As the B-737 began to bank, while steadily climbing out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport, all passengers leaned towards the captain’s side of the plane to catch the last glimpse of what had been the most surrealistic sight and experience of their lives.
The plane they were on was not just any B-737 and the passengers were not just any passengers. The site they looked at was not just any site.
The plane belonged to Delta Air Lines and only a few hours ago it landed in LaGuardia completing its mercy mission – bringing security personnel and medical supplies to New York from Atlanta. New York was still in the state of shock and disbelief that night – five days after two planes were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center Towers. All New York airports were shut down to commercial traffic until new security measures could be implemented.
The passengers were Delta Air Lines crewmembers who were stranded in New York after that senseless attack. On a last minute notice, pilots and flight attendants filled the plane to reach an airport which operated scheduled commercial flights so that they all could get home – in this case we hoped to get to Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport for Home, Sweet Home.
The site that everyone wanted to get a last look at was what looked like a gaping hole in the late twilight over the wounded city. The odyssey, which led to this journey, started for most crews on Monday night, September 10. I was no different. I was very busy in Los Angeles before my trip to New York, and had to rush to get to the airport on time. I was able to catch the 10:30 p.m. flight and even got a seat in the Business Class. I met the entire crew and we talked and laughed until I was
too tired and finally went to sleep. The crew was great and they gave me even an extra ice cream.
The flight is five hours long, so one can catch a few winks. When I woke up, we were on the final approach and it was a beautiful autumn morning in the rising sun. I even took some pictures and video after deplaning and walked to the Delta flight attendant lounge. The sight of the airport in the morning was just breathtaking. It was September 11 and I was to work flights to Atlanta and Orlando, working the B-777. A piece of cake.
I was glad that I had only two days to fly and my mind was already on the things I’d do when I get back to Los Angeles. But first I had to enter my Delta bid for flying in October. I did that. It took me almost two hours to do the bids because this time we seemed to have more flights to choose from. When I finished the bid entries in the computer, I heard someone scream and cry, so I went to look at what was happening. I saw several flight attendants in tears, hugging each other, and I asked what happened.
“You don’t know?” she asked. Well, I did not. They said there was a terrible accident. I went outside the lounge and saw that the Security people were frantically evacuating the airport. I asked the guards what exactly happened. They told me a plane flew straight into the Towers. I went back to the lounge for my camera, made it through security (!?!) to the terminal, only to see a cloud of smoke coming up over Manhattan. One can see it easily from the airport. It was obvious that there was a terrible accident with huge losses of lives. It was a little past 10 a.m. and all planes were already pulled away from the gates for security reasons.
When I returned to the lounge, Delta supervisors were attempting to connect the TV set in the lounge to the cable network. Just like in any other situation when you need something really bad, the cable did not work. One of the supervisors remembered that in the old PanAm press box over the taxiways there was a large TV set that did not need cable connection for the major networks and had a decent picture just with the antenna. We all went up there to see over and over the video of the plane smashing into the World Trade Center. Some flight attendants broke down emotionally right there and had to be ushered out into the care of the Crisis Response Team. The images of the planes smashing into the towers were like something from a bad sci-fi movie; it looked totally unreal.
Most of us stayed and watched the mayhem on television. I realized what had happened – the planes must have been seized right after take-off while being full of fuel and became giant Molotov cocktails, true bombs. Whoever has done it picked large airplanes on trans-continental routes because there is a lot more fuel on board. When we heard the
planes were B-757s and B-767s, it became clear that the hijackers must have overpowered the cockpit crew and had pilots among themselves who were trained in these two planes (both of these models have identical cockpit).
I could imagine the horror of the passengers when they realized the Towers were the target. I imagine the pilots had to be disabled or dead, since no one in their right mind would do that. I had to think of the families that were left behind – and how traumatized they’d be in the days to come watching the same stuff on TV over and over. I could not help it but wonder if any of our former clients [Midnight Flight] have worked any of those doomed flights. After having worked with them for weeks – and at times even for months – they became my family.
I noticed one of our flight attendants trying frantically to dial her husband’s cell phone number, only to get the message that the call could not be completed. Her husband worked at the World Trade Center on the 25th floor. I wondered about him as both towers folded down in a very orderly fashion, usually seen only in a building demolition done by experts. Finally, after two hours, my colleague happily reached him, alive and well.
While we watched and debated and speculated, Delta supervisors brought us pizza for lunch and drinks, and arranged hotels for all of us who were stranded by the airport closure. Obviously, we were not going anywhere.
We were out of the deserted Kennedy Airport by 3 p.m., on our way to a nearby hotel. It was a relief for me because I am officially New York-based, and technically did not qualify for any accommodation. New York was supposed to be my
“home” city. Anyway, I did get a room and as I was sorting things out and heading for the elevator, I bumped into Byron Sutherland, one of my clients flying for American. We worried about several other clients we both knew – some mutual friends – who worked for American Airlines.
My hotel window offered only one view – smoke from where the towers used to stand. When I got to the hotel room I realized when I tried to call my wife in Los Angeles that the phones did not work, but the TV did. I watched some more. From Byron I learned that American Airlines crews had a meeting at 5 p.m. on the second floor in the hotel. They had four crews there. I went to the crew meeting and to my surprise, I also saw the Delta crew from Los Angeles that brought me to New York that morning.
I talked to the Delta flight attendants after that meeting – it was obvious that the American Airlines group was left very much on its own, while Delta looked after us from Atlanta via another Tom, the Captain on the L.A. flight that brought us in. He kept checking periodically with the OCC (Operations Command Center) in Atlanta with his cell phone to give us news.
We learned that all Delta planes have been accounted for and two American and two United planes were involved in the crashes. The view from the hotel room was depressing. I closed the curtain. The window was overlooking Manhattan and displayed the steady stream of thick, black smoke against the otherwise peaceful sunset. My mind stood still, looking at the contrast – the horror and tragedy on the ground against the backdrop of a beautiful, warm autumn sunset.
When I was falling asleep on Tuesday night, I could not get the images of the crashing planes out of my mind. Most of all, I missed my wife and wondered how long it would be before I saw her again. Late that night, or actually early the next morning, I was finally able to connect with her and give her a brief, “sugar-coated” account of the events.
From that moment the Los Angeles crew and I stuck together and I got to know them well. One of the crewmembers was Blanca. She was not only very good-looking, but also very intelligent (a welcome combination in a flight attendant). On top of that, she also had her laptop computer with her. She also had software on it that she could access Delta schedules. That helped us a lot, because we found out what was cancelled – everything. This connection became invaluable as days went by and as we watched the laptop battery getting lower and lower. Blanca anticipated a two day trip, not a week-long house arrest, and left her charger in Los Angeles.
At any rate, Blanca’s room became our “war room and command center,” and we stayed there most of the time, watching TV, trying to cheer each other up. Just the togetherness has helped a lot and I think we all knew it. The worst part was that, as days went by and we stayed glued to the TV, we heard how airports were gradually opening up but we were stuck because Delta planes were still grounded. Then the airports were closed. Then the airports were opened again only to close within hours for some minor breach of security. It was an emotional rollercoaster and not everyone in the group had the stamina to take it.
One minute you had your hopes high and were convinced that planes would be out in just a matter of hours, only to have your hope shattered by events beyond your control. I checked out from the hotel once because some flights were going out, only to see a disappointed American Airlines crew returning from the airport, getting off the bus again and coming back to the hotel lobby. Their flight was cancelled as JFK closed down again. Two suspects, they said, were picked up after a SWAT Team raid on the plane. Everyone on board the aircraft hit the deck as the SWAT Team was ready to shoot anything that
moved. I brought the news to the rest of the Delta crew, stressing that if nothing else, at least we have aroof over our heads. That’s how Wednesday ended.
On Thursday, most of us had “cabin fever,” and since the hotel security relaxed a little, we were able to get a ride from the hotel to a nearby shopping center. It’s like that saying: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
Although Delta was bringing us meals at times, it was a treat to go to the Food Court and actually order a hot meal. In this relaxed atmosphere it became apparent how some of the crewmembers were fed up with the situation and would do anything to change it. It came to the point that some actually felt that anyplace would be better than the hotel.
Again, I tried to stress the positive points of our situation. Although others did not have any cash (and all ATMs were out of order), I had with me over $200 so I could loan a few bucks to those who wanted to get something to eat in a corner store. We were very, very fortunate even though the situation was not optimal. But it was more and more apparent that the time, stress and being homesick was working on the people.
Some people, who had only one set of clothes and maybe two sets of underwear went shopping for those little necessities. I was just bumming around and was thinking about the times when we bum around shopping centers with my wife.
And so I went to Victoria’s Secret and got her a little surprise for when I returned home.
I was the only one who was consistently contacted by Delta’s Crisis Team or supervisors based in New York to see if I was okay. The Los Angeles crew was not as lucky and their frustration was mounting. We started looking at different options. It appeared that the airports in New York would be closed at least till Monday and none of us wanted to wait that long. We decided to rent a car and drive to Atlanta (about a 22 hours drive) where the airport was already opened and Delta had flights from there to Los Angeles.
One of my other former clients who worked now for American also called me and told me that American Airlines flight attendants decided to charter a bus for a trip to Los Angeles and if I wanted, I could get on it. I could do that, but I also felt that I should continue to provide emotional support to the Delta L.A. crew and I could not very well leave them. This was not the time to get selfish. In fact, I really did not want to leave them, we got along well. Apart from that, the bus trip to Los Angeles would take at least 4 days.
We decided that we’d get a van and drive to Atlanta on our own. True, it would be a long ride, but I have driven non-stop trips like that before and had no hesitation to do that again. The folks from the L.A. crew also contacted Delta in Los Angeles to find out what they could help us with, because New York Delta command center was still without a working computer and except for “holding hands” could not do much for us. The computer lines were destroyed inthe World Trade Center (along with the ATM lines). We were better off just with Blanca’s laptop.
In Los Angeles, we got tremendous help from Mary Hamilton, one of the Los Angeles in-flight supervisors, whom I knew well from my days of ground duty there. She listened first to the complaints of three flight attendants who were not very happyand then she offered us help. She arranged the van rental for us, right there at Hertz at JFK and she also booked “positive space” for the L.A. crew on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. She could not get me positive space because I was not a Los Angeles-based crew. But she booked a non-revenue seat for me, too, just in case there was an empty seat on that flight.
Jason and David, two of the L.A. flight attendants, went to pick up the van, while I went out to buy maps and sandwiches for the trip. We were ready for the drive. The most uplifting thing was that after the drive to Atlanta they had the seats on the
L.A. flight. I knew I’d get back to L.A. somehow, too. When I got back from the sandwich shop, there was a little surprise waiting for me at the hotel.
Tom, the Captain, called the “war room” to let us know that Delta was flying a mercy flight to LaGuardia and we may have a chance to get on when the plane was returning from New York to Atlanta. The Critical Response Team from Delta came to our hotel and they promised to take the rental van back (we did not have much time) and they also drove us to LaGuardia, some thirty minutes away. In many ways, the whole experience felt like something from James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon,” one of my favorite books, and I would recommend everyone to read it.
I’ll sidetrack here a little, just to give you a glimpse of what the book is about. It was written in 1928 when the world was bracing itself for the events that led to World War II. It describes a group of British citizens stranded in a war-torn Kabul. There is a lot of panicking refugees trying to get on the few flights leaving Kabul to where people could find peace (very
much like now). The hero of the book – Hugh Conway – a British diplomat, manages to get a very diverse group of British citizens and an American on one of the last planes leaving Kabul. This is where the similarity between the book and our exodus out of New York ends. I would recommend that you read the book to follow their journey after being hijacked to fly over the Himalayas to enter The Valley of Blue Moon and Shangri-La, a place of eternal bliss and happiness, where aging is almost non-existent. The book is perhaps the best Hilton’s literary work.
It was just incredible to walk into the LaGuardia Marine Terminal (former PanAm terminal for the “clippers”), and see Zack, a Delta flight attendant who used to fly with me to Prague, Europe, several years ago. It was a great reunion and he was glad to see that we all could return to Los Angeles. Our plane was waiting .It was a great sight.
It was a Boeing B-737/800 used for the shuttle flights. Pilots often joke about the plane, saying that it is not a big B-737 but a small B-757.
There were enough flight attendants and pilots to fill up the plane. Some were from Los Angeles, some from Orlando and Salt Lake City and some even from Seattle. We all got on and at 8:30 p.m. on Friday the ad the plane finally took off.
The night was clear and as we were making a turn after take-off, we could see the smoldering site of the World Trade Center Towers, lit by emergency lighting. It looked like a giant set from a Hollywood disaster movie. We all looked at it still as if it was a bad dream. I am sure none of us yet fully grasped the magnitude of what had transpired in those four days.
Blanca was sitting in the row behind me. I could see her in the space between the seats. As the plane took off we looked at each other with the look full of love, relief and happiness that we are getting out of what looks like a mini-war zone.
There was a plane at 10:30 p.m. from Atlanta to Los Angeles but it looked like we might miss it. When we got to Atlanta, however, we found out that the Los Angeles flight was delayed. There was a cancellation of a flight to Ontario, CA, and so those people were being rebooked on the Los Angeles flight. The entire L.A. group got their positive space seats and I hoped for a jump seat. But since the flight was jam-packed, the crew got an extra flight attendant, and so the jump seat was not available. I was left behind.
It was a sad and touching good-bye. We all grew very close over those five days and I was particularly close to two flight attendants. I am sure we will all remain good friends. I have taken some pictures during those four days in New York – in the hotel, in the shopping center, on the plane, and I made a little album for each of the Los Angeles crewmembers so they have a souvenir on this special experience. They are very unique in many ways.
I spent the night at the Atlanta airport and met some of my old classmates and some other friends and I also was able to rest a bit. At 6 a.m. I went up to the terminal again to catch my flight to Los Angeles. I was told it was oversold by 50, but when I
finally got on, it was probably only two thirds full.
As [officially] a jumpseater, I went to the cockpit to introduce myself to the pilots, as is the custom at Delta. The Captain looked at me and said: “Thank God, we have a good strong guy on board. Make sure no one gets close to the cockpit door and if they try, just take care of them! You have my permission to do whatever you feel is right to keep them away from the cockpit door.”
And so I held the fort on my flight home. It was a good group to fly with. I was not particularly worried because this plane was a MD-11 (anything that was not B-757 or B-767 looked good to me), which continued from Los Angeles to Narita, Japan.
But as I walked through the aisles, I could not help it but make a mental note of every Middle Eastern passenger on board and where they were sitting. I think that this type of subconscious response will not disappear very soon. It was nice to touch down in Los Angeles on Saturday mid-morning.
There was a very pleasant surprise waiting for me there as well. Mary Hamilton, the supervisor who arranged for us the van rental and also the tickets from Atlanta to Los Angeles, was waiting in the jetway along with a member of the Critical Care Response Team. I knew her well from the time when I worked in Los Angeles on the ground. We both had tears in our eyes when we hugged and kissed. We just could not let go off each other, but finally we walked out of the jetway.
I gave them both a briefing of what transpired in New York and what they might like to concentrate on when it came to the crew that got home before me. I must say that I have never worked before for an employer who’d care for its people like
Delta does. It’s not just the company – what it boils down to is the heart of each individual worker. If they are willing to give, the entire company comes across like a giving, caring outfit.
I was glad to see Los Angeles again. Perhaps the only other time I was so glad to see the city was when I was moving down from Canada to join my wife. When I drove home, I was still sifting through the memories and events of the past few days. It sounded unreal, but it happened. It was a terrible thing that happened, but despite the disruptions in our lives a lot of good came out of it. I felt a little emotionally drained, but I was glad that I could give some support to those who looked for it.
A week later, after I arrived again in New York to work another flight, I opened my “company email” and saw there was one from Blanca. It read: “Tom, I know you got back to L.A. safe. It was a pleasure to hear that you are well and your family, too. My friend, you do have a level head. You know, we all were looking at you for an indication of approval. You were the best. I think I can speak for all of us, you brought a sense of unity to the group and a feeling of security. Thanks, Tom,
Regards, your friend
It all became clear – there was a purpose to my being there, for all of us being there for each other. It would have been more pleasant if it was under different circumstances. But the incredible nature of the events makes it unforgettable.