In memory of the day that marked the end of life as I knew it and my flight attendant career , I offer an adaptation (pulled from frantic writings) of my personal account. This was written to reassure family and friends of my safety, to reach out to those I hadn’t heard from, and to process the day’s events in some way that made sense, if only chronologically.
September 13, 2001
Tuesday and Beyond
On Tuesday I arrived at the Continental Training Center across the river from lower Manhattan at 8:30 a.m. My three hour drive from Albany that morning was basked in sunlight. Bands of fog, like webs of spun gold, stretched between the trees. By the time I reached the skyline of New York, it shimmered with the warm hues of sunrise against a crisp blue sky. I cursed myself for leaving my camera on the kitchen counter.
Upon my arrival, I sat in the Continental Training Center’s cafe reviewing for the FAA’s annual training. As I tried to recall things not published in our manual, things like weapons identification and hijacking procedures, people approached the windows with urgency saying, “You can’t see it from here.” I asked what they were looking for and couldn’t believe what I was told.
I joined them and we ran to the nearest glass walled classroom. Others were filing in fast. From our position just across the river from the World Trade Center we faced the horrific sight of smoke and flames coming from several of the tower’s upper floors. Snippets of hushed conversation revealed the general and naive assumption that this plane crash was an accident. A dismissive fellow said, “Don’t worry. The Trade Center was built to withstand that kind of shock.” Yeah, and the people? I shot him a look of disgust.
The flight attendant in me felt an immediate sense of loss for the crew and the passengers. It took a slow moment to process of the scope of the tragedy, for the sense of loss to extend toward the people in that burning building. When I became aware of my own insensitivity, my heart flooded with guilt.
A television adjacent to the windows aired the news in Spanish through grainy bands of reception. Someone in the room was interpreting poorly. A plane hit the WTC… accident… building on fire. It was nothing I didn’t already know by looking at the scene. My chest clenched with frustration. I wanted information. I wanted answers.
My hands and knees were trembling when someone yelled, “There’s another plane!” My eyes shifted slightly to the right. Locking onto the oncoming jet, its trajectory automatically computed in my mind. My left hand, with a will of its own, shot up as if to say “Stop!” Impotent, impotent hand.
A picture etched in my memory, one of that hole engulfed in flames where the plane entered or perhaps (and I still can’t make sense of it) where the side had blown out. Mine is nothing like any news camera angle I’ve seen. I’ve spent hours watching perpetual loops playing across every TV channel trying to find the perfect match. I don’t know why I need to find it but I do. I still continue to search.
After the second strike, I heard someone yell, “The plane is burning inside.” Several people dug for their cameras. I reached for the space in my handbag where mine typically resides. In that single moment, my disappointment for forgetting it mingled with the sour taste of shame for wanting to preserve this moment forever. My thoughts did battle. How could these people! How could I?
The woman next to me said in disbelief, “Maybe that plane couldn’t see through the smoke from the first one.” It made no sense. Nothing made sense, not to me, not to anyone.
Because those moments were inextricably fused in the heat of the situation, I learned just today that I had left a frantic voicemail with my friend Erin as the second plane hit. She recalled me saying, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my GOD! NO! Oh Jesus…” Click.
I don’t remember being on the phone.
I ran out of the room and tried repeatedly to call my mother. The line was perpetually busy. Stupidly, I imagined her sitting in front of the television in her apartment six blocks from the Empire State Building chatting away with a friend. A flash of anger charged through me. The more desperately I needed to talk with her, and the more I hit redial just to hear a busy signal, the more out of control I felt. Of course my mother is smarter than to keep her lines tied up. It didn’t occur to me until a short while later that the lines were jammed. Selfish, selfish girl.
I wanted to talk with someone I knew yet I was surrounded by a mixture of hysterical strangers or people who were entirely too calm. I never felt more alone, disconnected, scared, and helpless.
I called my friend Sandy and couldn’t calmly tell her co-workers who I was, “Um, Sandy is going to be my roommate, I’m in New Jersey. I need to talk to her.” I was shaking and choking on sobs. I think I spit out that I had just watched the WTC in person. There was no inference of understanding. A suspicious voice replied with caution, “Um, Sandy isn’t available. Can I have her call you back?” I hung up.
My father wasn’t home. I left no message, had no words.
I dialed another friend. Robbin. I reached her hard-of-hearing father who all too slowly explained why she wasn’t home. She had taken her daughter shopping at the mall for a pair of new sneakers. He ended with “So, when will you fly out to see us?”
“I don’t know. I’ll call back later.”
“I can’t hear you, honey. Call back later.”
I called my machine for messages. My mother’s voice was there. Continental wouldn’t tell her where I was in the name of security. While they reassured her that Continental’s planes were not involved, she knew I sometimes traveled through partner perks on other airlines. Her final words on the tape were “call me.”
I dialed again. Busy.
The training staff rounded us up for an announcement. Talking. Frantic talking everywhere. I remember yelling “Shut the **** up” in a highly unprofessional yet effective manner. The trainers nodded something between disapproval and gratitude.
They had just heard from Continental’s headquarters and were asked to have us stay put. They wanted to bus us to Newark Airport to help accommodate thousands of grounded passengers. We were, after all, on the clock. “Sit tight until we know if airport access is even possible.” I later found out that the airport was evacuated.
Hotel rooms were suggested for the night. We should book before they were gone. I added my name to the list.
Another man entered the room with a piece of paper. Finally. Information. One plane was an American Airlines flight out of Boston. The other was still unclear.
Seven to ten people lined up at each of four payphones. I overheard a clean-cut twenty-something explain to the girl behind him that he was trying to reach his father in the burning tower. He turned away when the secretary answered. Some words. He hung up with a look of deep concern. “She said that people are evacuating. She is leaving. She hoped I was her daughter. My father isn’t there. She doesn’t know where he is.”
Back in the classroom, trainers passed out water and single serving pretzels. Ridiculous, but it was something. I was in and out of the room, unsure of where to go or what to do. Entering once more, I heard the news. People were jumping.
I imagined the heat, having to make the choice to leap or burn. What kind of choice is that?
I ran into a hall filled with so many people and still felt alone. Several women curled up in armchairs and cried. Others listened to snippets of their cell phone conversations in horror. I stepped over them on my way to… where?
As the elevator doors opened, two young girls unburied their faces from the others’ shoulder. They were in a fit of tears. I entered. One the way down, the brunette said that she and the redhead had rebooked their friends from an oversold Continental flight to the American flight out of Boston. They were supposed to meet at South Street Seaport for dinner after class. She didn’t seem to be talking to me so much as convincing herself of their loss. An unwarranted but very real sense of guilt had washed over each of their mourning faces.
Alone, I entered the glass enclosed tunnel to the parking garage. Through the windows I saw a column of smoke and the outline of the building. So much was burning. Down to the base? How?… As I understand it now, the first tower had collapsed. I had never entertained the thought of it being gone, just on fire. Looking directly at the destruction, my mind still couldn’t embrace it.
A helicopter hovered overhead. I crouched behind a green pick-up in the parking garage. The last I heard we were a nation under attack… all aircraft had been grounded… terrorists may be using remote controls.
Who was above me? Us? Them?
In a panic, I left more hysterical, muttering messages on Erin’s voicemail. I threw my address book on the cement peeling through pages for anyone who would be home. Marty, Todd, Deb and Dana. My cell cut out and came back. Every line now came up busy.
In desperation, I thought of Tom, my ex-boyfriend. Being so recently exed, asking him to vacate the apartment just last month, I didn’t have his new number. I called his father to get it. Tom’s father had to fire up his extremely slow computer to get the number off of an email. I was on speaker phone. I HATE speaker phones. I tried to joke with no success, “Don’t you keep a REAL address book?” Tom’s poor father was taken aback. My tone just couldn’t muster any lightening effect. For that I felt awful.
“Is Tom in New York City?” he asked.
He assumed I was in Albany watching everything on TV. He must have been scared out of his mind thinking his son was at a rehearsal in New York. It took a few attempts to clarify that circumstances were reversed. “Tom is in Albany, I am in New Jersey. I need to reach him.”
There were no windows between me and the scene now. More helicopters circled over my head and then disappeared. Sirens were sounding in several directions. What was going to happen next? What I gleaned from the news replayed in my head. Suicide bombers… hijacking… Was all of NYC under attack? I froze behind the truck under four floors of steel and cement.
Sitting crossed legged on the concrete between the truck and the wall, I finally reached my ex. He filled me in on the Pentagon and the unaccounted for planes in the air. I just kept pleading for an answer, “What the **** is going on? This is so ****ing BIG!”
“Breathe. Calm Down. You okay? The Pentagon was hit too. All they keep saying is ‘America is under attack,’ but not much else.”
I rocked back and forth hugging my knees like a scared child. “Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus.”
I am not the religious type.
There was a long silence between us. I eventually looked up through my tears. A new plume of smoke. “Wait. Where did it go? Where is it?!?”
Nothing was more sobering than hearing “It’s gone, Kim. It’s just gone.”
All those people in one fell swoop. All those souls. Unfathomable.
Gibberish. That was all I could produce. In hysterics, I relived coming in via Rt. 3 and how, near Giants’ Stadium, the view of Manhattan was glazed in gold light so glorious that I wished I had film. As I calmed myself, I realized that it would have been my last picture of the unaltered skyline, an opportunity sorely missed. I noted the failed and ironic plan to review hijacking procedures on this particular day. I would have gone on but, just then, five people quickly fled from the training center. I followed their lead. I had to move, to do something.
Where do I go? Tom said the tunnels and bridges were closed so I couldn’t get to my mother’s. I frantically searched the garage in a hurry to nowhere. “Where are the ***ing stairs? I have to get out of here!”
The stairs were right behind me. Concernedy, Tom made me stay on the line until I found my car.
The roads were swamped and I finally got my father on the phone. f***ing @$$hole!!!” I could feel my father flinch. Some guy had passed me at high speed on the left-hand shoulder. Sirens went off. Flashing lights.
“This is crazy! Where is it safe? They hijacked a plane to PITTSBURGH! What the HELL is in PITTSBURGH???”
Misinformation or misunderstanding, it didn’t matter. My father registered nothing I said. He, like Tom’s father, thought I had seen it all on TV. He wanted to tell me about the geese he saw in the park that morning. I hung up.
People on cell phones drove by, some crying like me. Small accidents and fender benders went unacknowledged. The definition of lanes meant nothing.
It took a half hour before I reached clearer roads. Distracted by the haze clouding my mind, I missed 287 and had to circle around. What had been at my back was now in my face, the hideous sight of a burning skyline minus two towers. Smoke. Everywhere. Erin called from her cell while waiting to hear on her land line from two city friends, people who worked in the towers. Worked. Past tense.
Gassing up at the nearest rest area, people flocked to pay phones. Newscasts were filled with images of plane crashes. The announcer said the first plane hit 4 hours ago. 4 hours? I was stuck in that first minute. He then said that the planes struck within 5 minutes of each other. 5 minutes. Infinity.
Still wearing my Continental I.D., I got a few odd looks before getting back in the car. Driving as Howard Stern clammored to incite anger, retaliation, war, I jammed my finger into a random button. Shut that freak up.
That’s how my father heard the news – on the radio. I learned later that he thought it was another War of the Worlds. My frantic message was his first clue that this was very, very real. Even then it didn’t sink in.
Life in the streets of Albany went on as usual. Cops along 87 looked for speeding drivers. People laughed on the corner of Madison and Pearl. I wanted to scream “Don’t you people have ANY idea???” It was as if nothing had happened.
Sandy left work early to communicate with my mother. She then took me to Washington Park when I returned home. The gardens there were in full bloom, blossoms worshipping the sun and sky. The towers of Empire Plaza stood solid and white against deep blue. This place was untouched. I felt suspended, waiting for the Corning Tower to catch ablaze too.
I went to SUNY Albany yesterday morning where they held a memorial and a unity march. Erin took me. We only caught the tail end as students, faculty and locals sang “America the Beautiful.” A single tear streamed down my cheek. I shook. Unable to sing. Coming unglued.
Erin quickly escorted me to the health center and found a crisis counselor. Skeptical, I went inside. “I’ve never seen a counselor so I don’t know where to start…” and then my mouth couldn’t run through everything fast enough.
I was the first to have seen the attack and come back. Most people did it in reverse, hearing the news on campus and leaving for the city to be with their families. As more people return, SUNY plans to match us up even though I’m not a student there. I think that might be good, although I’m feeling less need to talk at the moment.
That night, my friends met at the Lark Tavern to debrief. They expressed relief having heard from loved ones, although one of those loved ones was nearly crushed by a falling jet engine in flames. As they quietly and personally celebrated their good fortune, I was inundated by images on the wide screen TV. It was too big. I was too close. I went home.
Later, planes flew over Albany. I sat up. Who is that? Aren’t all air carriers supposed to be grounded. Military? Enemy? I didn’t sleep.
I thought, my job is so screwed. I had no idea what the airline was doing for itself or what it planned on doing with me. After two days of voicemail tag, I got through to my supervisor, Joanna. The most reassuring words I heard were not to think about coming back yet. Just keep in touch. I wonder how long I can keep that up.
The FAA’s position has always been that certain procedures and codes can halt a hijacking. Training films have always portrayed crashes as mechanical accidents. We studied previous mistakes and learned to survive from them. I prepared mentally at every take-off and landing. That’s my job. If your a flight attendant, you know what I mean. Terrorism was only ever at the very back of my mind.
Many questions nag at me now. How do you keep this from happening on any flight? How do you combat a suicide mission? If you can’t use reason, the only other option is force. Is this my new job? How do I do it? Will I be able?
I can no longer step into that uniform and carry the responsibility of what wearing it means. I had the hardest time just taking it out of my bag. The stripes hang in my closet and that’s where they’ll remain for now.
My father says, “Get back on the horse” but a horse isn’t threatened by terrorists. Think about that, tough guy. The rest of my family isn’t as cut and dried. They’re scared to see me go back. It makes me feel much less stupid for being so afraid.
I was scheduled to fly into London today. I can’t be more thankful that flights world-wide are canceled. I’m on call for the next three days. If they call, they’ll just have to find some one else. I need time to think. I’ve heard others are calling in sick. I might have to do the same.
How can I believe this is over? Last night my heart jumped into my throat as the Empire State building was evacuated for a bomb threat. Phone lines to NYC were jammed again. After 20 redials, my mother answered. They called off the evacuation right after that.
Not to be so untrusting but, well, I’m untrusting. I don’t trust airport security measures and reports of improvement. They can’t fix things that fast. And who wants to man the planes? Contractually, we aren’t allowed to speak about airline matters, the news can’t cover those who cannot speak, so I have no word on how the others in my field feel. I wonder.
My story is just one point of view. Everyone has been, is and will be affected in different ways. I imagine the terror of climbing through rubble to walk down flights of flooded stairwells in a collapsing building, those people on the plane, the flight attendants who had their throats slit. So many stories. All I know is that talking about it both helps and exhausts me. If you were involved in any way and haven’t unloaded your feelings, find someone to listen. Even if you weren’t in it, talk. Write me, call me, talk to somebody… and most of all, don’t think anything you feel is invalid.
Peace, health, safety, and much love to everyone. I’m going to go update my address book now. I hadn’t realized how out of date it was until Tuesday.