Thursday, September 11, 2008
This morning as I worked a 757 to Chicago I remembered the morning 7 years ago when I was working a 757 (maybe the same one) to Denver. I didn't have my cell phone with me, it was in the car charging. After all, I was only doing a turn (airline speak for an out and back in one day trip) and I was going to be back before school let out so I wouldn't need it anyway. The Captain called and let us know that a plane had hit the World Trade Center but he didn't know anything else, but to be aware of anything strange. They even thought it could have been a private aircraft accident. Then he called back to let us know that another plane had hit the tower and that we were to look out for possibilities of having hijackers on our very own plane. No details were known except that the rumor was that the first one belonged to American Airlines. Chills went down our spines as we walked through the aisles looking over our passengers. We were headed to Denver which was supposed to be our destination anyway, and we knew that our plane as well as all the other planes wouldn't be leaving again at least for awhile that day. We were told that we might be on the ramp for awhile as they didn't know how many airplanes were going to be at the gates, we might have to wait for them to unload one to get us in. It was incredibly scary to have to look out for something that you didn't know what you were looking for.
Up until then our training on hijackings had been pretty much based on the usual "take me somewhere and then I'll let you go" of bygone days. At that moment we knew that probably wasn't the case from that point forward. Obviously the training hadn't taken this kind of thing into account...and boy was I mad when I found out that a hotel room in Indonesia was raided 5 years prior with plans for this scheme. Why weren't we trained for the possibility? But I digress.
When we landed, the flight attendant that I was sitting with on the jumpseat said (and how right he was) "you know, when they open that door, our lives will have changed forever." I was worried about making arrangements for child care for my children as soon as we got in so the full effect of what he said didn't sink in right away.
The gate agent told us that they were grounding the entire fleet, in fact, all US carriers were grounding their planes. The passengers were greeted by the agents and told what to do and our crew all went to the crew lounge to watch the coverage on the TV there. There were so many crews that people were sitting on the floor, standing, perched everywhere. We watched as "our" (yes, we are a big family) 767 hit the 2nd tower again and again in horror. We knew that the crewmembers on that plane (and we didn't know who they were yet), though trained in Medical and other emergency procedures, were certainly not ready for whatever had happened aboard. They undoubtedly had done their best to calm and comfort the passengers, but they had died a horrible death, and our training had been sadly lacking for this kind of thing. The next plane hit the Pentagon while we were nervously waiting for news of the the flights that were not answering radio calls, one of them was ours. In aviation, there is a bond between crews, regardless of the Airline that you work for. We were hurting for American and they for us. Needless to say there were a lot of tears shared in that room. Too much to absorb? But it was only the beginning. The towers collapsing and flight 93 going into the ground outside of Shanksville, PA were next. We were all numb.(This is the actual airplane that was used for flight 93, and yes, I'd flown on it in the past.)
The crew desk (thank goodness those folks were right there and not "consolidated" in an office in Chicago yet) helped all the crews find lodging which was quite a task, and our crew went out to Golden because there were no rooms available closer in. The sky was quiet and empty, and very eerie. I had to run to the market and the store to get some clothes and supplies, I was supposed to be home that night so I didn't have much with me. Many businesses were closed due to the fear that there would be more attacks other places in the country, other were closed just due to shock and sadness.
The next days were a blur or meetings with grief counselors, supervisors, and watching the sad drama unfold on TV while eating bad room service meals and trying to read whatever book I'd had with me in my tote bag, I don't even remember what it was now. I just didn't want to come out into the public, I didn't want to talk about it anymore, I just wanted to be numb. We eventually moved downtown as rooms vacated and that was a plus so I could get a few more changes of undies and not have to wash them nightly in the sink! Our union had a room in one of the nearby hotels where we would go for information and support, it was good to have them there, but difficult to share this drama with the flight attendants that knew the Denver based pilots (the Captain of 93's wife was a flight attendant, one of the passengers' mom was a flight attendant, I could go on). When the names were released, I realized I'd known and worked with both pilots and a few of the Boston based flight attendants that were on 93, and probably knew by face if not by name some of the crew on the 767 that went down in New York.
Just one of the extended family that I knew, CeCe was our "extra" (a flight attendant that joins a base crew because the trip calls for a bigger airplane for that one flight-sometimes from a different base) every week for a month, and I really enjoyed her, we bonded very quickly on those long flights. It's one thing to not see someone for awhile because you're flying a different schedule, quite another to realize they're gone forever. She had been a police officer in Florida, and some of the Baltimore flight attendants got in touch with her family as she also was retired from the police, and brought gifts that Christmas down for her husband and kids.
As more and more information surfaced about the attacks, we learned more about how the crews, especially those working up front, suffered even though in some cases the crews in coach didn't even know what was going on until later on. They took the cabin curtains out for that reason! The flight attendants were attacked in order to get the cockpit door open and gain access in some cases, and the purser on 93 was bleeding from having her throat slashed prior to the cockpit being taken over...that's the diversion that was used. Needless to say, I can't share very much, but we are all that much more secure for all that learning, and many of those rules that you passengers don't always like would make sense if you only knew.
I stayed in Denver until Friday, talking frequently to my kids and to my husband who was on a trip himself, wanting desperately to be home but the airport stayed closed until Friday. I flew the Purser position on the first flight from Denver to Washington to leave, a 777 airplane with a fairly junior and shaken crew, what a day! Some of the passengers that were on my flight from Baltimore were on that flight going back East, and we took comfort in the familiarity of the faces, we talked, we hugged, and some of those wonderful passengers are my friends to this day. It was tough to watch the news coverage when I got home, and I really didn't want to talk about it at all with anyone that was not in the airline industry because they just didn't understand so much. I really didn't want to talk about it and rehash it over and over, but every place I went people asked me about it. It was just too painful right then.
It's still tough to see all the accolades going out only to the firemen, the police, the rescuers, the brave souls that risked their lives to save others, when I also remember the brave crew members that lost their lives trying to make enough sense of what was going on to help themselves and their passengers during those fateful flights. We know that the flight attendants and the passengers were trying to take back the cockpit before flight 93 crashed (and theories abound about exactly what happened). We know, for example, that CeCe was using the coffee makers to brew up scalding water to use to help, she told her husband that while they were still in the air. I'm sure that everything the crews did was in their usual "safety professional" role with the passengers their first concern. The first to die were the flight attendants, and then the pilots, they were the ones attacked before the crashes. They were truly the first responders. It is no less sad to have lost a loved one in the Twin Towers or Pentagon, not a bit less horrible. I just feel like the crews weren't sufficiently recognized.
The passengers on our flights right after 9/11 were fantastic, asking if they could help, being understanding, needing their own reassurances, and we didn't have an ounce of issues with unruliness or rudeness for a month or so. Things are not quite the same today. Yet we'll be the first responders again if need be, and thankfully our training has changed for the better, our focus has strengthened, don't you worry.
But the next time that a flight attendant asks you to do something that he/she is required by law (or even not necessarily a legal issue) to do, please just smile and comply, regardless of if you agree with the regulation or not. It might be that person has just worked 14 hours and multiple flights that day, and is there for the love of the job because they had his/her pay cut 20-40% since 2001, and it might also be that he/she will be in the next run of layoffs due to fuel prices. They're just doing their job, and trying to do it well. It hasn't gotten easier since that day 7 years ago, if anything it's much more difficult with the additional safety and security responsibilities that we have. And remember that that flight attendant is your first line of defense in the case of an emergency. And when you're getting off the airplane and we're saying thank you for flying, rather than rudely making no eye contact or acknowledgement, at least smile and nod. Because we're working every day to make sure that there isn't another 9/11 on our airplanes.