Extreme turbulence had me on the edge of queasy.
When your plane shudders… when the plane suddenly plummets… when the beverage cart has been locked down and the cabin attendants are strapped in, you chide yourself for only talking to God in times of trouble.
Flying over the North Atlantic, I wished that we were flying over warmer water. I thought of the Titanic slowly sinking into the black water. I saw myself clinging to ice-clad debris.
Tightening my seat belt, I assumed a studied attitude of nonchalance. Surreptitiously, without removing the plastic coated card from its pocket on the seat before me, I tried to read the emergency evacuation instructions.
I wished that I could remember the details regarding flotation devices. Was the life vest under the seat, or was the seat cushion itself the flotation device?
Just as my imagination had my frozen fingers slipping from the wreckage, the pilot’s voice came over the inter-com. “I have some bad news,” he croaked. “I have some” (his voice cracked) “I have some very bad news.”
The pilot continued, “We have just been notified of a terrorist attack in New York City. Our destination is St. John’s, Newfoundland. When I know more, you will know more.”
My first response was one of relief. My plane was not going down. Other people would die, but I would not. My relief was primitive and not flattering, but I was safe. I would be going home, and when I got there, I’d clean the refrigerator.
Moments later the pilot’s voice, steady and true without tremor, came over the inter-com again. He said that he realized that we were anxious. To relieve our anxiety, he would broadcast all transmissions from the control tower into the cabin. “When I hear it,” he said, “you’ll hear it.”
I can’t say enough for “knowing.” Whether the news is good or bad, “not knowing” is worse than “knowing.”
While the Twin Towers burned, collapsed, and ultimately consumed 3,000 people… while another plane flew into the Pentagon, and while the brave crew and passengers on United flight 93 fought four hijackers for control of their plane which ultimately crashed killing all in Pennsylvania, I was safely on my way to Fantasy Island.
While thousands of work-a-day people showed courage under fire, my fellow passengers and I were on our way to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Within six hours, 27 planes landed in a city which normally had only four trans-Atlantic flights a week.
Once we landed, we parked on the tarmac at the far end of the runway. Three hours passed. The official story was that the people of St. John’s were preparing for the unexpected arrival of thousands of passengers. My guess is that officials were studying each plane’s flight manifesto. Were more terrorists aboard any of the in-coming flights? In actuality, both the official story and my conjecture were probably true.
On disembarking, we were allowed to take only the clothes we were wearing, our passports and our money. The tarmac glistened glassily in a downpour. Buses transported us from airport passport control to an unheated, local ice rink where the Red Cross cosseted us with blankets and hot chocolate.
The passengers off most flights were woefully uninformed. The Russians, in particular, were hysterical. Again and again, we heard an announcer over the public address system beg, “Anyone, anyone… does anyone speak Russian?”
While the planes had been parked on the tarmac, the people of St. John’s had pulled off a miracle by temporarily rigging phone lines which would allow each stranded passenger to make one, one-minute call.
Meanwhile, a call had gone out to the St. John’s community for housing. My flight was assigned to St. Mary’s Regional High School. As our bus approached the school, we saw a long line of cars slowly easing their way to the school’s front door. Each car paused just a second – long enough to throw blankets and pillows out the window. Students stood ready to grab the bedding and take it into the school.
The floor of the room to which I was assigned was covered wall-to-wall with wrestling mats. As the last person to arrive, I saw only one mat with free space. On the four-sectioned, folding mat, two women lay next to one another. A Chinese man, looked askance at the women. Thinking to make ease his concerns, I suggested that rather than feeling trapped between the two women and me, he might feel more comfortable sleeping on the outside. His jaw dropped; he beat a hasty retreat; and I never saw him again.
My blanket and pillow were warm – just off someone’s bed. I was so touched… warmed from the inside out.
The staff and the students at St. Mary’s were wonderful. Local musicians played at every lunch and dinner. Free manicures, beauty salon trips, pub crawls, and bus trips to historical and natural history sites were on-tap every day. Those with children had three days of free day camp.
We could watch the news, but not for long. No one was left on his own. Every time I tried to sneak off to write in a corner, a student would interrupt and whisk me away. While most Americans were glued to the news, I basked in the love and care of strangers who took me in as one of their own.
The first-responders on 9/11 will never forget the horror and the bravery that they witnessed. As for me, I carry the memory of the warm blanket – a gift from a stranger who warmed it for me in his bed.
My experience on 9/11 was dramatically different than it was for the first responders, the people living in NYC or those watching events unfold on TV… just a reminder that we may all live in the same house, but as events unfold, we are not necessarily looking out the same window… seeing the same thing.