Flying on 9/11

Here is Jeff’s account of flying over the Atlantic at the time of 9/11:

I was flying out of Budapest, Hungary, on Delta, while Angelina (our youngest daughter), because a friend had given her some free air miles,was flying on Air France via Paris. It was a normal transatlantic flight up until the time that the pilot came over the intercom to tell the passengers that he was receiving some news on the radio that could affect us, and that as soon as he had more information, he would pass it on. After about fifteen minutes, he came back on to say there had been some sort of “incident” in the States, and that the air space had been closed to all traffic. Our plane was being diverted to Newfoundland, Canada. We did not know at that time what the “incident” was, but we knew it must have been serious to divert international flights.

At the same time, Angelina’s Air France flight was being told to turn around in the mid-Atlantic and return to Paris. Non-U.S. carriers were not getting clearance to land in Canada. We had been told to land at the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland. I peered out the window, and as we circled, I marveled at two things: the beautifully odd terrain and the number of planes (what turned out to total 38) that completely covered every available piece of tarmac.

Once on the ground, we were not allowed to disembark because of security concerns. The planes had to be unloaded one at a time, and the passengers were then taken through stricter-than-normal screening upon entry. We watched as a set of four yellow school buses went from plane to plane collecting the passengers and wondered how long it would take before they would come for us. Since our plane was one of the last to land, we ended up waiting for a total of twenty-two hours before they finally got to us. By that time, there was no more food on the plane. Even the peanuts and pretzel packets were gone. The in-flight movie had been “Shrek.” We watched it three times, but we still weren’t “there” yet! I was thankful for an on-board satellite phone and managed to call Anna. She was obviously relieved. On the other side of security, the Red Cross was waiting for us with tables full of sandwiches and drinks, and free international phone calls were available so passengers could call anxious loved ones. I called Anna again, as well as my Mom, to let them know I was okay.

Housing the refugees was a huge problem for the Canadian authorities, as 6,500 people had literally dropped into Gander that day, a town of only 9,000 inhabitants, nearly doubling the population! As there was no more room in Gander, the passengers from my plane were bused to a small town called Norris Arm that was located 40 miles away. They had prepared army cots in the high school gymnasium for us, and as our buses pulled up outside the community center, I felt like I was on a team that had just won the Super Bowl! It seemed everyone in town had come out to welcome us, and they formed a column that we walked down through to their cheers and pats on the back. The way the Canadians responded to this emergency was nothing short of fantastic!

The high school had opened its computer lab so we could use the Internet, and while I was writing an e-mail, a lady poked her head in and said she could take four people to her house to take a shower. I jumped at the chance! It was there that I saw on TV for the first time the visual images of the Twin Towers collapsing. We chatted over a snack, and when the subject of the sleeping arrangements came up, I mentioned that I had a bad back and could not sleep well on an army cot. A few minutes later, the lady came up to me to say that she had called her friend who ran the Boys and Girls Club in town and that she had offered to let me sleep in the bed that was in her office! And, oh, there was a computer there with internet as well! I knew Jesus loved me!

During our five days in Newfoundland, meals were provided by the local community. Residents brought in pot luck dishes and set them out on the tables provided. We all got to know each other fairly well, and pretty much everyone on my flight heard sooner or later that I was on a mission from Kosovo. The local churches arranged an inter-denominational memorial service for Sunday, and the pastors invited me to offer a prayer for the families of those who had lost loved ones that day. It was a very moving experience. All that time, we really did not know how long we would stay in Canada. Then, finally, we heard at dinner that the yellow buses would be coming for us the next morning. Someone suggested that we have a five-year reunion in that tiny town for anyone who would be able to return to remember those amazing days that we had spent together. Sadly, I was not able to attend. I hope that many were able to. But I did maintain contact with the kind woman from the Boys and Girls Club for many years after that.

What a cheer went up when our flight finally touched down safely on U.S. soil. A tragic event had transformed 250 strangers on a plane into good friends who were hugging and crying as they disembarked. And Angelina? The Lord took care of her as well. She stayed five days with friends in Paris while she waited for her ongoing flight and arrived the day after I did. In the midst of such a tragic event, it can be easy to become discouraged or to dwell on the negative. Thankfully, we were not on one of those four planes! Looking back on it all now, I realize that God gave us a blessing during some very tragic and difficult circumstances. It is an experience I will never forget. I believe one thing 9/11 showed was that during the most trying circumstances, the true, sacrificial nature of man will come to the fore.