At Charleston airport, en route to Shanghai, remembering 17 years ago, and our reflections at that time
|Four days in September
We were dozing on Delta 11, at 39,000 feet over the Atlantic, four hours out of Gatwick and about halfway back to Atlanta (we thought). Looking forward to getting home after 10 days visiting family and friends in Norway and England.
Then suddenly, “This is Captain Joe Carter speaking. Listen very carefully. We have a very serious problem. Please listen very carefully. We have a very serious problem.”
What thoughts went through our minds immediately? Looking around, everything looked normal. What was happening? My most vivid memory was the important realization was that Marion and I were together, and could face whatever needed to be faced, together. After a long pause (it seemed very long), the captain came back.
“We are in no immediate danger, the plane is fine, but we have just been told of three or four hijacks in the US, and we are instructed to land immediately.”
The nearest airport was only 100 miles away, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, and we were safe on the ground very quickly. During the descent we were told about the crashes in New York and Washington, and tried to imagine the awful experience of the passengers, and those who had been targeted so brutally.
Many planes landed after us. Indeed, we heard that a total of 200 transatlantic flights were either turned back or diverted during those few minutes. Altogether 27 big jets landed at St. John’s, a small airport, which usually sees only four such flights each week. An even larger number went to Gander up the coast, and many at smaller airports throughout Newfoundland. No one knew what would happen next, and we sat, patiently, counting some blessings.
The captain, crew and cabin staff were cheerful and helpful throughout, and there were no “difficult” passengers as the hours wore on. We heard that this was not the case on other flights, perhaps because they had kept the bars open, unwisely. Of course, everyone wanted to make phone calls. The plane phones were overloaded, and many cell phones didn’t function. Others (like ours) were low on charge, but we did locate a charger and were able to contact key people.
We sat on the plane for 10 hours, with no idea of what might happen next, and very little about the events unfolding in the States. Eventually we de-planed (with some difficulty since they did not have ramps tall enough to accommodate a 777), but had to leave behind everything except ladies’ purses.
We were taken to the new ice hockey stadium at St. John’s, which was due to be open two days later. There we found the beginnings of tremendous local hospitality, with friendly volunteers, food, drink and telephones.
St. John’s is the biggest town in the province of Newfoundland, but has less than 100,000 people, and about 1,500 hotel rooms. These were full for the big ice hockey event. The Red Cross were the principle organizers, with the Salvation Army also visible. We sat in the ice hockey stadium looking at a large TV screen on the scoreboard, where we saw (for the first time) those searing unforgettable images of the World Trade Center. Most of the passengers seemed to be in reasonable shape. There was an English couple going to visit their daughter somewhere. She was clearly demented, and her elderly husband was struggling. But they got good help eventually and were accommodated in someone’s home.
By late that evening, some 15 hours after our sudden landing, we were taken to the Holy Heart of Mary High School in St. John’s. There were seemingly hundreds of helpful student volunteers. We shared the floor of classroom 207 with about 15 other people, two of whom snored louder than anyone I have ever heard before.
After a restless night we were eventually woken by a smell of bacon (actually baloney) frying in the school cafeteria. That, coffee, and the use of donated toothbrushes and razors made a big difference to morale.
Our biggest problem then, and until the very last minute in St. John’s, was that no one could give us any idea about future arrangements. I guess that’s not too surprising in retrospect, but it was unsettling. The school and hockey stadium staff were friendly and answered their telephones, but could only say they had heard nothing from Delta. Delta phone lines were very busy, and when answered (occasionally) responded by unhelpful computerspeak. Much of the information was inaccurate. Despite the fact that there were at least five large Delta jets in St. John’s, we never saw or heard of a Delta representative (or crew member) until we got back on the plane.
The result of this uncertainty was that we had to be ready all the time to leave at very short notice. We were able to walk downtown but felt obligated to call in every hour or so for any news. We were fortunate to find a bed and breakfast near the town center with a vacancy (someone whose flight in had been canceled), and booked for that second night, although still hoping and assuming that we would be flying out very soon. It proved to be our home for two whole days. The most difficult thing (the first night) was having to set the alarm every two hours to call the school to make sure that the rest of the group was not leaving without us.
That first day we went to the local mall, stocked up on Walmart clothes, were able to find a cell phone charger (fortunately), and had a haircut. After checking back at the school again (increasingly looking like a refugee camp for many hundred people), we took a tour around the Avalon peninsula for two-and-half hours. It is a pretty area, reminding me greatly of the west coast of England and Wales, with a rocky coastline and scattered small towns. The houses did not look as if they would stand up well to the rigors of winter (22 feet of snow last year).
Fortunately they were having their hottest September day for 106 years, a heat wave of 61 degrees, so it felt comfortable- until we heard that a hurricane was working its way up the coast. It eventually brought mist and rain, but no major problems. Nor did we see any of the big icebergs which are featured in many photographs around the town.
We did inquire about driving back home, but were easily persuaded that this would be rather difficult. Apparently it is an eight-hour drive across the island of Newfoundland, and then an eight-hour ferry to mainland Canada. So, we sat and waited. Like many others, we spent hours watching CNN and other stations looking at terrible pictures of destruction and distress, occasionally heartened by stories of wonderful courage.
The “Newfies” were friendly. Their accent reminded us of Ireland, although they denied any direct connection. There were also many Irish names, and some Portuguese influence. St. John’s is a fishing port, and the fresh fish was excellent. We ate marvelous snow crab on our last evening in St. John’s at a small crab house only 15 yards from our B&B convenient because it was raining by then.
We had avoided it before because it smelled of cheap, nasty cooking, but then we realized that the smell was coming from the KFC next door. We found most of our Delta cabin crew eating there. We were particularly encouraged (in a way) to note that the co-captain was drinking wine, which presumably meant that we would not be flying for 10 hours, and could sleep without frequent alarms. One of the flight attendants, a woman from Georgia, kindly promised to call us when they got a call to leave their hotel. In fact, she called us within a couple of hours saying that they were due at the airport at seven the next morning (Friday).
We awoke at 3:30 a.m. with a call from the school (surprisingly, since we were not entirely confident that they kept any of the information we gave them) telling us that we would be leaving for the airport at 4:30.
We went back to the school which looked seriously “lived in” by now with all sorts of notices about activities, extra clothes, mountains of donuts, old books, towels, fruit, razors, toothbrushes for 1,000. They had been giving away old T-shirts with a puffin emblem on the front. Although most people had achieved other clothes after two or three days, many wore the puffin T-shirt as a badge as they left. The volunteers were almost sorry to see us leave, asking to keep in touch by e-mail, send photos, check the Web site. They gave everyone a CD of sacred music recorded by the school choir—which turns out to be very good.
We got on the bus at about 6:30 a.m. for the short trip through a dark, wet city to the airport. Unfortunately, no one had remembered to tell the Customs people, so we sat on the bus until about 8:30 before being reunited with our carry-on luggage, which was scrutinized extremely carefully. We then had to identify our regular luggage, before it could be put back on the plane.
I was concerned that this might be rather easy since my bag contained some of my favorite ripe English cheese, but it didn’t seem to be noticeable. Maybe we all smelled strong enough.
Getting on the plane felt like an important moment, but we had another three hours or so to wait before we took off. The cabin crew had been instructed to remove all sharp objects, including knives and forks, from the three-day-old dirty trash. Some sandwiches appeared, and there was plenty to drink.
The regular flight track would have taken us over Boston and New York, but we were routed west, possibly partly because of the hurricane/now tropical storm.
There was a cheer as we left the tarmac in St. John’s, and a louder one when we hit the ground in Atlanta. We were the first international Delta plane arriving back into Atlanta for three days, and there was a very moving reception. At least 100 Delta workers lined up to cheer and wave American flags as we taxied into the gate. The luggage and customs hall were full of smiling people, and we were even given an American flag to wave, by the immigration officer.
We were worried about connecting flights, and our travel agent (who had been keeping track of our problems and trying to help throughout) had booked us a car to drive the six hours back to Charleston. Fortunately, this was not necessary. There seemed like a good flight connection, but it left eventually three hours late due to lack of cabin staff. We arrived back at Charleston airport after a journey lasting 89 hours. A local friend kindly collected us from the airport. It was wonderful to be home.
Now, two days later, with seeming normalcy all around (except on the television and radio), we—like everyone else—are trying to put all of this into some perspective. Undoubtedly, we were and are very lucky, and our three extra (idle) days gave us full opportunity to reflect on our many blessings, not least our special families and close friends. Our answerphone and e-mail inbox were both full of caring messages.
We feel so strongly for those who will never get home, and for the many families, which have been so horribly disrupted. We are told that we are at war. God knows what the next few months may bring, but together we have the strength to face it. Let’s try to hold on to those good feelings and resolutions, which always emerge out of disasters, and use them. Evil will not triumph.