My September 11, 2001

My husband brought me to the Denver airport for the JetBlue red-eye flight to JFK Airport on September 10, 2001. I was going back to upstate New York; he was staying in Colorado to start a new chapter in our lives.

He walked to the terminal with me. As soon as we got to the gate we realized I’d be on a flight filled with New York Giants fans; they played the Denver Broncos that night, and I was on the fans’ return flight to NYC. The terminal was also over crowded with other passengers lying on floors, waiting for their delayed flights to start boarding. My 12:30 AM flight was delayed an hour due to weather conditions in NYC. Dave stayed with me, even though he had to work early the next day at his new job; we were going to be separated for almost five months. I had a long-term subbing position until December and wouldn’t join him in Colorado again until January. I was sad and a little nervous. I couldn’t remember the last time I had flown by myself. Dave assured me I’d be fine; after all, flying was still the safest way to travel.

I left all our cash and credit cards with him, since he had to start over; I was just going to be on two flights and get picked up by my mother. The most I’d need is a few dollars for coffee.

When my flight was ready to board, we said our goodbyes, and I joined the plane full of drunken Giants’ fans. The good news was they all looked like they were ready to sleep. I had a window seat and surprisingly fell asleep for a few hours.

For no particular reason I woke up and looked out the window. We were circling over the city at a safe distance in the sky, waiting for clearance to land at the busy airport; all the delayed flights seemed to be arriving at the same time (I found out later). I remember thanking God that I had woken up to experience the surreal pre-dawn sky: It seemed that I could see forever, clearly; not even a whisper of a cloud hung in the sky. The water was still. It felt like the Universe was holding its breath. I thought I could see the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor, and off to the side, two towers jutting out above the rest. I wanted to nudge awake the person next to me to confirm what I was seeing. Instead, I worked at burning the image in mind, knowing I wouldn’t want to forget the beautiful sight to which I was privy.

The magical moment vanished as soon as the captain announced our descent. Passengers woke up; the flight attendants pushed chairs and tables back into position. By the time I looked out the window again, the sun was shining on the City.

When I entered the terminal, I looked for my connecting flight. It was 8:00 AM and my flight out of JFK to Rochester was at 9 AM. My flight wasn’t on the board. I asked an attendant about it. She said all flights were delayed and there was no telling when we would take off. I called my mom, telling her to wait for my phone call; it might be hours before we left JFK.

Surprisingly, they started boarding my flight within 45 minutes. I called my mom and told her I would see her soon. I walked through the jetway and felt the floor move, akin to what I imagine an earthquake might feel like; I had to get my balance and thought maybe I was just dizzy from lack of sleep.

When I boarded the plane, I instantly felt the intensity. Passengers had their headphones on, staring at the TV screens in front of them; all had the same expression, the same furrowed brows. I found my seat and turned on my screen to search for the image that captivated their attention. One of the Twin Towers was on fire. The headline across the screen read World Trade Center Disaster. Then, CNN reported that it wasn’t a fire but a plane that had crashed into the tower. We collectively sucked in the air on our own plane. What was happening? I looked around. People were nervously questioning what they saw clearly before them. Then I heard the reporter say it was unclear how it happened but nothing is confirming that it was a terrorist attack. That is until we all watched the second plane crash into the other tower. I heard yelling all around me, and then the announcement that we had to get off the plane; all flights were being grounded.

We had to get our luggage from baggage claim and wait for further instructions. I had five suitcases I had to manage by myself. I couldn’t rent a cart; I had no money or credit cards with me. I carried what I could and pushed the rest until I found empty seats in a waiting area by a bathroom. I tried to call my mom and my husband; the lines were busy. I waited until someone sat down and then asked if she would watch my stuff so I could go to the bathroom. When I sat back down, another woman was standing close by, talking on the phone; one of the lucky ones who got through to her family. Then, an airport employee told us we had to leave the airport; they were evacuating the entire building.

I started to panic. I asked him where we were supposed to go. He told me to go find a hotel room because no one was getting out of the city tonight.

“I can’t get a hotel room. I don’t have money. I don’t have credit cards.” He looked at me in disbelief, shrugged, and walked away.

The woman on the phone put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I have money. I have credit cards. You can stick with me. I’ll take care of you.”

I thought I misunderstood what she said. I just looked at her in shock. I tried to tell her that I couldn’t accept that kind of generosity from a stranger. She said, “You’re my daughter’s age. I’m not going to let you be in this city alone. It’s just money.” I started sobbing. She hung up with her daughter and hugged me. She started crying.

The woman who watched my luggage came over. She was from England. Her husband joined us. They said, “We’ll stick together and take care of each other through this.” Each of them took one of my suitcases and helped me exit the building.

JetBlue flight attendants were waiting outside for us with coffee, donuts, sandwiches, and water. They told us to wait there. They were renting a bus to take us to a hotel. There were no more rooms available, so they rented one of the convention rooms, filling it with spare beds and cots. While we waited outside, we befriended another woman who was by herself. She was originally from the Bronx, trying to get back home to Florida. Everyone in her family was either a police officer or a firefighter in the Bronx. She was devastated; she couldn’t get a hold of anyone to see if her brothers were okay.

We got on the bus and the driver began the tricky maneuvers to get through the City to the hotel. Roads were closed. Traffic was backed up. Smoke billowed in the distance. Sirens blared all around us. While on the bus my phone rang. My mother had finally gotten through. We cried when we heard each other’s voices. My husband called. I cried again.

At the hotel they brought us to our “room” for the night. My friends claimed five cots for us and put my suitcases by a cot that was next to a bed. There was a man asleep, snoring loudly, on that bed already. He was big and hairy and his arm was dangling over my cot. I closed my eyes and prayed that God would get me out of there before I had to sleep in that cot next to that man.

The five of us went to the community area to watch the news reports. We hadn’t heard anything since we left the plane. The stories were devastating. We watched as police officers and firefighters ran into buildings while everyone else ran out. Our Bronx girl began to sob. She still hadn’t heard from anyone in her family. We pulled her away and had dinner with JetBlue vouchers.

While we were eating a flight attendant asked if I were interested in taking a bus to Rochester. They were going to gather all the people who needed to get to Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo and charter a bus. “It may take fourteen hours to get home, but you won’t be stuck here,” she said. I thanked God for His answer to my prayer. I would not have to sleep next to that hairy man, and I would be on my way back to my daughters and mother. My adopted mom said she would go too. She had relatives in Rochester. She was supposed to go home to Florida, but she’d rather be with family as well.

We said goodbye to our new friends and wished them luck and gave an extra hug to our Bronx girl who was waiting for the roads to open up so she could go home.

My adopted mom and I sat on the bus together. We shared stories about our lives; we slept on each other’s shoulders; we hugged when we arrived in Rochester; yet, somehow we slipped away from each other without exchanging numbers.

All four of them disappeared from my life. I can remember each of their faces, but I can’t remember the names I thought would be etched in my heart forever.

When I remember 9/11, I remember those people who would not let me stand alone that day. I owe them my gratitude. I pray that they are doing well and living blessed lives. I also pray, that somehow, this post finds them, so that they know how much they meant to me.

9/11

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5 Responses to My September 11, 2001

  1. Jamie Pomerhn says:

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard this story! You’ve made me cry once again, my friend. I was in college in Philadelphia at the time. I remember calling home and crying to my dad, asking him what would happen if there was an attack in Philadelphia. He said, “I’ll come get you.” I said, “But what if you can’t get to me? What if all of the roads are closed?” And he said, “Jamie, you don’t have to worry, because no matter what I have to do, I’ll always come and get you.” And I believed him. Still do.

  2. Erin says:

    What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Ana G. says:

    Pauline, you are such a great author, that even though I recall 9/11 and our phone conversations and picking you up after the bus brought you to Rochester, I still cried my eyes out reading this article. Thank you for reminding all of us that 9/11 was so real, at times I still have a tough time believing and understanding why the USA was hated by those terrorist to do what they did and thank God for keeping us safe as it could have been worse. Love you. Mom

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