Thursday, September 11, 2008

7 Years Ago

7 years ago, on this day - at about this time - I was in the air between Newark airport, New York/New Jersey and Dulles Airport, Washington DC.

I wasn't supposed to be. I was actually supposed to have reached my destination the day before, but weather conditions over Washington made the flight delayed and finally cancelled, so me and my coworker had to get a hotel in New Jersey for the night and book ourselves on the first flight out of there. Because of all the problems at the airport that afternoon, we hadn't had a chance to eat anything. The last meal I had had was the airplane breakfast before landing in Newark, and we didn't get any more food that day.

We got up very early on the 11th to catch the first flight out. The hotel hadn't started serving breakfast yet, that's how early it was. Get in the cab, drive to airport, get on board and head for Dulles. I made the devastating mistake of thinking that now our little travel problem was over. As we were taxing out on the runway, we saw the New York City skyline in the distance. A skyline that was very shortly about to change dramatically.

We landed in Dulles at about 8:15, if my memory serves. Our connecting flight was supposed to leave at 8:45, and was the smallest airplane I've ever been in. 12 seats, I think it was. Maybe 16. Felt more like a small bus than an airplane. Only me, my coworker and one other guy on it.

The pilot turned around - not like there was a point in using the speaker system - and said "uh. Looks like we'll be a bit delayed."

"Ok" we thought. Not like it mattered a lot, we were still on our way.

A couple of more minutes pass, and then he turns around again and explains that we're going to have to leave the airplane "because of the events in New York." We didn't know anything about any events in New York. But I'm not one to argue with pilots onboard an airplane, so I got my carry-on and we walked off the plane and back into the terminal. Once there, we did what any good little Swede would do - sat and waited by the gate.

But we were hungry. Remember, we hadn't eaten for near 24 hours now. Very hungry.

So after a bit of waiting I decide to do something about it, so I get up and ask the lady at the gate if she thinks the plane will be leaving shortly. She chuckled at the notion of the flight taking off soon, which I thought was a bad sign. After the chuckle she informed us that we had no need worry; we had PLENTY of time to get something to eat.

At this point, we hadn't really started to wonder what had happened in New York. I don't know if I figured much of anything, but I think I had some vague notion of there perhaps being a traffic control problem or something of the sort. Maybe a connecting flight that was delayed that we had to wait for. I didn't know, and I didn't particularly care - my mind was in a must-get-food state.

So we stroll on down the hallway, find a place that sells hamburgers. There was a TV in there and a big crowd watching it, and while standing in line we try to figure out what they're watching. There was smoke coming out of the WTC. "A bomb?" I asked my coworker. "Uh. I dunno." Then they show the footage of an airplane flying into it and my first instinct wasn't terrorist attack, it was "airplane malfunction" or "pilot falling asleep" or any number of things. Terrorists didn't really factor in. I didn't even know what to do with the information.

As we finally get our food, however, it's apparent that it was a terrorist attack. By now, everyone's jumpy. Terrorists are targetting airplanes, and we're sitting at one of America's most prominent airports, near the country's capital. A crowd suddenly panics and starts stampeding past us where we sit, apparently running away from something down the hall. "Fight-or-flight" instinct kicks in, and we figure that we don't know what they're running from, but they have more information than we do so we should perhaps start legging it as well. The people around us come to the same conclusion, and now I've witnessed first-hand how the dynamics of a crowd panicking works.

I didn't run, though. For better or worse (mostly worse) I'm equipped with a very powerful "food first" mechanism. At this point, I hadn't eaten for 24 hours, and even though I didn't know what they were running from, I was not just leaving my food here. I carefully packed everything up - fries in one pocket, coke in the other, carry-on in one hand, hamburger in the other - and made my way away from whatever it was I was supposed to make my way away from.

Turns out, it was just a secure door that hadn't shut properly. When such doors don't close, they usually inform the people around them about it by starting to beep after 20-30 seconds. Some lady had interpretted the beeping as a warning signal for a bomb about to go off, I guess, and started screaming and running. People around her didn't know why, but panicked as well. Eventually, the crowd wasn't just the lady - it was 500 people. It got sorted out, though.

Like I said, people were jumpy.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, but shortly after this episode we were evacuated to the main terminal. We were informed that we wouldn't be getting our checked luggage back at this point, because basically the entire airport was shut down. We were asked - via the speaker system - to leave the airport. That, my friends, was harder than it may sound. The line to the taxi booth was at least 400 deep. The only buses around were greyhound buses and I didn't particularly know which one to get on in order to get closer to Lynchburg, Virginia.

So we just sat down and leaned up against the wall outside the airport. I had very little energy and absolutely no ideas. I figured we might as well wait it out for awhile and see if things calmed down a bit and maybe we could ask someone for help on how to procede.

It took awhile - I'm going to guess about 2-3 hours - before the emergency evacuation plan for the airport kicked into gear. Then buses came to shuttle us away from the airport and into evacuation centers, basically emptied warehouses and such, where they had set-up some phone booths, a small coffee-and-snacks kiosk and a 24" TV where we could follow the news.

Tired, still hungry, and desoriented, we still managed to get a few necessary things done: Call our families and coworkers back home and let them know we were okay (the last thing they heard from us was "we're flying out tomorrow morning from Newark Airport", so it's a good bet they were going to be worried). We also discussed our options for getting to where we were going. Maybe rent a car and drive; it was only a few hours away. Maybe try to find a bus. Train? Do they have trains? We didn't know.

As we stand in line to the phone booths, the gentleman in front of us did something many Americans do, but Swedes basically don't: He turned around and talked to us. Just general pleasantries. Where were we going, etc.

Now, and this is the real kicker of the story: He was from Lynchburg Virginia. He was originally planning on going to Chicago on business but as it was clear that he wasn't going to reach his destination he was going to call some buddies from his office and ask them to come up and get him in Washington DC. He asked if we wanted a ride.

How's that for long odds.

The chance of not only being at the same place after evacuating 20,000 people from Dulles Airport, but being behind him in line, AND the topic of "where are you going" actually coming up. He called his friends, asked them to rent a minivan instead of just taking a regular car, and 4 hours later we were on our way, by car, to our destination.

Long odds, indeed.

Finally, very belatedly, we arrived at the Hilton in Lynchburg and checked in. We exchanged addresses with the guy who we had to thank for getting us there, and thanked him again and again for his kindness. I really don't know what we would have done if he hadn't helped us out.

Some terrible things happened on that day, and I was, if not smack in the middle of it, at least in fairly close proximity. The thought that I very likely got to the airport and checked in at about the same time as the hijackers has certainly crossed my mind. That I was lucky not to be on one of the planes they decided to take has crossed my mind many times.

But they didn't, and I was instead fortunate enough to witness how America turned from one of its most devastating moments into one of its finest weeks. The solidarity and compassion that bound everyone in America, and in large parts around the world, that week is something I won't soon forget. Things that just the day before had seemed like big problems were suddenly realized to be minor details.

The ugly truth of the terrorist attacks was very powerfully outshined by the finest traits in human nature just the minutes after it happened. I will never forget that.


WVHillbilly said...

Great post Fredrik. Really shows the horror and panic of that day and the way we pulled together to get through it.

Icemonkey9 said...

Great post, and very interesting and compelling story. Every American knows where they were on Sept 11 2001. It's endearing to know how the international community supported us during that time. Obviously your chilling account is far greater than mine, and I appreciate you sharing this story.

ChuckTs said...

Wow, it's already been 7 years. I remember I was in a highschool class, maybe geography. School got let off and we all went home to watch the news. I remember they were showing live feeds of the wrecks, before they got to censor the footage. Burning people jumping out of windows, massive dust clouds...just crazy.

Interesting post, thanks for that FP.

Tildy said...

"Every American knows where they were on Sept 11 2001." I was pacing my studio apartment in Iowa, waiting to hear that Fredrik was okay. I think he managed to reach me by about 3 pm.

When I answered the phone, the meanings of the phrases "broke down in tears," "hyperventilate," "wave of relief," and many others became much, much clearer. - The wife

pokerjes said...

very nice post,well writen.Its amazing that it takes tragedy or precedence to remember a point in time that effects you not so much you directly but has some sort of effect. like everyone else said, i know exactly where i was that tragic day.I work mostly outside, my self and my coworkers noticed a plane flying a not so stable flight pattern. Not to long after that we heard that another plane had crashed. I am assuming it was the same one, it crashed in Pennsylvania (about 30 miles away from where i am from) Well its just hard to belive its been 7 years already. I can still see the towers,the planes,and (god bless) the people