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 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 wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, 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.

“TUESDAY AFTERNOON”

jets on Halifax runwayWe landed in Halifax around 1 p.m. on September 11, 2001, and only then got the news about the attacks, and then we waited aboard our plane hoping that the FAA would open the airspace up back in the United States to let us fly home. After two hours without even a hint of departing, it seemed unlikely that any of the forty-two stranded commercial jets were going anywhere soon. And our 777 was parked at the end of that queue. No one knew that it would be Saturday before we flew home.

But we had access to the pilots, so I put on my journalist’s hat and found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door. I looked in and was struck by the complexity of the massive instrument panel. I heard the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax that was the pilots’ source of sporadic newscasts about the attack, much of it still rumor. The pilots said Hello to me and returned to their conversation. The atmosphere appeared busy but relaxed. A flight attendant occasionally walked up to check in with the pilots about life in the cabin.

There were stories in that cockpit, I knew, and I had a question. At an appropriate moment I introduced myself and asked Captain Williams why he had made such an indefinite announcement over the Atlantic. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” I asked. He didn’t hedge. He explained that after turning off the video screens, he and his co-pilot discussed what kind of announcement to make and what language to use. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he revealed, “but neither of us has been in this kind of a situation before. But colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking,’ so we talked for a long time about the right words to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

Two flight attendants arrived and explained that the cabin was getting stuffy and some passengers were getting ornery. Others need a smoke, one said. Water and snacks are running low and two infants need formula. Squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem and take wise decisions.

Captain Williams radioed the ground crew for water, lunches, and baby formula. He announced that the port side door would be opened for fresh air and the port rear door for those who needed a smoke. “But don’t crowd that rear area, please,” he said. “Take turns smoking. And try to keep your smoke outside the plane.” Such gestures lightened the mood and brightened outlooks considerably in our cloistered social microcosm. I later learned that decisions made by crews on some of the other grounded carriers had not been as wise.

inside delta planeThere was still the crucial matter of reaching my wife. I had no idea if she knew where I was. After we landed in Halifax, a flight attendant had been letting me borrow her cell every so often, but it was impossible to get an open line each time I tried, so after two hours I stopped trying. Nodding to Captain Williams, I relinquished my space to another passenger and walked the narrow aisles a few times. From that brief reconnaissance I knew that it was still pointless to borrow “Terri’s” cell again. I saw only one or two passengers talking on their phones; others who had phones were still wearing out their resend buttons. I would wait.

There would be more stories on this plane. I kept my journalist’s hat on and stopped at the side port door to take in the fresh air. I struck up a conversation with a friendly couple who, apparently like me and many others, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia, from Memphis. Robert, a Christian minister, explained that they had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. While we were comparing notes about London, we heard the mike cue. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for another day,” he said.

As Robert and I were considering the implications of this development, his trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection. Nearby passengers were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, she took my wife’s number and promised to get hold of her to explain where I was and that I was okay. Lunches began arriving through the side port door. I moved off to get one.

What should strangers stuck in crisis do? Try to make their situation better. Somehow the Halifax ground crew, the crew of our Delta flight, and we passengers were all pulling together in that direction, helping one another cope as best we could, hour after hour aboard the 777, with the resources we had to hand. Jesus’ Good Samaritan was no longer a mere story to me. The collective pulling together for our common good continued at the base.

Story continued next post……

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

9/11 runway image by CBC News (permission via Creative Commons)

“STRANGE DAYS HAVE TRACKED US DOWN”

Halifax Nova Scotia AirportDelta Flight 59 from London to Atlanta became the penultimate of forty-two jet loads of now stranded international travelers being granted safe harbor at Halifax International before the airport ran out of wing space for the huge 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s. I later calculated that about 10,000 people had arrived – a small town and all the problems that come with that. The scene from the air as we circled for landing looked as if a child had carefully positioned dozens of huge toy planes in two long rows, nose-to-tail and wingtip-to-wingtip on a long strip of black ribbon.

Still circling, I was also surprised to see that the service road that ran for a mile or more alongside the airport was bumper-to-bumper with cars, vans, and pickups. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, onlookers had queued to watch the landings. But for them, it wasn’t just the odd sight of forty huge planes from all over Europe landing in close succession. That was not the only thing that had brought them out. They knew what had happened in the States. We did not. They were talking about it. We didn’t know what to talk about.

Similar emergency landings had been repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, although many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights headed toward American cities had been ordered back to their departure cities. Across America and Canada, the extreme sudden workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers and pilots had the astonishing result of going without incident. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. A truly impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Taxiing to the end of the queue, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of onlookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. He cued the mike, thanked us for our “patient cooperation,” and gave us the sketchy details that were available to him. It was now hours after the attack but the news reaching Halifax was still an ambiguity of facts and rumors.

Two hijacked passenger jets had crashed into the Twin Towers, which had collapsed in rubble and dust. Thousands were dead. The Pentagon had been attacked. Hundred were dead. A passenger jet may have crashed in Pennsylvania. Hundreds were dead. Whatever any of that meant. America may be going to war. But against whom?

I’m not even going to try to describe our complete bewilderment. Quite unlike those watching television and getting to hear about the major events sequentially – as they happened, that is, having some breathing space between them to digest what was going on and talk to people about that – we did not have any breathing space. Astonishment upon astonishment piled up on us in seconds as we listened to Captain Williams over the intercom.

There were no televisions to watch on the plane and the crew was relying on information from the tower, from other pilots, and from whatever occasional news reports came over a scratchy, AM radio signal in the cockpit. “Hopefully,” Captain Williams concluded, “the FAA will re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll be able to get out of here in a few hours.”

It was now around 1p.m. Halifax time. At 3 a.m. – fourteen hours later – we were deplaned, hustled through customs, and bussed twenty miles through the cool night air to Shearwater Air Force Base, at Dartmouth, where we would live as guests of Canada until Saturday morning, though that departure date was unknown to anyone at the time. Everyday were told that we would probably be flying home “tomorrow.”

Twin TowersAltogether, about a thousand of us strandeds were now encamped at the Air Force base – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air flights, and an Air Tours flight filled with Scots who had been on their way to Florida. I was first off the first yellow school bus to arrive at the base. It was 4 a.m. Two hundred of us were walked from the buses to a huge gymnasium, where I soon fell asleep on one of the military cots that had been set up for us in that large facility.

I awoke at 7 a.m. amid dim lighting to the sound of snoring, my lower back aching madly. I slipped from under the dark blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, and stretched to touch my toes. I took in the unfamiliar surroundings. Nearly everyone was asleep, but a few souls were shuffling in and out of the gym carrying white bath towels, evidently going to and from the showers. We had only been allowed to take our overhead bags from the plane. I wondered what I would do for fresh clothes, pajamas, underwear, deodorant, a shaver, my hairbrush.

Grabbing a white towel from beneath the cot, I walked into the corridor and leaned against a wall to get my bearings. My shirt and trousers were not too wrinkled, but I needed a shave. Military personnel wandered the long hallway and nodded at me as they passed. I saw Canadian Red Cross workers manning tables down in the lobby and a few strandeds milling about there. They seemed to be rummaging through large cardboard boxes. I heard a television blaring from somewhere and immediately remembered my wife cautioning me on the phone, when I had finally been able to reach her from the plane several hours earlier, about the horrible images I’d see. I would shower first.

It would be nearly twenty hours after the attacks before my imagination would be seared by the never-ending television images of the flying machines disappearing with a metallic burr into the Twin Towers and never coming out, of the intrepid jumpers who leapt hand-in-hand to their deaths rather than be burned alive, of the twisted I-beams crashing and billowing in the explosive alchemy of avi-fuel, office furniture, and the dust of human remains.

It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned. Life would be different now. How different I did not know. But different it would be.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Phil LaCombe & Frank Culbertson respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

MAN INTERRUPTED

Halifax Nova ScotiaThree hours out of London and six miles above the Atlantic flying uneventfully through a brilliant blue sky, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 to Atlanta were as contented as possible on a nine-hour flight. The meal service had ended and people were now quietly absorbed in their laptops, reading novels, or drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick Airport thirty minutes late, so far so good.

But then all the video screens went blank. A hushed buzz arose as passengers wondered why. Not to worry, an air hostess soon announced. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes. A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, some ordered drinks, some queued for the toilets. A few broke the spell of counterfeit evening by sliding up their porthole shades. Outside, the bright blue heavens – pilots call it severe clear – stretched out into forever. It hurt one’s eyes to stare there for too long. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. The video screens remained blank. People fidgeted and some wondered why their cells phones had quit working. And then like restless compass needles locking on magnetic north, everyone’s wandering thoughts suddenly fixed on the thick Texas drawl now coming over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Williams speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention. There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the country has been closed. All planes in the air over 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 Atlanta. We have been directed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we should be landing 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.”

A kind of holy moment filled the cabin as passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. No one spoke. No one dared. Finally some whispers. What do you think it is? Must have been a huge earthquake? A nuclear bomb, maybe? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of these events seemed likely to me, passenger 34G. Even if a nuclear catastrophe had occurred in one part of the country, why had all the airports been closed? What had happened? I had to know. Knowing would at least help me beat back the worst-case-scenario self-talk I now battled. I calculated to Eastern Time and concluded that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But then how could I be sure about that, if I didn’t know what had happened and where? It had to have been huge, but who had been effected? I was returning home from a demanding three-week book tour and speaking trip. I was completely knackered and just wanted to get home. Was I even going to get home?

Someone on this plane must know. Because I usually travel alone on these long flights, I like to make a connection with a flight attendant after I board. It’s a habit that has paid dividends, and I hoped it would now. Mine was an aisle seat a few rows behind the first class barrier and I had a few seats to myself, so I hoped to take advantage of that private space.

Coming down the aisle toward me from first class was “Terri,” a hostess I had befriended earlier. Our eyes met and I gently got her attention, hoping she would stop. She did, and then crouched to listen as I whispered, “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know. 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 down the aisle on her errand. It was a small grace but it was enough – strangely comforting – and the first of many such gestures to come in the next few days.

Story continued next post….

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Halifax from “canoe too” (permission via Creative Commons)