September 15: 20 years ago today

Escape from New York.

By Friday, September 14th, I was pretty much feeling at the end of my rope. Despite finding some respite in a Broadway theatre the night before, the truth was that I was pretty desperate to get home. And there seemed to be no more certainty than 2 days before about exactly how I was going to get to do that.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I was scheduled and cancelled on many flights each day. While other airports around the country started to get moving on Friday, New York was still shut down, but constantly on the verge of opening up. Not only that, but sometimes I was learning things from the TV news before the airlines web site or recording systems had the information. I’d be telling the agent. I think they’ve cancelled flights for the rest of the day out of JFK, and she wouldn’t know. She’d put me on hold and finally come back and say, ‘you’re right!’

The trouble was that the airlines had no way of managing this kind of situation. They were trying to juggle all of the stranded people, plus all of the people who would have been flying on each day anyway. Each time a flight I was on got cancelled, I was just booted to the end of the line again trying to get on the next flight.

I suppose some people were actually camping out at the airports, but I just didn’t want to haul my ass out to LaGuardia or JFK, only to find the flights were cancelled. At that point you would have just been stuck in the airport. Which sounded more miserable than being stuck in a hotel room, by a long shot.

At one point I actually lost it with a flight agent…not in an angry screaming way, but in a pathetic teary way. I asked her why they weren’t finding a way to prioritize people who had been stranded for days over people who were just planning to fly that day anyway. She apologized, but said that they just didn’t have a way to manage that. I fact her parents were in Florida on vacation, stuck, and couldn’t believe she couldn’t get themhome!

I think my breakdown did soften her up though, because she let me do something they never let you do. She booked me on two different flights at the same time for Saturday morning…one, a nono-stop out of JFK, and one out of Philadelphia, with a plane change in Chicago. Yes, Philadelphia. Although Philly is 2 hours away from NYC, it is a less busy airport, and hadn’t been getting any bomb threats, so it seemed there would be a better chance of flights actually getting out of there. Of course she was scheduling me for a 7:30 am flight, and they were recommending you get to the airport at least two hours ahead of time, so that would mean a 3:30am pickup, but I didn’t care.

At some point I had walked to a small shop and bought a pair of sweats and some underwear and the like.

And at some point I had actually had the hotel do my laundry.

And at some point I got them to lower my room rate back. (You recall that those bastards at the Sheraton New York Midtown raised my rate on 9/11, once it became clear I couldn’t check out that day as planned, right? yes, the Sheraton New York did that.) I just said, ‘hey guys, you’re not getting any new guests for a while, and neither is any other hotel, so I’m sure I can find an empty room somewhere within a block, don’t you think?’ They agreed and, out of the pure kindness of their heart, lowered the rate back down.

During the 4 days, the S.O. and I had discussed various ways to get home. I suppose if we had each hopped in a car and started driving, we would have met halfway and I would have gotten home, maybe a day earlier than I did.

But there were no car rentals to be had. There were no Amtrak tickets to be had. There weren’t even any Greyhound seats to be had! And believe me, driving cross country on a Greyhound bus was not an appealing idea to me. But I checked on it nonetheless.

So, there I was on Friday afternoon. It seemed promising that I might actually get to go home the next morning. And again, I was feeling very isolated.

I decided to buy myself lunch in an Irish pub that was nearby. I sat at the bar and ordered a veggie burger and some fries.

The bar area was crowded. I was the only woman amongst a crowd that turned out to be a bunch of union guys who had been down at Ground Zero trying to help out. I sat next to a somewhat skinny and haggard black guy, probably in his mid to late 40’s. We sat and talked for a long time. He was carrying pictures of his buddies who were missing…I think one of them was a firefighter and the other was a maintenance guy at the WTC. This guy was from one of the island countries originally, where he still went every year for part of the year. Working in NY for some amount of months every year paid for him to live back in his home country for the other part of the year. He wanted to buy and manage a small hotel there. Although it seemed like time was slipping by him a little quickly if he still wanted to achieve that goal. he was getting quietly drunk. You know he kind of drunk where after a while you can tell you’re looking a whole lot better to him than you did when you first sat down? And you find yourself being kind, but firmly non-flirtatious?

There were other diners in the restaurant part, but it was just me and a bunch of guys in the bar. My buddy kept toasting me, and getting his buddies to toast me, for hanging out with them, and for being from California, and for I can’t remember what else. And maybe in another situation it would have gotten old, or kind uncomfortable, but on this day it was cool. And it was definitely better than sitting alone for four more hours watching CNN.

But eventually I went back to my hotel room and my CNN. My bag was zipped back up and ready. I had placed the order for the cab to Philly and a shuttle to JFK.

But I kept checking flights. Before I went to bed at midnight or so, I checked and the Philly 7:30 am flight was cancelled. I quickly got myself on an 8:30 flight. And rescheduled my cab to pick me up at 4:30am.

I tried to sleep, but by 2:30am I gave up and checked American Airlines online again. The 8:30am flight was cancelled! I called and after some negotiation on the phone got myself back on the 7:30am flight which was now scheduled again. Meanwhile JFK continued to look really iffy.

The problem was, here it was 3am, and could I get the car to come get me in 30 minutes? I called, and to their credit, the cab company worked it out. He was a little late, but got there at around 3:45. and we started the two hour drive to Philly.

As we emerged from the Holland Tunnel on the Jersey side at 4am, it occurred to me that if I just turned my head to the left…and yes, there it was my one and only view of the lower tip of Manhattan and its altered skyline. It was still dark out, but I could see the absence of the towers. I could also see the cloud of debris in the air. That is one thing I simply think the TV cameras and TV shots could not capture…the size of that cloud. Those shots didn’t give you the sense of scale. The cloud was huge, obscuring the lower tip of Manhattan, stretched over a huge area. It rose out of the Ground Zero site and had been blown and extended South and East.

They had work lights going and were working around the clock, so it was lit from the bottom. This huge cloud with an eerie lighted base. i could not look way for a while, even though I was sorry I had looked.

It doesn’t look like a movie anymore when you’re looking at it through a car window.

The ride to Philly was a nightmare because I am a back seat driver, and this guy clearly needed a few more cups of coffee. In fact I had to keep talking to him to keep him awake. Whenever I would fall into silence, his head would literally start nodding. For two hours. And I’m not a talk-to-your-cab-driver type of person.

We did finally arrive in Philly in one piece. And at 5:30 it was still pretty deserted. That whole two hours early thing wasn’t really necessary. I check my little roll-on, so I could put my swiss army knife and clippers in the bag. I went through security, and while in line struck up a conversation with a guy named Bob Nelson. Bob was an author and motivational speaker. He focused on how to manage employees well. After making it through security and into the gate area, we still had time to kill, so we sat and had some coffee.

Eventually, like any other trip, we were loaded on to the plane and took off like it was any other day. I had gotten a Business Class upgrade, so I was comfortable and happy to be going home, but the atmosphere was definitely quiet and nervous. I was glad our plane had a big, burly, male flight attendant! Eventually the Seatbelts light came on, and we were descending into Chicago. As we were all starting to breathe easier (all of the 9/11 hijacking happened relatively near the beginning of the flights after all) suddenly Big Burly Flight Attendant Man got on the intercom system and yelled, literally yelled “You, SIR, sit down in your seat, sit DOWN in your seat RIGHT NOW!”

Imagine that for a moment.

The plane freaked out. Everyone was turning around in their seats, including me. Since I was near the front, I was trying to twist around to see who they were talking about, and it was some guy, standing up to get something out of the overhead bin. And yes, he was of some ethnicity that I couldn’t really determine from my distance.

He sat down, but immediately hit hi ‘Call’ button.

When three, count ’em three, flight attendants came over to see what he wanted, he complained that he had been humiliated and singled out, blah, blah, blah. Actually I couldn’t hear every detail, but I got the gist.

They were just, like ‘Sir, have you been paying attention the last few days? The seat belt sign was ON. Stay in your seat. End of story.’ And I’m pretty sure there was a silent ‘dumbass’ at the end of that exchange.

So, now that my heart rate was up enough to give me a good cardiovascular workout, we landed in a deserted O’Hare Airport.

Almost as creepy as the deserted streets of NY, were the deserted gate areas of O’Hare. I had a whole area to myself while I was calling home to check in.

And then within a few more hours, I was home. It seemed so uneventful and anticlimactic to land, get my bag, walk to my car, get in and drive home. I felt like I should have knelt and kissed the tarmac. I felt like there should have been a brass band greeting every tired and strung out traveler. Couldn’t someone at least give us leis?

So, that concludes my 9/11 story. I didn’t get back on a plane for four months, severely curtailing the active traveling I’d been doing for work. Eventually I did, and eventually it felt more normal. While digging in my purse for expense receipts I found another pocket knife that I had picked up at a trade show…that somehow the security folks had missed on 9/15/01. That didn’t fill me with confidence.

There are only a few moments like 9/11 in my 40-year life span. I remember where I was when Reagan was shot. I remember where I was when I heard about the Challenger shuttle disaster. I remember watching the first Gulf War on TV, live, and being amazed by that.

9/11 trumps all of those I think.

And while it was a terrible, terrible experience, I often think two things: that I was lucky and unscathed compared to so many others, and that it was a moment in history that I got a unique perspective on. Certain moments…being one of the many turned away at the blood bank; being in the theatre the night Broadway went back up; sitting at a bar with a bunch of tired guys looking for a little human contact themselves; looking across the Hudson River at 4am…these are moments that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Some of them do show that human beings did come together and show their nobler side. And that is a small comfort in a world where human beings are also currently showing their most savage side.

Previous posts in the series:

20 years ago on September 10: I was thinking “this is the best trip I’ve had to NYC in years!”

20 years ago on September 11: My bed was packed and sitting on my hotel bed.

20 years ago on September 12: I was one of many turned away at the blood donor station, and a cat’s meow has haunted me ever since.

20 years ago on September 13: I was starting to get starved for human contact.

Note: I first wrote this series of posts back in 2004, three years post-09/11. I shared them first on a personal blog platform that went away. Then posted them on, which was ported to and then those links, too, were broken. So now I’m trying again to find a home for my annual remembrances. I have not edited these pieces since 2004.