My experience on 9/11 and my flight home a few days later.

Every year, as September 11 draws near, this is the question people ask. Where were you on 9/11?  Today, my mind really focused on that day due to a radio program. People were sharing their memories; both those who lost family members and those who survived.

What really did it for me was the mention of how people across the United States behaved after 9/11. How kind everyone was to each other. How the entire country stopped and our world was changed. It reminded me of my trip home after 9/11. It reminded me of how concerned people were.  And it reminded me of how kind people were for quite some time. How the world stood behind us, for a time.

Where was I?

On 9/11 I wasn’t in New York, from where my family comes and where I was born. I wasn’t in Washington DC. I wasn’t even in Pennsylvania. I was visiting my parents in Florida.

It was early, and since I was on vacation, I was sleeping. I awoke with a jerk when I heard my father shout, “That was on purpose!” I followed the noise and found my parents staring at the tv in horror. I turned and saw what had their attention.  It was the second plane. For the rest of the day I went back and forth between the television and the Internet.

I remain very grateful

At that point I was a member of an online board for attorneys. I had numerous friends and family in New York. I had friends who worked in the World Trade Center. I had friends who worked in DC. And of course, I lived in Pennsylvania. On that day, thankfully, I lost no one. What saved my friends? A very simple thing; attorneys in New York tend to work late, and as a result, it isn’t uncommon for them to go to work late in the morning. My friends who worked in the World Trade Center simply hadn’t arrived to their offices yet. Some had meetings. Some were running late. Some habitually started their days late. That is it. From such small things came spared lives.

The web was an information conduit

My friends in New York couldn’t call out on their phones. Some of them were unable to leave their offices in buildings near the World Trade Center. Others were stuck in their offices in DC. Very few of these folks had access to television. Twitter didn’t exist. Neither did Facebook.  The proliferation of news websites we have today didn’t exist yet. So the board became the source of news for those stuck in the middle of the action and for those seeking news about the well-being of friends and relatives.

I and others spent the day sharing information with those who couldn’t access it. I learned what was happening from people stuck in buildings surrounding ground zero, I heard from people in their offices in DC. People from the Pittsburgh area checked in. And, of course, I saw what was happening on tv. So I, along with everyone else, watched, and listened, and prayed, and grieved. And I reported what I saw and heard to my online friends who were hungry for news.

That evening I talked with my friends who told me about walking back to their homes across the bridge. And I talked on the phone with a friend in the city who told me how the sky was filled with lightning , as she told me how she felt. I stayed up most of the night with her. She simply needed someone to be there. We weren’t actually that close, just online friends. But that day, online or offline, it didn’t mean much. We were friends.

Over the next few days, I watched in relief as my friends reported in on our online board. And in horror as they told us what they saw and heard first hand.

I fielded emails from my friends around the country and the world asking if I was ok, wondering if I was anywhere near Shanksville. Checking to make sure I hadn’t traveled to New York for my vacation. It never occurred to me people had been worried for me. But I guess that day, and days following, everyone was worried about everyone.

I tried to get home

I spent a good amount of time on the phone with airlines trying to figure out how to get home. I had been planning on flying home, I believe on 9/12 or 9/13, but that wasn’t possible. I looked into trains and cars as well. Finally the day came and I got a flight out of Gainesville. One of the first flights after 9/11. My mother was terrified. She didn’t want me to fly. My father didn’t show it, but I think he felt the same. My parents watched closely as I went through new security that had been quickly thrown together. People wondered if there would be another attack, something to finish the job of making Americans afraid to fly.

The new security

National Guards with guns were outside the airport. Everyone was on edge. But everyone was also very polite. The people doing the security checks, terrified of getting it wrong, scrutinized everyone closely. I had a lot of stuff with me, a usb key, cellphone, laptop. But strangely, what attracted the most attention was a small flashlight I had on my keychain. The security agent asked me what everything was. She said because I had so much stuff I looked suspicious. I looked at this elderly, gray haired lady and wondered what to say. I wasn’t upset, I understood her fear, but I really didn’t have an answer. What could I say that wouldn’t sound sarcastic?  Finally I gently reminded her that I had left my home before 9/11, planning to do some work on my trip, and now was simply trying to get home.  Since she seemed most concerned about my flashlight I offered to leave it behind. I was asked to drink from my bottle of water. My father later told me he would have refused. I told him it wasn’t the time to argue. My mother agreed with me.

The waiting room was strange. My parents, everyone’s friends and families, stood on one side of a rope.  Those of us flying stood there talking with them. There were no walls then keeping the non-flyers from the gates. Just a rope. We were all nervous. We all avoided talking about it. We were all incredibly polite with each other. Complete strangers talked with each other in ways I had never seen before, and haven’t seen since.

On the plane

The time came to board the plane. My parents stood watching at the window as I climbed up the steps. I waved goodbye as I got on the plane. Everyone else did the same to their family and friends.

It was a small plane. yet it wasn’t as full as I expected since I knew other people had to be trying to get home too. I guess they had decided to wait.

No one wanted to sit by the emergency exits. The flight attendant explained we couldn’t leave until people sat in those seats. I volunteered as did another person, a burly looking man. We all paid rapt attention to the flight attendant as she explained what we should do. Everyone read the cards in their seats as she spoke.  The other emergency seat person and I looked at each other somewhat wryly as we looked carefully at the cards. The flight attendant came over to those of us in the emergency seats and gave us personal instruction. The flight attendant asked us if we really felt we were prepared if something happened. We both thought about it a moment before we said yes, we were ready. Everyone else on the plane watched as we had this conversation.

And then we took off. The day was just like 9/11. I remember thinking about that as we took off.  I actually wrote a poem about it later, that sky. It was bright and beautiful and clear. The flight was quiet at first. And then it got a bit louder; never very loud though. People shared with each other. People were kind. Did you lose anyone? Are you going home? Everyone was also hyper alert. If anyone had made a false move of any kind, I think there would have been a pile on. In fact we actually discussed that with each other. How we would be ready if anyone tried anything.

My parents required me to call at every point I could. They were very relieved when I landed. Then I got in my car and drove the 90 minutes home.

That was my day on 9/11.  And that was my trip home right after.

My thoughts go out to everyone who lost someone during 9/11. My thoughts go out to my friends who lived through that horrible day. Who saw what happened first hand.  And my thoughts go out to the entire country for the changes we all have had to endure as a result of that awful attack.

God bless.


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