That day, September 11, 2001, was the day I landed in Zurich, Switzerland for a week long vacation with my mother who is also a flight attendant based in New York. That morning, the morning we sat on a strange bed in a hotel room far away from home, our eyes glued to the television, we watched in horror as it happened, as an airplane, one of our airplanes, carrying our fellow crew members, along with our passengers, crashed into the World Trade Center. Like you, we were stunned, and scared, and could not believe what we had just seen so far far away from home. Little did we know our lives had changed forever.
“Don’t even bother going to the airport until the 21st,” said an airline representative over the phone after I told her we were airline employees trying to use our flight passes to get out of Switzerland on a flight, any flight, to the United States.
“How much to purchase a ticket?” I asked.
“Let me see….the only seat available is on the 28th, in coach, and that costs…” I could hear her fingers clickity click click clicking, working their magic. I held my breath. “$8,000,” she finally said.
“Just keep going to the airport,” said a Delta Captain laying over at our hotel. We were in the lobby waiting to check in – again, when he spotted the red CREW bag tag wrapped around my suitcase. “We were able to get a few standbys out the other day.”
So that’s what we did, my mother and I, we woke up early each morning, checked out of the hotel, walked to the train station in a daze, our bags rolling behind us, where we boarded a train in the dark to go to the airport. Hours were spent waiting to get on one of two flights, the only two flights going to the United States. All other flights had been canceled. One flight departed early in the morning and another left later in the evening and we were number 800-and-something on the standby list. Yet we continued to go to the airport and wait it out every single day, just like thousands of other people desperate to get home to family and friends.
Eventually some passengers did leave. By car. A couple of them decided to drive to other airports in neighboring countries. A few days later they returned. My mother and I still sat waiting, waiting, waiting in the terminal with little hope of getting out any time soon.
When we did finally make it back to the United States, I found myself in Texas, where my parents live, and that’s where I decided to stay until October. The route I’d flown for two years straight, New York – Vancouver, had been wiped off my schedule the entire month of September – never to return again. Which left me with a little time off that many of my colleagues were not fortunate enough to experience. I was lucky and I knew it.
The most vivid memory I have of that time, my time in Texas, took place in a popular oyster bar. There I was catching up with an old college friend I had actually run into at the Chicago airport the day I flew to Zurich. He had been on his way to Japan. We sat at a small table discussing what had happened, and the days that followed, while the people around us ate and drank and laughed, having a grand ole time, as if nothing had happened, while a television above the bar rolled footage of the recovery process going on in New York, my crew base since 1995.
Eventually I did go back to work, back to New York, less than a month after that day in September. I’ll never forget the smell, as it lingered in the air, strange and unexplainable, for months. And whenever I’d return to my crash-pad in Queens after a flight, I’d step out of the car and onto the curb, only to be greeted by stacked cardboard moving boxes. Japan, several boxes were labeled one particular afternoon. Most likely belonging to the opera singer living at the end of my hall, because shortly after that, the hallway became eerily quiet. (I still miss her beautiful voice.) As people left New York in droves, and the odd smell refused to dissipate, my colleagues continued to go to work, back to the airport, back on the airplane, back to where it all started on that day in September.
“Remember the soot on our windows in the apartment when we got back to New York?” my mother said after I read the first part of this post to her over the phone. “And the memorials set up for our coworkers in Operations?”
As my mother reminded me of all I could not remember, of what I did not want to remember, a chill went down my spine. What I do remember was flying into New York, the airplane low over the city, the passengers glued to the windows as they looked out to where the Trade Center had been, a dark hole on the ground that continued to smolder for far too long.
“I often wondered if the pilots were tipping the wing of the airplane in the direction of where the Trade Center had been in respect to what had happened,” my mother said.
On the jump-seat I sat on my first trip back, minutes after takeoff, when the flight attendant sitting beside me asked, “What are you going to do if something happens?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant. It’s just I didn’t, at the time, have a plan. I mean I had a few ideas of what I could do, but I didn’t know exactly what I would do, if, in fact, it came to that. God how many times did I pray sitting on that jump-seat after takeoff that it would not come to that!
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” said the flight attendant as he motioned to the insert of soda sitting on the linoleum floor beside his jump-seat. He grabbed a can of Pepsi and made quick and aggressive throwing motions. “Bam! Bam! Bam!”
Soon after that, every flight attendant I met had some sort of plan, each plan more original and ingenious than the next. My weapon of choice, a can of soda inside a long sock that I would swing if anyone tried any funny business, I kept hidden behind the last row of seats in whatever cabin I happened to be working that day.
There were times, only a few, when strange things did happen on-board my flights, and I remember wondering if what had happened was really a “test run” for a future attack. And there were other times, only a few, when passengers would do things, very strange things, to take advantage of the situation that had developed on that horrible day. One of those times included an elderly gentleman, a Koran, a book of weapons, and an intense stare full of hatred. We, the crew, decided to ignore him.
One passenger we chose not to ignore walked on-board the aircraft – not a couple of years ago, but just last week, causing Heather, my coworker, to say, “There’s a guy seated in the first row of coach who gave me chills.” We were flying from Los Angeles to New York. “It looks like he might be traveling with three others because he keeps making eye contact with one in business class and one in the back of coach.”
Immediately I hopped off my jump-seat and made way up the aisle. The guy was young and…well…kind of odd looking and nervous acting. I asked him a random question, just to feel him out, and he answered in a way that left me feeling nothing – no chills, no sixth sense telling me to keep an eye on this guy. Who knows why Heather had felt the way she did about that guy during boarding, but for whatever reason, something made her feel that way, and I’m glad she did not discount that feeling. No one should.
Whenever I hear about an unfortunate accident involving an aircraft, I’m still taken back to that day in September. I can’t help it. Those were my airplanes. My crew members. My passengers. And yet I still go to work, because I want to go to work, because I love what I do, given all that’s changed since September 11, 2001.
The following is a quote from a flight attendant in the book, Reclaiming The Sky, by Tom Murphy, a quote I could have written myself. Reclaiming the Sky tells the personal story of several aviation employees – some who died, others whose job descriptions were transformed before their eyes, and countless more whose entire lives were forever altered on September 11th, 2001…
“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, balancing customer service and security, but the aircraft is full and people are crowding the aisle. You ask yourself, is the man lingering in the aisle suspect or merely inconsiderate? It’s two minutes to departure, we’re getting ready to close the door, and suddenly I’ll see we’re getting half a dozen late boardings – standbys and maybe a few wheelchairs. I’ll smile and find space for everyone, but over my shoulder I’ll see that passengers I’ve asked to turn off their electronic equipment continue making cell phone calls. Then someone will need to use the bathroom at the same moment an unescorted minor asks for their grandma, usually at the moment an overhead bin won’t close. Then comes an announcement from the cockpit and I’ll see the gate agent standing by the door ready to close it, with their foot tapping, which I can’t see, but I know it’s tapping…”
…And probably continues to tap, as passengers continue settling into their cramped seats, and the crew (minimum crew, mind you) continues to provide the best service they can with little to offer, and all the while fuel costs continue to rise, along with your ticket price. It’s not easy traveling today – for crew and passengers alike. Yet there we are, all of us in the flying tube together.
Tell us about your traveling experiences after 9/11, by Friday, September 12, 2008, by 5pm and you’ll have a chance to win a copy of the book Reclaiming The Sky, by Tom Murphy. Two winners will be chosen. Good luck!
- To enter, simply leave a comment below describing a post-9/11 traveling experience.
- The comment must be left before Friday, September 12, 2008 at 5pm Eastern time
- You may enter only once.
- Two winners will be selected in a random drawing.
- Two Grand Prize Winners will receive a free copy of Reclaiming The Sky, by Tom Murphy.
- Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.
- Book is valued at $21.95.
- Click here for complete Official Rules.
This post has been dedicated to all the flight attendants who continued to work during uncertain times, flight attendants who reclaimed the sky, and to the flight attendants who lost their lives on 9/11. You are not forgotten…
Terry Thames, American Airlines pilot. This is the first AA flight returning to IAD (Washington Dulles) after the skies were reopened four days after 9/11.
Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy