Ground Zero From 35,000 Feet
As the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks approaches Sunday, it brings back memories. We returned from Europe less than one week after the 9-11 attacks and flew right over New York City.
The picture above is one I shot from Delta Air Lines Flight 67, a Boeing 767-300ER flying non-stop from Zurich, Switzerland to Atlanta at precisely 35,000 feet. After we crossed the Atlantic we flew right over Cape Cod on this sunny afternoon on Sunday, September 16th, 2001 (less than a week after the terrorists struck). New York City came into view a short time later. I saw smoke and figured it was from a factory. However this was smoke from the remains of the smoldering World Trade Center. The smoke was drifting all the way down the eastern seaboard to at least Philadelphia. It was an awful sight.
A lot of people were scared to fly immediately after the attacks. But not the people on Delta flight 67. They were angry. White hot with anger as they peered down out of the port side of the aircraft to see the sickening view. The captain made no announcement but as word spread throughout the cabin, passengers on the right side slid across the cabin to the left side to see for themselves.
I know we all know exactly where we were and what we were doing exactly 9 years ago tomorrow when terrorists struck in New York City and Washington, D.C. In our case, we were on our last day of a visit in Athens, Greece. We had just returned from a beautiful cruise on the Mediterranean Sea and were waiting for an elevator at the Athens Hilton. A man approached, heard us speaking English, and started a conversation. He said: “You’re from the States, right?” I said: “Yes, where are you from?” He replied: “Baton Rouge.” I laughed and said: “We used to live not too far away in New Orleans.” Then suddenly his whole demeanor changed. He said: “I’m not making small talk. I’m hearing bad things from home. I’ve heard that one and possibly two planes have crashed into buildings. I’m heading up to the room to watch Sky News right now.”
We figured that a couple of light planes had crashed or something like that. But when we flipped on BBC news, it was apparent what had happened. Just seconds after we turned the TV on in our room, the second twin tower collapsed live before our eyes.
I’ll always remember eating a wonderful meal on the rooftop of the hotel that evening with the Acropolis shining brightly in the background knowing that some people were probably dying at that very moment in the burning debris. I felt guilty having such a fine meal at a time like this.
I tried to get back to the States to help cover the biggest story in our lifetime for my radio station but nothing was going back. I couldn’t even get a phone call back to the U.S. So we continued with our plan which took us to the island of Cyprus the next morning. Then after a few days there we flew to Zurich, Switzerland for staging back to the U.S.
We flew Cyprus Airways and got into Kloten Airport in Zurich Saturday afternoon, September 15th. The very first thing we did was rush over to the Delta ticket counter and ask about the status of our scheduled flight for the next morning back to Atlanta. The agent said: “I can’t really tell you anything about what will happen with your flight tomorrow. We’ve had nothing going back to the U.S. since the attacks. Just get to the airport early, keep your fingers crossed and we’ll do our best to get you home tomorrow.”
Amazingly, we pushed back right on schedule. Our flight was the first to leave Zurich for the U.S.
I swear I almost had tears in my eyes when the Immigration Officer in Atlanta shook my hand and said: “Welcome back home.”
As we waited for our bags in advance of clearing U.S. Customs I noticed something really odd. A Delta flight from Gander, Newfoundland was listed on a baggage carousel. I thought to myself: “Wait a minute, Delta doesn’t serve Gander?” The man immediately ahead of me, a British chap, explained what had happened. He and others were on a Delta jet from London to Atlanta when it was diverted to Gander on the day of the attacks.
He said the pilot told them they had to make a precautionary landing in Gander and that they would be back in the air shortly. The passengers were instructed to leave all personal belongings on board because it was only going to be a short delay. In reality the captain had no idea whether there might be terrorist items in those bags so he played it safe.
Turns out, of course, that the plane was stranded in Gander for the better park of a week. The guy from London absolutely raved about the hospitality of Gander residents. Since there weren’t nearly enough hotels to accommodate what eventually turned into hundreds of passengers from several different jumbo jets, residents of Gander welcomed stranded passengers into their homes and fed them and clothed them. The passengers were not allowed to take their checked bags off the plane.
To this day, friendships continue between the passengers and their kind providers.
It’s hard to believe that all this happened 10 years ago but the memories are still crystal clear.