The Last Person to Hear about 9/11

Twin Towers smoking2.30 p.m. GMT.  Three hours out of London, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in their laptops or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), so far the only bother was that all of the video screens had suddenly gone dark.

“The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess replied over the intercom to the hushed buzz of passengers. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at the boundless brightness. I turned away. Twenty more minutes passed. Still no movies. People fidgeted. The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

3.15 p.m. GMT. Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious — wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down.

It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? What would they close all the airports for that? A nuclear bomb, then? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayNothing made any sense to me. Why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to know. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? What had happened? And where? Who had been effected? Was I even going to get home?

Someone must know. Ahh. Coming down the aisle toward me was a hostess whom I had spoken with earlier and had made a connection. I was traveling alone and there were no passengers near me. I decided to take advantage of that privacy. Our eyes met but I deliberately remained seated, hoping she would stop when I sought inconspicuously to flag her down. She stopped and crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand. Well, it was something. A kindness. The first of many to come during the next four days.

5.45 p.m. GMT/12.45 p.m. EDT. Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the asphalt service road filled with on-lookers in cars, vans, and pickups; like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Well, more than that. It wasn’t just the striking sight of landing these huge commercial jets that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny day. They knew what had happened. Who did not? We still did not.

1 p.m. EDT. Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We now asked a thousand questions of the crew, but they only knew what Captain Williams knew. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions. The details available to us upon landing were still very sketchy and rumors still ran wild in the media about “more possible attacks.” There was a rumor about “a plane crashing in Pennsylvania.”

It would be nearly 24 hours after the attack before our imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Note from Charles: Every week of September 11 since 2001, I remember where I was on that fateful day. I still find it eerie – given the immediate, ubiquitous, and lengthy worldwide media coverage of the attack – to have been one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news. More importantly, I think about how opposite of the terrorist attackers was the spirit of thousands of stranded passengers and our Canadian hosts as we built community in and around Halifax those days. I called that spirit “the kindness of strangers,” and it was duplicated for many thousands of stranded others across the U.S. and Canada. If you would like to read the full essay of my account, first published for the one-year anniversary of 9/11, here it is.

Top image: smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, taken from the international space station (image by NASA/Bryan Allen/Corbis). Bottom: the 42 huge international passenger jets parked wingtip to wingtip on a runway of Halifax International (image by CBS News).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

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