What a day. September 11. I think every year on this day how far we all have come. That is what anniversaries are for, right? My experience on 9/11 is pretty different than a lot of people...most people were going about a normal day, at work, at school, when they heard about the attacks and went immediately to a TV to watch what was happening.
Me? I was on a plane. Literally over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
I don't think I've written about this before because it is so long. Prepare yourself! :)My mom, my grandma, my aunt and I had just wrapped up our trip of a lifetime. We had spent the previous 10 days traveling through the United Kingdom and France, celebrating my graduation from college. We left Paris at about 6 AM Eastern time for a 6 hour flight to Detroit on the morning of 9/11. About halfway through the flight, it felt like we had made a big turn...but what did we know about flying? That's probably just the path they were taking to get us home.
Then...the craziest thing we had ever heard. The captain came on and said something like "due to some unknown events happening in the United States, the air space over the U.S. is closed. We are returning to Europe and will be landing in Amsterdam." WHAT?? Unbelievably, one of my thoughts was "Huh...Amsterdam sounds cool." :) But those thoughts quickly turned to what the heck was going on at home. My calm, cool, and collected mom said something like "Wow, I don't think that's ever happened before (closing the air space). It must be something really, really bad." and the next thing we both said, almost in unison "I'm so glad Missy isn't here!" :) My sister had decided at the last minute not to join us because of her fear of flying...it was a God-inspired decision for her, I have no doubt. :)
Some of our fellow passengers started using contraband cell phones (I am not sure I even had a cell phone then!) to call people at home. The first thing we heard was that the Pentagon had been bombed. Then we heard something about buildings being bombed in New York. And finally, we heard that some passenger planes had been hijacked. THAT got people worked up. There was a woman who started having chest pains on our plane. Me being the brand-new nurse that I was went to check things out with some other nurses on the flight. Poor lady was having a panic attack--and no one blamed her a bit!
We finally made it to our new destination--Amsterdam in the Netherlands. My aunt had taken a differerent flight from Paris as she was heading home to Florida. We tracked her down through phone calls and found out her flight had returned to Paris. She was assuming we would be returning to Paris too...and she had found a nice hotel room and was waiting for us. Man, how we wished we were back there with her! As we got off our plane, we ran to the TVs and stood with people from all over the world, watching the coverage of what had happened. We were literally probably the last people in the world to learn what had happened.
We made it to pay phones to call home and I called Buck who immediately said "Are you OK?" and I said "Um, NO! We are in Amsterdam and the air space is closed! How do you think I am?" and started crying. I was so focused on myself, what I was going through, how hard this was on me. Seriously?! I was (relatively) safe, I was alive, and my family was all accounted for. Really should have been counting my blessings.
Our next step was to find a place to stay for the night. It was very confusing and the airline was scrambling to figure out what to do with us. People were running to the ticket counters but there was nothing for the airline to do...they couldn't get us home because they couldn't fly their planes. We found a hotel close to the airport. We got there and checked in. We watched the one TV channel all night...or at least I did. I don't think I slept much at all the whole time we were there. As soon as we could in the morning we checked out and went back to the airport to see if we could get out today. The short answer...NO. U.S. air space was still closed. We stayed at the airport most of the day and later that evening, the wonderful KLM employees (the European sister of Northwest) had found a place for all of us stranded travelers to stay. Unfortunately they couldn't predict how long we would be stuck in Amsterdam and with those uncertainties, hotels could pretty much charge us whatever they wanted. The airport had decided to offer a Red Cross refugee center to all stranded travelers. We loaded onto buses for the drive to outside the city of Amsterdam, to our new (and hopefully temporary) home.
We pulled into a large camp-like place. We unloaded from our bus and learned from other travelers that we were VERY lucky that we had received our luggage after getting off the plane in Amsterdam. Many travelers were stuck with only their carry-ons...with no end to it in sight. We hauled our luggage into these white buildings, which looked like a large school--there were 2 or 3 sets of bunk beds in a room, with community bathrooms and a large open area like a gym, where they had put up 4 large-screen TVs in each corner, and where we had our meals. I certainly didn't appreciate it enough at the time--I just wanted to get home--but I can't imagine the selflessness of the people who helped and served us while we were there. They even gave us phone cards to call home since all that they had there were pay phones.
We didn't leave the camp for 4 days...we were worried that if we did leave, that would be the one time that they would tell us the air space was open and we could go home. So we stayed. And watched 24/7 CNN on the big screen TVs. I became a little obsessed with Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn--I was disappointed when it wasn't their time on the air! :)
FINALLY, 5 days after 9/11, on September 16, an announcement came on over a loudspeaker that anyone traveling to the United States needed to have all of their luggage and themselves on the buses in like half an hour--we would be going back to the airport. Oh my goodness, you should have seen the madness. It was like little mice scurrying around in a maze. You can bet we were loaded on that bus with time to spare. We were actually fortunate that we were traveling on 9/11 at this point--we were the first ones to get on a plane to go home. There were numerous other travelers who were supposed to travel on the 12th, 13th, 14th, etc. that were going to have to wait to go home.
The security at the airport was UNREAL. We waited in several different lines for a total of over 3 hours. When we finally got close to the gate, my mom and I had to go together to talk personally with a security guard--every single passenger did. The security guard asked me to take a picture with my camera. He asked why we had been in Europe, why we were in Amsterdam, etc. etc.--and did this with every.single.passenger. Can you imagine? We finally got to sit down, ready to board the plane, and in walked the crew--the pilots and flight attendants. As they walked in, everyone in the waiting area stood up and applauded for them. Several of the flight attendants were crying. I still get goosebumps thinking about that.
Things had happened SO fast in Amsterdam, and then waiting in line after line after line, we didn't have time to call our family and let them know we were able to leave. So after a very blessedly uneventful flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, we really felt like we were home. Even though we were 9 hours from home, we were HOME. We could drive if we had to. I remember at some point as soon as we landed, I found a pay phone and called Buck saying "Guess where I am!" and he said uncertainly "Where?" and I said "Detroit!!" The happiest I've ever been to be in Detroit--and maybe the only time, now that I think of it!
We spent one short night in a Detroit hotel, right by the airport, and got on the first possible flight home. It was amazing.
We didn't have time to be scared to fly. We had to get on a plane to get home, even though we thought that was the last possible thing we would want to do. It was an absolutely surreal experience--when I look back on it, I feel like I can't believe I lived that experience. Being completely dependent on the kindness of others, being completely helpless and out of control in a foreign country...truly a once in a lifetime experience, and for better or worse, is how I experienced September 11. I will never forget.