Before breaking for commrcials Matt says that a plane has hit the World Trade Center. No word what kind of plane.
I’ll dispense with the breezy travelogue tone and just lay out the details of our struggle to return to the US after the skies were shut down the morning of September 11. Choosing the easternmost point of North America as a travel destination came back to bite us, as Newfoundland is a) remote, b) surrounded by high seas, and c) an ideal spot to land dozens of threatening airliners filled with unprepared travelers like ourselves.
I think I stood bolt upright when NBC cut to the first distant shots of the World Trade Center on fire. What disturbed me most as the dark smoke scrolled offscreen was the angle of the gash – I could tell immdiately how the wings were tilted as the plane hit, that the tail was sheared right off. The blood drained from my forearms and legs and I began to pace the room… dark blue carpet, light blue wallpaper… I had to board and buckle myself into two airplanes later in the day. I needed to keep my head on straight and just gut it out, wait patiently for a few hours and then get home to Washington.
All those tall buildings, busy skies – an accident like this was bound to happen eventually. I couldn’t help myself but try to reconstruct the final minutes over Manhattan. It looked like the plane struck the building intact – did the pilot have a heart attack and the plane just arrowed in? Was it pilot suicide like that Egypt Air crash? Oh god the people on board, strapped in and racing to their deaths. What kind of plane was it? Voices on the television were saying one of those regional ATRs – a prop plane? A cargo plane? Maybe it was just a cargo plane.
With the smoke billowing more thickly I flashed back to the Las Vegas Hilton fire twenty years before, the television coverage of people hanging out the windows to breathe. What was it – a hundred people died in that fire? Maybe the far stairwells of the Trade Center were still good, and workers on the top floors were walking down to safety.
Why weren’t they lifting anybody off the roof by helicopter, like some modern Saigon?
I switched to ABC, hoping they’d have a closer camera. All the news stations were zooming in from midtown, miles away.
I saw the shadow of the second plane just before ABC cut to a reporter on the street. Someone was asking a question, and the plane sliced into the frame from beyond the other tower. It cut a fast, determined gray arc, right to left. Then the scene changed. In the split second between the scene cut and the screams I thought: A plane checking things out? (I know what a 767 looks like. Cops don’t use passenger jets to scope out rescue efforts.) Maybe I really saw a helicopter, because there really should be helicopters there. Shouts and screams from the ABC booth, and the camera cut back to show the orange fireball rising to black, the light gray debris showering down. A voice asked if maybe the fuel tank from the first plane just exploded. Half of me thought yeah, maybe that’s what happened. But what about that – oh god.
My chest tightened. I felt like I was being peeled like an orange. Planes full of people were being flown into the tops of skyscrapers, and I didn’t know when or how it would stop.
People started jumping out of windows. It really didn’t register with me – I couldn’t get past the planes full of people buckled in, facing forward.
When Melanie walked into the room from picking up last-minute souvenirs my face was about six inches from the screen. “HAVE YOU BEEN FOLLOWING THIS?!”
Most of what I remember of the next hour is Melanie with her hand covering her mouth in horror. She commutes from DC to New York City about every other week, and just before we left for Nova Scotia she’d been at a meeting across the street from the WTC; she tried hard not to look like a tourist but couldn’t help staring up at the tops of the towers.
“OH GOD PATTY’S OFFICE IS IN THE WORLD TRADE CENTER!”
I asked where, hoping for an answer like “55th floor.”
No, her firm and office were at the 102nd floor of Tower 2.
I called my parents to let them know I was on the ground and probably wouldn’t be taking the flights I had planned. As I was finishing my message Melanie let out a strangled yell – the Pentagon had been hit.
When would this end?
Melanie called her sister to get the word out to her family that we were still safe on the ground. Voices on the TV were worrying about the heat from the kerosene fire; the cameras were focusing on the beams starting to buckle.
And just like that the beams silently gave way and the top of the tower pressed down… slowly at first, then faster, inexorable, straight down like a syringe a thousand feet to the street, a column of gray dust and smoke following it to the ground.
Melanie couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, hand to mouth in horror. I took the phone from her other hand and wrapped up the conversation with Michele.
I can’t remember watching the north tower fall. I left the room; the lounge had filled with anxious travellers gossiping about reports of an airliner crashing in a remote part of Colorado. The FAA was draining the sky of planes, ordering a complete shutdown of North American airspace.
With the towers down and all planes apparently accounted for we extended the room and for another day and asked the concierge for assistance in locating an electronics store. I’d accidentally drained the laptop battery and we wanted to find some kind of recharger. He directed us to Future World, a Best Buy-like big box store out by the airport.
We watched the transatlantic flights land as we approached the store. Sabena, Delta, United, one after another they floated in to the tiny airport. Inside Future World the big screen TVs way at the back all had the same picture – black smoke in Lower Manhattan. The people at the front counter were bewildered by our request, but an alert young salesman overheard us and led us to the universal adapters. This guy single-handedly saved our sanity for the rest of the trip, and for this we’ll be eternally grateful to him and Future World (hey, Newfoundland’s not a commercial mecca).
Outside the planes kept floating in: KLM, Continental, SAS.
Back at the hotel we booted the laptop and got to business contacting our friends. Marc in Montreal was concerned, happy to hear we were still in Canada. Jake was closed up in his Upper Manhattan apartment listening to fighter jets scream overhead. I checked into MetaFilter to follow the now-legendary communal thread as people tried to weigh rumors of bombs and missiles against the trickle of facts coming from overtaxed news sites. Osama bin Laden’s name rose pretty quickly, along with some butcher from Beirut who was supposed to be really something.
My sister became the point girl for my family, relaying that all were safe. My cousin Scott had moved from the 80th floor of Tower 1 in the spring. I didn’t even realize he’d ever been in the WTC.
I phoned Air Canada to find out when they expected to be flying again. I figured that since we were about ready to leave when everything fell apart we’d be first in line when the planes started flying again. I was told to call back the next morning, maybe the airspace would open up around 1 PM.
We were on hold. North America had shut down, there was no going anywhere, and we just had to wait for the world to start moving again. I wasn’t really focusing on anything, just tapping keys. Hollow, numb.
We drove out to Cape Spear at twilight just to get out of the hotel. For the first time this trip there were no contrails from the transatlantic jets headed for New York and Washington. Just the distant crash of waves and the silent guns pointed east.
On our return to the hotel we found the lobby filled with people from the airport. One couple told us of the experience – all they were told in the air was that there was an emergency, that the plane had to dump fuel and coast into St. John’s. Only once they were secure on the ground were they filled in on what had transpired. The little airport with no jetways and two small baggage belts now hosted thirty jumbo jets.
As the elevator doors closed a new guest shouted “There better not be any Palestinians in this elevator!” We were paler than this turkey, on his way home to Pittsburgh from who cares what overseas.
Once in the room Melanie tried to call Patty… maybe she was home sick today or something. Her eyes filled up as the answering machine responded memory full.
I made a few phone calls to my band to try to keep my band’s Saturday night gig on track. I figured we had to make it home by then. I found out that the fiance of our singer’s best friend was on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
A call came in from one of Melanie’s SEC crew. Patty had been running late for work and her car emerged from the tunnel just in time for her to see the second plane hit. It wasn’t clear where she was at this point, but she was laying low and letting the network get the word out. We were pretty damn relieved, and shocked how lucky we were. With all the people we knew in New York and DC we’d come through without loss.
The following day dawned gray. I spent the morning the laundromat. We walked down Duckworth Street, back up Water Street, aware of a few more people in the city. It didn’t seem like downtown St. John’s was flooded with travellers from the airport, although we heard that the convention center and arena had been converted into shelters. The hotel lobby consistently had several dozen people milling about at all times, watching the video screens for news and any announcements of the airport opening up. Mostly the televisions showed rescue workers tugging at the twisted wreckage in Lower Manhattan.
We drove the clacking Sebring past the airport to see the sea of tails from a distance. Roads were blocked off all around. CBC Radio carried Colin Powell’s address to NATO or the UN, saying this was an attack on all of NATO and therefore all allies agreed to bring force against the perpetrators. I heard a lot of words – and could form pictures of the speakers and the things they spoke of – but none of it really stuck. I looked at the rugged coast outside the car but didn’t care much for it. Driving kept me busy, helped pass the time until darkness fell.
Much of the evening was spent in the hotel room coming up with contingencies for the trip home. Rental car contracts in Newfoundland are pretty restrictive – they really don’t want anyone taking those cars off the island. Melanie wanted to take the car anyway. “For the last time I am not going to steal the rental car and drive it to the border.” I really wasn’t looking forward to the ferry rides anyway – the closest ferry took 14 hours to get to the northern tip of Nova Scotia (we were just there, for crying out loud); there was a 6-hour ferry a ten-hour drive away on the eastern tip of the island. I called up my dad to ask about the border crossings – as a federal lawman he wasn’t getting much sleep and started to get vexed when I asked about the Ontario bridges. Maybe we could drive to Quebec, drop the car off, take a taxi to the Vermont border, get Craig to pick us up on the other side and get us to a US rental agency…
Taking a break in the lounge I struck up a conversation with a Nova Scotian businessman who couldn’t get home either. He spotted my long hair and started waxing poetic about Cape Breton music, and pretty soon we were checking out music sites on his computer. Melanie joined us and he went on about the late Stan Rogers, then declared it was time to hit the bars.
“Let’s walk downtown.”
Hm. Tempting, but we’d all made good use of the lounge already and Melanie and I were thinking of driving some distance the next day.
“Come on, let’s walk downtown.”
This was a big, strong guy who claimed to only drink on special occasions. Clearly he was going into orbit at this point. I had a vision of us trying to wrestle this big, strong guy into a taxicab in the middle of the night and firmly declined – with regrets. Under other circumstances I’m sure it would have been a fine time.
I’m not sure when I figured out that Air Canada was leaving us out to dry. At some point I called up and found out that I needed to re-reserve – I thought they’d just start flights up again and we’d be out of there on one of the first flights. I think I was offered a flight on Saturday, which I grudgingly accepted. But that was assuming the airspace opened up again, which could happen at any time. I spent a lot of time sitting at the window, staring out toward the airport in hopes of seeing something take flight.
We drove out to the airport again, this time to the terminal. Lots of buses, lots of foreign passengers who would eventually be turned back. We heard that aboard the first plane queued for departure forty Africans seeking asylum decided to seek it right there in St. John’s, and until the immigration officers made it from the mainland no planes could get out. Didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then not much did at that point.
No sign of our buddy from the previous evening when we got back.
The next morning I caved and visited the hotel travel agency to inquire about the ferries. No ferries this weekend due to swells from the approaching hurricane. Now a hurricane. You’ve got to be kidding me.
Turns out a local airline now had planes in the air and was running an emergency shuttle to get stranded businessmen back to Halifax. Tickets were $500 a pop (nonrefundable, of course) – we needed to be at general aviation by 5:30. We bid our concierge goodbye and dragged our bags to the hangar with the giant Shell logo – to find out that the 5:30 flight was full. Try the 8:30.
We bid our concierge a forlorn hello again and dragged a few bags back to the room. A phone call at 7:30 indicated the flight was running behind but likely to leave around 11:30. Right when the hurricane was scheduled to make landfall about fifty miles away.
“You’re not going to fly into a hurricane.”
“If our pilot determines that the weather is within the aircraft’s tolerances the flight will go off.”
“Can I get my money back?”
I paced the floor for a while, eventually deciding that even if we lived it would be the worst flight of our lives. We’d eat the fare.
Melanie wanted to do some detective work. “Let’s go to the airport!” Both of us wanted to see first hand that we’d made the right decision.
Little trees were bending sideways in the gusts. The rain wasn’t so bad, but the wind whipped up often enough to make things difficult. We did get soaked running to the terminal.
At the pathetic baggage claim area we stumbled upon a large group of German tourists standing with their luggage. “Airport’s just closed.” Melanie did a little jump for joy, and I asked her to knock it off in deference to the weary Germans who’d thought they’d be going home that night.
Turned out a little cargo plane tried to beat out the hurricane but was smacked down at the end of the runway in the gusting wind. No injuries, but the airport was to be closed for twelve hours.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, all the clouds having been swept up in the passing storm. I really wasn’t sure what flight we’d be on; I’d tried to broker some kind of safest-waiting-list deal which in retrospect would have probably put us on an evening flight. But the overburdened crew at the Shell hangar assured me we’d be on the first plane out when the airport opened at noon. We were reluctant to part with the room key, but the concierge promised to extend our room as long as it took for us to get a flight out. We snuck the key into a drawer in the lounge and finally spotted our drinking buddy from a few nights prior – as we suspected he’d spent the better part of the interim laying low, nursing a hangover.
The staff at the Fairmont were really good to us, and I eventually sent a letter of thanks to the manager. We were safely ensconced in the club level and didn’t need to rely on the kindness of Newfoundlanders that was pouring out for all the other stranded travelers, but we did share in one happy episode: Melanie had run out of an important prescription, and expecting to be back home by that point didn’t have the documentation she needed to make it easy to get a refill or work the insurance deduction. She explained her situation to the pharmacists and to her genuine surprise they just gave her the medicine – gratis. A hearty thanks to that pharmacy close by the Fairmont (sorry, I wasn’t taking notes at that point).
We still weren’t convinced we’d be on that noon flight so Melanie arranged (against heavy Hertz opposition) to just abandon the rental car and key across the airport at the Shell hangar. If things didn’t work out we’d just drive off again. The ground crew was perky and friendly – apparently we were the only leisure travellers and they kept referring to us as “the two Dolans” over the loudspeaker. The businessmen in the waiting room were in pretty high spirits, happy to be going home to Halifax, and one let us in on another reason why none of the jumbos had taken off yet. They’d all dumped their fuel over the Atlantic and there was nowhere near enough fuel on the island to get them out. The stuff had to be shipped in, which took days.
The jovial station manager told us with a grin that they were going to fly with 28 passengers instead of 31 so the plane wouldn’t need to make a refuel stop in Stephensville. Nobody ever said anything about a refuel stop. This way he could squeeze in more flights that afternoon (before the big jets finally did get rolling). Fine, as long as we made it onto that noon flight. Which we did.
We 28 lucky ones crossed the tarmac and climbed the ladder. The props spun up, we rolled, then stopped. No problem – we just had to wait for a United 777 to be pulled slowly across the airfield. The props spun up, we rolled, then halted again. The ladder went down. Probably not a good sign.
One of the station crew bounded up the stairs with thirty orders of chicken and fries for the passengers. No napkins or utensils – plus there was condensation all over the inside of the styrofoam containers – but the entire plane tore into that chicken with gusto, wiping our hands on our pants and the seats when nobody else was looking.
Our first flight after September 11 was innocuous and mercifully without incident. Unfortunately we were left at Halifax’s general aviation hangars, and began the half-mile hike to the passenger terminal when three women who’d been on the flight offered to stuff us in their car and take us to the main airport. Another hearty thanks to some folks whose names I should have recorded.
We decided to wait in line at Air Canada checkin just to make sure we were still scheduled to fly out the next day. It took over an hour to creep toward the counter but at the last minute a special Air Canada rep who’d been flown in from Toronto guided us to a computer, checked our itinerary against something, smiled and said Yes, we were good to fly out Sunday evening. Even so we glanced at the rental car park in the cab back to Halifax. Plenty of fresh cars here on the mainland…
Here’s where the story takes a positive turn. For one, it was our fifth anniversary. We were very happy to be off Newfoundland. For another, by sheer coincidence our good friend and travelling buddy Cindy was wrapping up a week-long Nova Scotia cycling tour and was staying at the Sheraton (the one we saw from the Delta a week and a half or one lifetime ago). To cap it off, some of the people on the tour were heading back early by any means possible, freeing up a room for us. Things were looking up as we sped past the dark blue lakes we didn’t think we’d ever see again.
We had a tearful reunion in the Sheraton lobby. Cindy’s group had traced much the same path through southern Nova Scotia that we had, and wouldn’t you know it some of the folks on the tour caught grief from the guy at Bread and Roses.
We met Cindy and her new friend Celeste in the hotel bar and struck off to find a meal.
We stumbled upon one of the best meals of our lives, at Maple, a restaurant hidden in the business district that focuses on Canadian ingredients. Everything we ordered was magnificent, from the wine (a 1996 Fetzer Pinot Noir I picked by throwing darts at the wine list) through the entrees to dessert.
Looking to keep the good times rolling we bid Celeste bon voyage and settled in at the Sheraton bar to catch local trio Pub Soda crash through bar favorites – including a raging , written by none other than the late Stan Rogers. Where was our drinking buddy from the Fairmont when we really needed him?
At the end of the night Cindy and I sang the harmony parts to Wish You Were Here. By ourselves as the band packed up.
Cindy left early in the morning to take the high-speed hydrofoil ferry to Maine. Her road trip home to New Jersey would take another 20 hours.
We bumbled around Halifax for one more afternoon, checking out the ice and snow shipped in for the Extreme Games being held on the slopes of the Citadel.
We gave ourselves about four hours to get through checkin for our evening flight. It took us two hours to get to the counter, past those brand-new computerized boarding kiosks we’d used the previous week. The kiosks were taped over, likely never to be used again. Finally we made it to the counter, to hear the following:
“Your name’s not in the system.”
I’d just as soon skip the details of the conversation that followed. It wasn’t loud or ugly, but it was pretty humiliating after all the time we’d spent the previous day assuring ourselves that we were in the damn Air Canada system. Totally unexpected, totally crushing. I was ready to go and rent a car – “It’s clear that Air Canada isn’t capable of getting us home” – but Melanie heard something in the agent’s voice (she has a sixth sense for air travel negotiations). At no point did we raise our voices or get antagonistic, and the agent responded by overbooking us onto the flight.
I’ll call it a draw.
For the first time I noticed armed security at the gates.
The 767 had plenty of empty seats – late connection, fear of flying, who knew – so I didn’t worry about anyone being bumped on our behalf. I was just looking forward to a quick flight to Toronto to ease the pressure of getting through US Customs during our short layover.
Fifteen minutes after our departure time I started to get edgy.
Fifteen minutes later the captain annouced that the plane had a hydraulic leak that they couldn’t fix. But no worries, it was only the landing gear. They’d let the wheels spin down an extra two minutes after takeoff before retracting.
Whatever it takes.
Smooth flight, but only 20 minutes to get our bags, get through Customs and make our connection. We ran like OJ Simpson through Pearson International to find nobody else in line at Customs. After a short delay to retrieve a bag that had fallen onto the tarmac we cleared Customs, raced to the feeder terminal shuttle bus only to find our Dash-8 had some kind of mechanical problem and couldn’t fly just yet.
A half hour later they fixed the problem. We lifted into clear skies for the final leg. Lake Erie stretched out black beneath us, and far off to the east I could see Buffalo – my home town – etched in yellow street lights.
The woman across the aisle had the 9/11 issues of Time and Newsweek spread out on her lap as we took off. I forgot how noisy those props can be, and as soon as they revved up I reached into my bag for earplugs. The woman across the aisle stiffened and eyed me like I was going for a gun.
We touched down at Baltimore-Washington International at around 1 AM Monday, almost six days after we’d originally planned. One more tearful reunion, this time with Melanie’s sister Michele. We dragged our bags past the new barricades in the parking garage.
In the darkness on I-95 I saw the overpasses decorated with flags and banners for the first time.