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Remembering 9-11 (Part 9 - Feeling the Effects: A Collection of Personal Stories)
I think it is important, as individuals living in a nation that was so brutally attacked that September morning, to be able to talk and share the effect those events had on us. That day was so immense in our psyche that getting together for 9-11 gatherings and sharing what was memorable will be a help in the healing process we all need.
Some people were not affected as much directly, but the memory of when we found out is easy to retrieve. Others, especially those who lost loved ones or were living in Manhattan have very deep-seated emotional ties with this tragedy.
Since I started writing in February of this year, several different events have occurred – the biggest being Bin Laden’s death. Then, just a few days ago, flight numbers UA 93 and 175 resurfaced on the computers due to the merger of Continental and United and the need to increase flight numbers. Outrage began when people saw those numbers, but they were soon deactivated, with apologies – a computer oversight. It seems we as human beings have feelings that computer programs have yet to capture.
Writing different articles over the past several months has made me more aware of the magnitude and the different action millions took that morning. The following stories are from people I have interviewed over the past few months. Some of the stories are from flight crews, some from family members, and others are from neighbors and friends. Please come along with me as I relive that morning through the experiences of these people.
While traveling to see our son and his family in mid-May, my husband and I boarded a Continental Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Houston. When I entered the plane, I asked the flight attendant at the door if any of his flying partners had been flying on 9/11/2001. After the service, a flight attendant named Peggy came to my seat and asked if I would like to come to the galley. As we talked, she told me she was based in Newark and on that morning, it was her mother who called to tell her to turn on the TV. Her initial thought was that it must be a light plane – one of many that fly over Manhattan every day. But as she watched United 175 appear in the camera’s lens and then hit the South Tower, she said she knew in that moment she would lose her job. She was right. Within two weeks, she got her furlough notice like thousands of other flight attendants throughout the industry. (She was later recalled by the airline.)
She told me that when the hijacker’s faces were finally made public, she froze and chills ran through her body. Mohammed Atta’s face was a face she remembers because he had been on one of her flights that summer. She could not remember exactly which flight or where it was, but she was certain it was him. He was no doubt scouting airports, procedures or routes.
As we were talking, another flight attendant, Carol, also based in Newark was ready to share her experiences. Carol was on a layover in Houston that morning and was supposed to fly her first segment of the day to Albuquerque. She and her crew members arrived at the terminal, and while at curbside, as they were getting out of the hotel van, they heard that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She, like Peggy, thought it was probably a small plane. But as they reached Security, United 175 crashed into the South Tower. Of course at that time, no one had any information that the planes were American flight 11 and United flight 175 – both wide-body 767s.
Once through Security, and walking alongside the captain, she said, “What’s next, the Pentagon?” Carol and the rest of the flight attendants went to the gate as the captain went down to Dispatch. When he returned, his pale face gave away that something more had happened. He approached her with news of the pentagon. She felt awful that she had mentioned it earlier and somehow felt responsible for the happening. He assured her that she did not have that power. They stayed in the gate area for about 20 more minutes and then were told to go back to the inflight office area.
Carol called her mother in Pennsylvania telling her how scared she was, and her mother assured her she was safe and that all the airplanes would be landing soon. While she was talking, her mom said, “There is a low flying airplane out there. It’s so loud! “Within minutes, her mom heard a loud crash. Yes, her mother lived near the coal strip mine in Shanksville, PA, 125 miles from Washington DC where United Flight 93 had just crashed.
Carol said the flight crew stayed in the Inflight office for about 6 hours. Once they received word of hotel accommodation, they left and entered a totally quiet terminal. They stayed at the hotel for a couple of days. At midnight two days later, they flew back to Newark with one paying passenger – an FBI agent heading for “Ground Zero.” So it was classified as a regular flight, not a ferry flight. Along with this one paying passenger were 75 airline employees trying to get home.
Returning from our son’s home in Mobile, Al, we stopped in Houston to stand by for a flight back to Los Angeles. Because my husband and I were among the very last passengers boarded, we were separated. My seat was in row 31. Before I sat down, I walked to the back galley and asked the two flight attendants if they had flown that day in 2001. One of them, Cathy, said yes. So once the service was over, she came and got me to tell her story.
Her crew was also Newark based. Cathy said that she was on the flight immediately behind United 93 on the taxiway. She was on board a Boeing 737 heading for Sarasota – which ironically was where the president was that morning. Her plane took off just before Flight 11 crashed into the north Tower. She remembers being airborne a little over 30 minutes when the captain announced that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and that they would be landing in Greensboro, NC. She said there was complete silence in the cabin -- no one panicked. As it turned out, they ended up in Charlotte, NC rather in in Greensboro, NC. They were there for a couple of days and then continued on to Sarasota with half of the original load. Many of the passengers had friends and family working in the World Trade Center, so they found ways to return to Newark. They finally arrived in Sarasota, but the next morning they were greeted by Tropical Storm Gabrielle which reached land on September 14th. (Source 1: E-4)
With all the unscheduled activity, the Crew Desk up in Newark lost track of their crew and actually scheduled them for a flight out a city they were not in. It turn out the Crew Desk had not only lost track of the crew, but also the aircraft. After much discussion, the captain finally convinced them of where they really were.
Carol also said that over the years, she had followed the new information that emerged on the 9-11 events. She said she had heard somewhere that the agent in Boston who had boarded Flight 11 eventually committed suicide because she could not forgive herself for boarding those five hijackers. She said the agent had had a bad feeling about those men but had not followed through. I was not able to find out any information as to whether this story was true or not.
The other lady I spoke with was the lead flight attendant. Her name was Cindy, and unfortunately I did not have much time with her. I did learn that Cindy was in Boston that morning with only one plane separating her flight from American Flight 11. She was flying an MD 80 headed for Atlanta. She was enroute longer than Cathy, but like on Cathy’s flight, the captain came on the intercom and announced the plane crashes in New York. Once again the people were silent – like their breath had been knocked out of them. Cindy and her crew landed in Greensboro, NC.
When I returned to my seat, I told the man sitting on the aisle I was writing about 9-11, and the ladies had been telling me their experiences. With that, he informed me he was a retired Continental pilot. Of course, I then asked him if he was flying that day. He replied, no (he was on jury duty). But he told me of flying to Newark the next week and seeing the black smoke rising from the Towers’ ashes. He said the smoke lasted for many weeks at what is now called “Ground Zero.” He also told me it took a couple of months to get new cockpit doors installed and he thought the cost of the doors (at least on the 737 airplanes) was close to $1 million each. He talked about the new rewiring and the complex panels and expensive materials used in these doors. He also said there were several new buttons in the cockpit associated with their operation, and in the beginning, pilots would hit the wrong button and panels would open, allowing them to see into the passenger cabin. He told me when they needed to use the restroom they tried to be considerate making sure the inflight services would not be disturbed because two flight attendants were needed, one to be in the cockpit and the other to be just outside of the door protecting against any attempted intrusion. Yes, another great glamorous aspect had been added to the flight attendant job description -- and our bodies were our only weapons
A few days later, I was talking with my neighbor. When she heard I was writing about 9-11, she responded, “You know, I was working in Long Island that very morning as a young lawyer on my very first case.” She said she remembers looking out the window and seeing a low flying airplane go by. She thought it very odd and minutes later, she heard that an airplane hit the North Tower. She entered the court room and stayed there the rest of the day. Rumors were rampant throughout the building that other parts of the country had been attacked like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Sears Tower in Chicago. As the trial continued, the bailiff was leaving the courtroom getting updated information throughout the day. The people in her law firm that were not in court were getting calls from their loved ones to come home. Those that left early were given white slips the next week and charged vacation time.
Tiffany, my neighbor, said it was very disturbing for the next several weeks hearing helicopters flying over the City with spotlights beaming down trying to find victims in the rubble. She said several of the people who worked with her had family and friends working that day at one of the three Trade Center buildings that collapsed. She said that one young woman lost her brother because he was on the very floor that American Flight 11 crashed into.
Tiffany also said that each weekend traveling from Long Island to see her fiancé, Alex (now her husband); she would have to cross the Throgs Neck Bridge -- connecting the Bronx with Queens. She said the smoke continued to darken the skies as the smell of smoke and flying ash lasted for several weeks as a reminder of that terrible day.
Within two months, New Yorkers came out in force to support the runners in the New York marathon. Alex, my neighbor, ran the race that day feeling the depth of emotion from the people along the route cheering him on. It seemed the City needed to celebrate something positive to overcome the pain they had all been experiencing. I saw pictures of Alex running and along his route were areas blocked off with yellow tape reading, “Police Line Do Not Cross.”
One morning at water aerobics, I was talking about the time I had been spending on the research for 9-11 and Lee, a retired professor from Pittsburgh, told me his son was working that morning at the World Trade Center, but in the small building across the street – which mainly housed financial companies. He said his son was there for both crashes and was told to evacuate the building. Instead he stayed back and ran around turning off the computers. When he finally left the building, he was told to head uptown. But he was a good athlete and chose to run toward the water instead. In doing so, he was able to catch one of the last ferries to New Jersey. His building collapsed shortly afterward along with the North and South Towers.
As I was writing this article, people kept approaching me with new 9-11 stories. For example, I started talking with someone at the pool I had not seen before. She was outgoing like me, and we started talking about the airlines. I told her I used to fly with United. She replied that she had flown for TWA. Then, of course, I mentioned the 9-11 events. She responded that she was a successful travel agent in Brentwood, CA during the 9-11 tragedy, and then she proceeded to tell me about that morning. She had been out running and someone in passing yelled out to her about the plane crashes in New York and at the Pentagon. Remember this was in Pacific Daylight Time, three hours earlier than the East Coast. Martha, the travel agent, said she ran over to her office, and the phones were ringing continually. She told me that four of her ticketed clients were passengers on the hijacked flights. She told me that two secretaries and two wives called her to see if their bosses/husbands were on any of the hijacked flights heading back to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, she had to confirm that they were indeed on one of the flights. She said she had this information on her office computers which could retrieve detailed information from the tickets that were sold there, but within a short period of time, the FBI was able to block access to this information. She said after the tragic events of 9-11, the career she loved gradually changed forever, like the airline industry did for us.
In Washington DC that morning, my newly married niece, Lisa, was getting ready to go to work downtown near the Capital. Her husband, Chris, had left their Georgetown apartment a few hours earlier so he could catch a flight out of Reagan International Airport. Chris, a lawyer, traveling with another lawyer had scheduled late morning meetings in Newark, NJ representing their law firm. When I talked with him, he told me he was flying on a Continental flight that morning with an 8:30 am departure. (Remember that only a few minutes earlier, American Flight 77 had taken off from Dulles International airport, about an hour drive away from Reagan. Chris remembers flying by the pentagon and seeing some of the famous monuments of Washington standing proudly in the distance – a view he never tired of.
As his airplane was climbing and on a direct course to Newark, ahead of him American Flight 11 had just hit the North Tower, and behind him American Flight 77’s transponder had just been turned off, meaning it had just been hijacked. As Chris’ plane reached cruise altitude, Flight 77 had just made a 180 degree turn heading back to Washington and United Flight 175 was just minutes away from the South Tower. Not long after, an announcement came from the cockpit saying they would be landing in Philadelphia “due to an airplane accident in New York.” Chris said that the inflight crew members were not informed of any other details. Once he landed and as the aircraft was taxiing to the terminal, he saw many airplanes from different airlines on the taxiways and the tarmac. He called Lisa and told her he was in Philadelphia, and she told him about the crashes at the World Trade Center. Chris then informed one of the flight attendants. When he arrived inside the terminal, he found people all grouped around the televisions finding out news of the crashes. As he watched and tried to absorb what was happening, another bulletin came on telling of the Pentagon crash. He and his partner then tried to get a rental car, but none were available. They were, however, able to get a room reservation in a nearby hotel. Chris stayed at the airport only about 90 minutes, and then he left for the hotel. He said at this time, it was quiet with very few people left in the building. He took a train home the next day. It was totally packed with many people standing the whole way.
After hearing from Chris, Lisa rushed out of her apartment because she had a 10:00 a.m. conference call set up in a building just blocks from the Capital. She remembers as she was driving, she could see a huge cloud of black smoke coming from across the Potomac River. Reaching her destination on time, Lisa, a psychologist, was now on her conference call talking with another psychologist in Pittsburgh, PA. It was that person on the other end of the call that informed her that an airplane had just crashed 65 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Remember, United Flight 93 was the hijacked plane thought to be headed toward the Capital in Washington DC. If it had reached its target, Lisa’s day would have turned out much differently. Instead, she worked the rest of the day even though buildings all around her were being evacuated.
On this memory day in our nation, our son Scot was working in Austin, TX at Dell Computers, but living in Mobile, Al. He would travel there weekly, spending about three days on each trip. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, his wife, Sarah, called him with anxiety in her voice asking him if he had heard about the plane crashing into the Trade Center in New York. This was about 7:55 a.m. Central Time. While talking with Sarah, Scot turned on the TV and found the story on virtually all the channels. The picture on the screen showed smoke billowing out of the North Tower. As he continued talking with Sarah, the second plane entered the picture on the TV screen turning at a sharp angle heading toward the South Tower. Can you imagine the thousands of calls that were made to loved ones that morning from 8:55 a.m. EDT on? Remember the time of impact for American Flight 11 was 8:46 a.m., and it took a few minutes to get the television cameras in place to record the second crash.
At this very instant in time, I am in Hong Kong, and my flying partner is calling my room at the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel, waking me up. Because Hong Kong is 12 hours ahead of New York, it was evening there and almost the end of their day. As I was stumbling in my room trying to find a light switch, Scot had probably already turned on his TV in Austin. There was only 19 minutes between the crashes, and we both watched live as United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.
For three days after the hijacking, he attempted to get home unsuccessfully. There were no flights, and he could not get a rental car. Finally, his father-in-law drove 628 miles taking over 10 hours, to pick Scot up and bring him home. Ironically, he and I both returned home on Saturday, the 15th.
While I was writing the article on Canada’s response to 9-11, our daughter Trinity said, “Did you know Bahar (her roommate for her last two years in college) landed in Canada on September 11, 2001?” I was, of course, interested in hearing more, so I asked her if she thought Bahar would let me interview her. Days later, I got my answer.
Trinity had obviously communicated with her because shortly after that I heard from Bahar. As we emailed back and forth, this is what I learned. During the summer before her senior year, Bahar traveled to Iran to see distant relatives. On her return trip, she was booked on KLM, with her last segment being Amsterdam to Newark. While enroute, she heard this announcement from the cockpit, “Due to the political situation in the United States, we will be rerouting to Montreal.” She told me she never forgot those words. She also told me the people on board did not really respond, most went back to sleep. She felt at the time it would be just a minor inconvenience and continued listening to her music.
Once they landed and entered the terminal, the sleepy passengers were met with chaos. Bahar said there were no rooms available in Montreal, so the passengers and crew were bussed to the ski resort, Mont Tremblant, 80 miles north of Montreal. Under different circumstances, a visit to this elegant 654 acre resort which sits in the Laurentian Mountains would have been wonderful. But with everything that had happened in New York -- a City she had visited many times and loved, she could not appreciate the beauty that was surrounding her. I asked her how long she had been in the terminal before boarding the bus, and she responded that she thought it was about three hours -- a big difference from those who landed in Newfoundland.
Bahar stayed at the resort for three days, and then they were bussed all the way to Newark – which took eight hours. She told me it was so sad to see all the smoke coming from across the river in Manhattan, and it was so surreal to find Newark Airport vacant as her bus approached the terminal. Her father met her, and as they hugged, tears of relief filled their eyes. Bahar is now a lawyer living in New York City, and she said the memories of 9-11 are never far from her mind.
This last story was written several years ago when I thought if flight attendants from United would write about their 9-11 experiences, it would make for a super interesting book. However, that did not happen. What did happen was that United flight attendant Joy sent me this six years ago, and it is the final story in this article.
Joy left Narita, Tokyo’s international airport, in the late afternoon of September 11th (local time). Their flight was delayed for an hour because of waiting for connecting passengers. The new scheduled arrival time was 11:30 am California time on September 11 (45 minutes late). More than half way in flight, the cockpit informed the inflight crew to be aware of anything abnormal happening in the cabin because there were terrorist threats in the U.S.
After that call, the map on the main TV screen, showing the location of the plane, was turned off. Then the seat belt sign came on with no announcement from the cockpit. When the purser (head flight attendant) called the cockpit later, asking them if the sign could be turned off due to passenger needs, she was curtly told not to call them. That request was not normal. Not being able to call the cockpit is called “sterile cockpit” which is normally used during the first 15 minutes after takeoff and the last 15 minutes before landing. The reason is we are not to interfere with their duties during these crucial times of flying. But to not being able to call them for hours before landing was not routine.
Joy was on the last break with five other flight attendants. As she took her bunk in our crew rest area, she felt quite uneasy as I am sure the rest of the crew did. After her break, when she reentered into the cabin, she had expected to see a flight attendant in each aisle passing out hot towels, cabin lights on, the smell of coffee brewing and hot meals cooking, with the aroma filling the cabin. Instead she found a dark cabin and was told they would be landing in 45 minutes.
I remember talking with the purser on this flight years ago and she said the captain did not want any meals served. And I believe he also told her that the situation in the United States was serious, but that she was not to tell the rest of the crew because the captain felt it would make them nervous and the passengers would sense something was wrong.
As Joy walked through the cabin, she was feeling very vulnerable, not knowing whether the plane had been hijacked or if there was a bomb on board. She wrote,” For once she was glad she was working in coach where she would be hard to find if there were terrorists on board.” Fifteen minutes before landing people were waking up. Most of the passengers were Japanese, but there was a large Chinese tour group on board and there were no Chinese language flight attendants on this flight. So many of the passengers had no idea what was being said. One American businessman asked Joy where they were, and she could only respond, “I don’t know.” He asked her no more questions.
Five minutes from touching down, the cockpit made an announcement saying they would be landing soon and more information would be provided once on the ground. The announcement ended by saying they expected full cooperation. Joy wrote that they were on the runway and then the taxiway for a long time before any further announcement was made. The only planes that she could see were Air Canada and JAL. From seeing that, she figured they were in Canada.
Finally the cockpit informed the passengers about the attacks, the airspace in the U. S. being closed and the city that allowed their arrival – Vancouver, Canada. Those not understanding Japanese or English must have been so confused. The cabin remained quiet.
Joy wrote they were the third airplane arriving from the Pacific, and they landed around 11:30 a.m. She said they were held on the plane for about three hours. During that time, they did their breakfast service.
They then taxied to the jetway. For security reasons, airport officials chose to deplane all passengers on all aircraft through this one jetway. Fortunately, because Vancouver was a port of entry, their processing took much less time than in the rural areas where others had landed. Groups of 20 were deplaned at a time with their personal items included.
Joy and the rest of the crew stayed in apartments in downtown Vancouver. She wrote that it was beautiful there, but they were limited in what they could do because they had to stay in constant contact with the crew desk. On Thursday, September 13th, they ferried their 747 back to Los Angeles arriving at 6:00 p.m.
While flying down to Los Angeles, Doug, one of the co-pilots, told the inflight crew what happened in the cockpit that night. About four hours into the flight a meter from ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) said a plane had been hijacked and had crashed into the World Trade Center. With this news, they started thinking about what alternate route they should take if needed and if they should tell the flight attendants. But just 19 minutes later, they got word of the second plane and minutes later, the Pentagon crash. Remember they were flying over the ocean at night and had very limited landing choices.
When word of the fourth crash and the closing of the U.S. airspace, they stacked all of their suitcases against the cockpit door and did not come out for the rest of the flight. They used orange juice containers to relieve themselves even though the restrooms were just outside of the cockpit door.
The pilots changed their normal flying routine enroute to Vancouver, executing a slow and gradual descent so that no one in the cabin would be able to determine how close they were to landing.
Yes, September 11, 2001 was an awful day – a day filled with heartache, anxiety, confusion, disbelief, and wonder. On this day our world shifted. A shift that had to make people acknowledge that we on this planet cannot continue to kill and hate. Also on this day, human behavior was inconsistent. For example, each captain dealt with this unique crisis in a different way. Some allowed the people access to the information, while others kept them in the dark. Remember, in the article “The Crews” I wrote that nowhere in our briefings were we told what to do if our airplanes were used as missiles or what to do if we were having our throats cut. And the cockpit manual did not have a section on what to do if killers from Al Qaeda break down the cockpit door.
The last time America was so harshly attacked was December 7th, 1941. But the circumstances and the aftermath were quite different. In that instance, we became a stronger nation with a unified sense of purpose. The economics were also quite different. In 1941, America was just emerging from the great depression and the war put millions of people back to work and had the economy booming again. In 2001, the economic effect was just the opposite. Businesses suffered, people lost their job, the financial world was hanging by a thread, and we had no common sense of purpose about what we could do and what direction to take to overcome the effects of this tragedy.
Almost 10 years later, I think we are still feeling the effect of September 11th, and I wonder if we are any closer to a real solution even after spending trillions of dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and having thousands of soldiers and innocent victims killed and disfigured. I think not!
1. “The History of Hurricanes in Southwest Florida”, www.dca.state.florida.us, Hurricane Research Advisory Committee, FEMA Charley Report, pE-4.
2. All takeoff and landings times are taken from “The New Day of Infamy/Comprehensive Time Line,” http://256.com/gray/thought/2001.
3. The author thanks Peggy, Carol, Cathy, Cindy, Unknown retired continental pilot, Tiffany, Lee, Martha, Chris, Lisa, Scot, Bahar, and Joy for taking the time to share their personal stories with me.