Today is a heavy day for many. I’m getting ready to head to Pepperdine University to visit the 9/11 Memorial and pray.
I will never forget my close call that day. My children ask many questions, and my oldest knows how lucky we were to secure seats at on the first AA flight out of JFK. There are no ordinary moments.
Here is my family’s story…
It’s so hard to believe that so many years have passed since that horrific morning when the pilot’s voice suddenly came over the intercom and abruptly informed us that our flight was landing immediately. He offered no explanation. It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and we were somewhere over the heartland of America. I was a new mother with my infant daughter, Neriah, in my lap and her father at my side, irritated that our flight from New York to Los Angeles was running into yet another delay.
Garth was a surgeon with a busy schedule, and we were already a day late getting back home because of delays on our scheduled flight the day before, when bad weather and then a medical emergency on board (a passenger suffered a heart attack) forced us to wait so long that the crew exceeded their maximum number of hours per shift and had to be grounded.
We had ended up stranded on the tarmac for eight grueling hours at JFK International Airport.Garth had spent the down time on his cellphone, determined to book us on another flight as soon as possible. His obsessive attention to details and need to be in control at all times were qualities that served him well in the operating room, but wreaked havoc on our marriage. I was always the mellow, go-with-the-flow type of personality, and I frankly didn’t see what his big problem was: The airline would surely rebook us on the next available flight once we were herded off the plane and back into the terminal at JFK. Garth insisted on doing it himself.
Finally, he victoriously announced that he had secured us the last available seats on American Airlines Flight 210, leaving JFK at 7 a.m. the next morning.
As it turned out, he was saving us a mere two hours: The airline ended up booking passengers from our stranded flight onto one departing for L.A. at 9 a.m.
Now, we were suddenly grounded again. I assumed there was some mechanical malfunction that would be repaired soon enough, or at worst, that we’d have to switch planes after making our unscheduled landing in Kansas City. I remember the lawyer across the aisle from us using his credit card to use the phone on the seatback in front of him to call a friend, who told him a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. The friend was a notorious prankster, the lawyer said; it was probably just a bad joke.
When we disembarked and got inside the airport, though, it was as if we had walked into the panicked-crowd scene from a horror movie. Cell phones were ringing in a dissonant chorus, and people were weeping and frantically shouting to be heard over each other: “What’s happening? Are you OK? Where are you? No, no, I’m alright…” My phone rang, and a friend up early in California filled us in.
As the nightmarish details began to unfold, we learned that the 9 a.m. flight we would have been on, had Garth not been so maddeningly proactive, had never actually left the ground. Four Middle Eastern male passengers on board had been acting strangely, prompting a security alert. The men slipped away, but were later arrested and determined to be part of the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks. The jetliner was supposed to have been yet another deadly missile full of human sacrifices that morning. I tried to push the chilling thought out of my mind.
Garth remained calm and authoritative, marshalling friends and family back home to start working the phones to help us find a way home. No rental cars were to be had in Kansas City, and hotel rooms were all booked, as well. Someone finally tracked down an SUV nearly three hours away, in Salina, Kansas, but we had no way of getting there. Eventually, we lined up a car service and driver for some exhorbitant fee. I don’t even remember whether we picked up our luggage; I didn’t even care. All I wanted was to get out of the airport, away from any airplanes, and just keep my baby safe and get us back home to our loved ones. Those words – safe, home – seemed inseparable now, and I yearned for that familiar, comforting space more than I ever had before or since.
The drive across country was surreal. Geographically, our starting point was the very heart of the country, its center, its core. There was such a sad emptiness to it, a hurt you could feel like a wound, as we drove across deserted highways and stopped along the way in places that seemed now like ghost towns, with everyone huddled shellshocked inside. We had only AM radio to listen to on the way, the news crackling forth in disembodied bulletins and updates, before reception would be lost and we would travel for endless minutes or hours without hearing more. I don’t remember our conversation, if there was much at all. My baby felt like my only connection to anything real anymore. It was as if we were in this fragile bubble, carried along by a soundless wind. What I remember most was the emptiness.
As we drove along, the flat prairies of Kansas gave way to the majestic Rockies in Colorado, where we found lodging for the night Eagle, a town whose very name evoked such feelings of pride and sorrow. From the cool, piney mountains we dropped to hot, barren desert, crossing my native Arizona until finally, two days and a lifetime later, we reached California.
My baby girl is 16 now, an eleventh-grader with three younger siblings. The world they are growing up in is already far different from the one I knew not only as a child, but as a young adult, as well. Their father is now my ex-husband, still a perfectionist, and the personality traits that so annoyed me quite possibly saved our lives.
The country was in a state of shock. So were we considering the moments that may have changed our lives forever. I have always believed in fate and will never understand why so many innocent lives were lost that day. I felt so lucky, but the same emotion was aching in my stomach thinking about those who were not.
Within a moment, and as a result of choices made or not made, our lives could have been very different. If we had not secured those seats on the 7 am flight and instead had been passengers on the 9 am flight and the flight had taken off…
Enjoy every day, do everything you want to, and know that “there are NO ordinary moments”, Dan Millman, The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior.
As we mark this somber anniversary today, as a nation, as mothers, my heart goes out to those hurt both directly and indirectly by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Let’s all hold our children close today.
This blog was inspired by Dr.Garth Fisher’s post