Yahoo! is asking Americans how September 11 changed them. Below is an account from a reader.
Ten years later, it's still so hard to truly comprehend the magnitude, impact and significance of what happened on that ill-fated day. For as long as I can remember, New York City has always been a spectacular and revered haven, whether because of my Dad's influential Bronx upbringing, my life-long allegiance to the Rangers or quite simply the unmistakable ambiances of Chinatown and Little Italy. The word "tragedy," heaven forbid, just never remotely came to mind when I pictured "the city."
But, sadly, that all changed on September 11, 2001.
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That morning, I was on a plane headed from London to Cincinnati, after a routine business trip. I had been scheduled to fly home on September 12th, but had fortunately -- or so it seemed -- wrapped up my assignment a day early. While we were somewhere over the ocean near Greenland, the pilot came on in a muffled voice and only said: "Terrorism! ... We need to land!"
He gave no indication of what had happened, where it happened or even if it was on OUR plane. Nothing! Everyone was strangely quiet as we descended -- not to Ohio -- but to the nearest airport, Gander International in Newfoundland, along with 37 other diverted aircraft. Historically, Gander Airport had been a re-fueling stop for planes crossing the Atlantic Ocean but it was rarely ever still used.
Once we landed, the plane's airphone lines jammed with outgoing calls, so I used my cell to call my family, find out what they knew, and let them know I was okay. It was lucky that my cell was fully charged because other passengers soon needed to use it to put their families at ease. When I first heard "The Twin Towers are gone!", I kept shaking my head in disbelief.
It had only been 7 years earlier when I was last inside the WTC. I had taken the train into New York City for the Rangers' Stanley Cup parade back in 1994, and I remember how echo-y and joyous it was to come up from the subway on the escalators inside those massive buildings as fans chanted: "Let's Go Rangers!" as loud as I'd ever heard inside Madison Square Garden.
But now those same towers were gone?!
In Gander, we ended up staying on the plane for 31 hours before deplaning. No one complained and no one questioned the need to do so. We all knew of the terrible tragedy unfolding in New York City. Ambulances and EMT vehicles circled the planes on the runways in case anyone needed medical attention. Nicotine patches were even handed out. And I guess more food was eventually brought on board. How that happened still remains fuzzy. But I vividly recall the pilot opening the cockpit door, despite the circumstances, and allowing us to listen to the reports that were coming in over the radio.
We had to stay on the plane for all those hours because none of the 38 inbound international flights were scheduled to arrive in Gander -- a town of about 9,000 people -- so no customs agents were there to check in more than 6,000 unexpected "visitors." Agents had to be transported from St. John's, a 4-hour drive away, to process us through customs. Then, they had to find a way to get everyone from the planes to a makeshift customs area. And from there, they had to get all 6,000 of us to some kind of temporary housing. In the first of seemingly endless gestures of generosity from the people of Newfoundland, local school bus drivers, who were on strike at the time, put down their picket signs to help transport us.
It felt so strange to sit in a yellow school bus, alongside predominantly adults, as we bounced along to nearby Gambo. Once we arrived, we were divided into "outposts" to take shelter, mine being at the local VFW hall. It was on the large-screen satellite TVs there that I first saw the images of the towers collapsing. I still couldn't believe what had happened.
In what later became known as "Operation Yellow Ribbon," the people of Gander, Gambo and the surrounding towns responded during this crisis in a way that can never be fittingly described or dutifully remembered. I kept thinking that if 38 jumbo jets suddenly landed at Oxford Airport in CT, the people of the "Valley" would've reacted the same way. Except instead of making us fish and soup, we would've eaten pasta fagioli and pirogues.
The acts of kindness that our "hosts" showed us -- like closing the schools to provide us with shelter, a place to sleep, showers and internet access -- were just so, so gracious. Their altruism to a group of international travelers that swelled the population to almost twice its size was remarkable and came at great personal sacrifice to them. They provided 3 meals a day to 6,000 people they weren't expecting without blinking an eye. Even the local Walmart supplied clean clothing. But best of all, they gave us companionship to keep our minds occupied and help the long hours pass.
As our unscheduled stopover stretched from Tuesday, September 11th, to Wednesday, we had no idea how long it would be before we could return to the U.S. Or if we'd even be allowed to return by plane.
But by late Thursday, the airlines received permission to complete their flights and a website listed the planes' departure dates and times. Since my flight was one of the last planes to land, you would think we'd also be one of the last to depart. But our pilot had been forced to park in such a way that blocked most of the other planes in, so instead of being the last to leave on Sunday, we were one of the first to take off on Friday, Sept. 14th.
Once I landed in Cincinnati, I was able to rent a car to drive the six hours to Indiana, my home state at the time. I had to drive there as connecting flights were not yet authorized to fly in the US. Little did I realize the significance of what I had just experienced.
And to be honest, I sometimes wonder if I still do.
Nevertheless, I would like to send out my deepest, most heartfelt thoughts, prayers and condolences to the families and friends of those who were not as fortunate and, regrettably, did not return home.
Though it may be cathartic to formally mark milestones like the 10th anniversary we're observing today, the intense pain felt since that day must still be so difficult for them to cope with.
Hopefully, with each passing day, those families and friends who have lost a loved one will continue to find reasons to carry on -- maybe knowing of the kindness showed by thousands of people in Newfoundland will help them heal a little bit more.
And to all those who gave of themselves on that day -- whether they were first responders in NY or simply the people near Gander who found the world suddenly on their doorstep:
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
- New York City