My Airplane Ride on September 11, 2001
It was a peaceful morning. I awoke with a sense of anticipation -- it was that feeling of serenity that you have as you prepare to take a long-anticipated journey. My boss, Tim, and I would be flying to Chicago that morning to be part of an Internet evangelism consultation. As the Director of Programming for CBN.com I had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of September 11, 2001.
The night before I had plugged in my cell phone to recharge it for the trip. I placed it on the window ledge in the living room so that I would remember to pick it up on the way out the door the next morning. The stars still filled the blackened sky when Tim arrived. The Virginia air was already warming -- it would be a beautiful day.
Still rubbing sleep from my eyes I boarded the plane at Williamsburg Airport and settled into my seat. It was just after 6 a.m. The first sliver of turquoise-colored sky began to inch upward from above the tree line at the edge of the runway. I picked up the in-flight magazine and thumbed through it for a moment. I looked up to see the other passengers brushing past me in the aisle. Suddenly my eyes caught the gaze of a young man of middle-eastern descent. He wore a long robe and a turban on his head. Part of my job includes staying up to date on current events in the news. For my entire adult life I had followed the turbulent events in the Middle East. A friend of mine was killed by terrorists when the Marine Corps barracks were bombed in 1983. Since that time I had been very aware of the threat of terrorism. When this man walked down the aisle of that aircraft my first thought was, "Could this person be a terrorist?" Later my boss told me that he had the very same thought.
The flight to Atlanta was without incident, and we arrived just after 7 a.m. with a layover before our flight to Chicago. Tim and I grabbed a light breakfast and discussed the upcoming meeting before we boarded the second plane and settled in for the flight. A passenger had left a copy of that morning's New York Times on my seat, so I decided to thumb through it. One of the headlines was of the assassination of Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, a veteran commander in the 1979-1989 war against Soviet occupation. In the months leading up to September 11 a confrontation had been growing between the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan and the United Nations who demanded the deportation of Osama bin Laden to face charges of masterminding the bombing of two U.S. embassies in 1998.
I had seen videotape of bin Laden and his terror training camps in Afghanistan. I remembered the chilling scenes of the terrorists breaking into rooms and shooting mannequins with crosses and stars of David painted onto them. The Taliban had made international headlines earlier in the year when they destroyed two immense, 2,000-year-old images of Buddha carved into the side of an Afghan mountain. The New York Times speculated that bin Laden and the Taliban were responsible for the death of this Northern Alliance military leader. "I wonder how this assassination will affect the United States," I thought as I finished the article. Little did I realize bin Laden's master plan, of which this assassination was just a part.
As I looked out the window over the patchwork of farms in America's heartland I had no conception of the horror that my fellow countrymen were facing at that very moment. When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. I was chatting with Tim about strategy for CBN.com.
When United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the south tower at 500 miles an hour at 9:03 a.m. I was marveling at the beautiful farmland laid out in neat blocks of various shades of green and gold below us.
American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m. as we began our descent into Chicago.
We landed at Midway Airport with a tremendous jolt. The runway at the smaller of Chicago's airports is shorter, and so as soon as we touched down the pilot reversed the engines and slammed on the brakes. As the airplane turned I noticed the concrete wall at the end of the runway and realized why the pilot was so eager to stop the plane.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a Chicago police car racing down an adjacent runway with its blue lights flashing. As we taxied toward the airport I saw another police cruiser with its lights flashing sitting in front of a gate next to the road. My first thought was that perhaps this was a local drug bust or crime of some sort.
Out in the middle of the airfield our plane suddenly screeched to a halt. Within moments the pilot spoke over the intercom. "We will need to stay here on the tarmac for a moment as we wait for the airport to open a gate for us." I thought this was strange, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the police cars.
A few seconds later the captain gave the passengers permission to use their cell phones and laptop computers. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that I had left my cell phone charging on the windowsill at home. Suddenly a voice from behind me spoke in a tone and volume that sounded like he was making an announcement. "Terrorists have hit the World Trade Center with an airplane." Throughout the fuselage passengers were turning on their cell phones and receiving the news that was now being broadcast around the world. Instantly the aircraft was abuzz with conversation.
"They also hit the second tower," someone cried out. "The Pentagon has been attacked," another voice said above the din of messages.
"What is this obsession with the World Trade Center?" I wondered as I thought back to the failed bombing of the twin towers in 1993.
"Radical Muslim terrorists." The thought was immediate. "Osama bin Laden." The thought was not far behind.
Like a spinning rolodex my mind flashed back to major terrorist attacks in recent years: the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the suspicious crash of an Egyptian Airlines plane in 1999, the explosion at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American soldiers I caught the eyes of my boss. We both just shook our heads in disbelief.
One thing I knew for sure, I didn't want to be sitting in an airplane out in the middle of the tarmac at that moment. I needed to call home to let my family know I was all right. I needed to get to a television set to get some details. I needed to call CBN to see what was being done on the Web site. I mentally kicked myself for leaving my cell phone at home.
After a few minutes the plane eased forward and we pulled into a hastily cleared gate. We were met at the door by a member of the military holding a riffle who was allowing passengers off the plane, and keeping others from getting back on.
We hurried to the nearest television set and witnessed for the first time the images of the burning World Trade Center towers. "Look at that," I exclaimed out loud. "Can you believe that? They're both burning." A woman standing in front of me turned and declared, "That is video tape that they're playing. The first tower has already collapsed." I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. Shaking my head I lifted up a silent prayer for the people in harm's way, for the families of the victims, for the President, and for America.
Turning to my boss I declared, "Our lives have just changed forever. It will never be the same."
Rushing down the hall we came to a bank of telephones where we each called our families to let them know we had landed safely. As soon as Tim finished talking to his wife he turned to me and declared, "We have to get back to Virginia Beach." As a producer for The 700 Club, as well as Executive Director of CBN's Internet department, Tim knew that he needed to return to CBN to help in any way that he could -- and he would need my assistance.
Over the airport's intercom we had just learned that all flights were now cancelled, and then the TV news announced the suspension of all rail and bus travel as well. The country was in instant lock-down mode.
"We've got to get a rental car," Tim said as we both instinctively raced down the hallway. Nearly everyone in the airport must have had the same idea because the rental corridor was filled with anxious travelers. We knew almost immediately that finding a rental car at the airport was going to be impossible. Tim had gone to school at Wheaton College, so he knew the area and still had some friends in Chicago. He suspected that one of them might be able to give us a ride to a rental facility on the outskirts of town. I remained in line as Tim ran to a payphone to try to secure some transportation to get us back to CBN.
The line never moved an inch during the several minutes that Tim was away, confirming my suspicion that all the rental cars were quickly taken. Tim returned to tell me that the nearest car that he could get was in Lansing, on the other side of Lake Michigan. He wondered out loud if he could find anyone that could take us that far away. The telephone banks were a madhouse, and so we decided that the best thing we could do was to get to our hotel on the other side of town near O'Hare Airport. There we could have a safe place to stay while we decided how we were going to get home.
At that moment in Erie, Pennsylvania, my parents turned on the television. After watching the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower my father -- who knew I was flying to Chicago that day -- turned to my mother and said, "We're driving to Chicago today."
As Tim and I made our way out of the airport to look for a shuttle to O'Hare a man came on the intercom and announced that the airport was being evacuated. Suddenly there was a rush of humanity streaming out of the building behind us. We got in line for a limousine ride as crowds of people pressed in around us to board the steady stream of buses, limos, and taxicabs that paraded in front of us. Security guards, police officers, and airport personnel corralled the mob into neat rows and directed them onto the proper vehicles. Again the intercom announced in a stern tone, "The airport is being evacuated. Please move quickly and orderly out the exits." "My God," I prayed, "I ask you to assign angels around us, and cover Tim and I in the blood of Jesus."
When our limo van arrived we paid the fare and climbed aboard. The radio was on full volume with the news cutting back and forth between the local station and a feed from Peter Jennings and ABC News. The local announcer read in rapid fire a list of orders from Mayor Daley. "Downtown Chicago has been evacuated. Please leave the inner city in an orderly fashion. All public transportation in and out of downtown has been halted. The Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building are being evacuated. The police and emergency services workers are at a state of high alert."
After several minutes the radio station went back to national coverage with Peter Jennings. It was at that moment that we learned that another airliner had been hijacked and was missing somewhere in the sky. Suddenly evacuating the airport made perfect sense, but we were still idling in the street right next to Midway. I couldn't wait to get on the road toward our hotel.
I was sitting next to the window on the front bench seat of this eleven-passenger van, and Tim was sitting next to me. Just as we were preparing to leave a middle-eastern man climbed into the limo and sat down next to Tim. Though I knew it was not fair to judge this man, the paranoia of the moment made his presence somewhat unwelcome. I continued to silently pray and listen to the radio as the driver pulled out into traffic. Little did I know that this twenty-minute drive would be one of the most frightening parts of our day.
As we sped down the highway Peter Jennings announced that no one had heard from the President in quite some time. After hearing the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush had boarded Air Force One with news that his plane was itself a target of the terrorists. With a tone of alarm Peter Jennings declared on this live broadcast, "Where is the President? The country needs to know where he is!"
Just as I was processing this information the van started swerving back and forth on the highway. With alarm Tim and I looked at each other and then at the driver, who slowly regained control of the vehicle. Moments later the van began slowing down in the middle of the freeway as cars sped past on the right and the left. I could see that the driver's eyes were drooping, and it was obvious that he was fighting sleep. "Hey!" yelled the passenger in the front seat. "Are you o.k.?" The driver shook his head and declared that he was fine as he hit the accelerator.
Within a few minutes the driver again began to nod his head as the van swerved in and out of the lane. The front seat passenger blew his top, only seconds before Tim and I were ready to grab the steering wheel. "What are you doing?" he shouted. "You're going to get us all killed. Do you need me to drive this thing?"
"No, no, I'm fine," the driver responded.
"Wake up," the man yelled back. "I want to get to the airport alive." Tim and I exchanged worried looks as my now not-so-silent prayer continued. I don't think I was ever so relieved as when we arrived at O'Hare and got out of that van. But the final plane was still unaccounted for, and I was now standing inside one of the world's busiest airports. I wanted to get to the hotel as soon as possible.
Inside the airport we found a bank of telephones where Tim worked to find us a ride to Lansing. I decided to call my parents in Erie, Pennsylvania, to let them know I was all right, but also to see if they could come and pick us up if Tim's friends weren't available. My folks agreed to help us if we needed it, and I told them I would call them back when we knew what we could arrange. After several minutes Tim finally connected with one of his friends, but he could only take us as far as Gary, Indiana, just south of Chicago. No one else was answering their telephones, and so I called my parents again to see if they could come and meet us in Gary and take us to Lansing. "We're on our way," my father assured me without a moment of hesitation. They gave me their cell phone number and told me to call from wherever we were dropped off so that they could meet us. Breathing a sigh of relief I told Tim that we had a ride to Lansing.
After touching base with our staff at CBN, Tim and I crossed the street to wait for his friend to pick us up at the Hilton Hotel. Inside the lobby we saw for the first time the videotape of the second airliner hitting the World Trade Center. We witnessed the crumbling of the second tower. And we learned that the final plane had crashed somewhere outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Immediately I thought of my brother who lives in Pittsburgh, and lifted up a prayer for his safety. Later my mother told me that when she finally reached him my brother said to her, "You don't have to worry about me, Mom. I know I'll be with Jesus when I die." His words of faith gave me peace in the midst of the turmoil of that terrible day.
After an hour Tim's friend from college arrived and drove us south to Gary where he dropped us off at a colorful truck stop -- a slice of pure Americana, straight out of a Charlie Daniels' music video. Surrounded by good ole' boys wearing jeans, flannel shirts, and baseball caps I felt as well-protected at that moment as I would if a platoon of Marines were my personal bodyguards. It was the first time I felt truly safe since landing in Chicago -- it was a good feeling. This truck stop had everything a traveler could want, from a gift shop, to a pool hall, to a video arcade, to hot showers. And the smorgasbord of food at the diner was out of this world. With an air of comfortable tackiness, this dingy but delightful establishment was the perfect place to reflect on the horrific events of the day.
Tim and I took turns going up to the television lounge on the second floor while the other remained on the lookout for my parents down in the diner. The room was configured like a mini-theater with a large-screen television on the wall and several rows of padded folding chairs with an aisle down the middle. Watching the news coverage unfolding on the large screen in front of me I was both amused and comforted by the verbal responses of the truckers. "Load my rig down with TNT, baby, and I will drive it right into Osama bin Laden's tent," one grizzled man shouted to the applause of the others. "We can't let this go unanswered," another man shouted. "We need to hit 'em back, and hit 'em hard."
At the same time my heart ached for the family members who were desperately searching for their loved ones. Like shell-shocked soldiers, family members held up la