” Available athttp://www.tfp.org/tfp-home/articles/an-unforgettable-experience.html.

4. CNN Money – Chris Isidore, Dec 9 2002.

5. CNN Breaking News 9-11. Available at www.pagetutor.com/misc/cnn/html See Sept 14th, 10:52 am dispatch and the 3:31 and 3:45 p.m. dispatches.

6. Wikipedia, “Timeline for September 11 Attacks.” Available athttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/time_for_September_following_the_September_11_ attacks.

7. CNN Breaking News 9-11. Available at www.pagetutor.com/misc/cnn/html See Sept 15th, 11:41 am dispatch.

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Comments 8 comments

Nancy Sue Parmenter 5 years ago

Thank you! You are an amazing writer. This is not just book material; this is movie material. I will be waiting to read your next piece.

Love,

Nancy Sue

P.S. Welcome home!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1


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GG Baba 5 years ago from Southern California Author

Thank You Nancy Sue for once again your very kind words and you support. It definitely is a challenging topic. And I thank you for following my articles.feathers in your path, GG BaBa


Priscilla Vayda 5 years ago

Barbara: your best yet! Well written and very informative. What an experience to have gone through and thanks so much for sharing it with us all. And you are correct. It is a different world we live in today. Terrible events around the globe. But we must continue to look for the good and by the same token to do good. Keep up the writing, Priscilla


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GG Baba 5 years ago from Southern California Author

Pricilla, your words are so appreciated especially you being not only a good friend but also a professional writer. There is still so much more to say. Thanks again, GG BaBao aka Barbara


kay earls 5 years ago

An excellent, informative & insightful article Barbara. You did a great job telling the story, so many things I didn't know about. Thank you so much for all your research. You write beautifully & this, along with your other articles should be compiled into a book.


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GG Baba 5 years ago from Southern California Author

Thank you Kay for appreciation my effort. I difinitely have put my personality on hold for awhile. Loving purple feathers, GG BaBa


claude earls 5 years ago

GG Baba,It is difficult to put into words my feelings about your last piece on 9/11. It is one thing to have read many articles about it, experienced the live feed on tv the day of the event-last part of your story brings home the reality of this situation experienced by so many people in so many different ways. I'm sure it wasn't until you arrived home & the tears filled your eyes that you fully realized what had happened. And you expressed that terrible time in our history of an event that was horrible & devastating mentally, physically & spiritually. Kudos to you my dear. You said it best of all.


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GG Baba 5 years ago from Southern California Author

Dear Claude your words always lift me up and give me the drive to continue on this quest of discribing an event in our history uncomprehendable. My focus will now be on the next part of the puzzle which will be more information of that day. Thank You for your beautifuy words. GG BaBa

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