Delta 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.”
Altogether, 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)