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Monday, August 21, 2006


On the 13th of September 2001, I flew to Tenerife via London. That required me to spend a few hours on the ground at Gatwick airport. Yes, I flew just two days after 9/11.

The plane itself out of Hong Kong was almost empty and the security procedures were extremely rigorous. Even with a plane at best only one-quarter full, it took over an hour for the secondary check right before boarding (subsequent to the first security check to get into the departures area). Computers had to be turned on and booted up, containers of liquids had to be opened and tasted in front of the security team, every little thing was examined, all sharp objects removed, including eyebrow tweezers.

The whole trip was, I'll admit, an eerie experience to say the least. As I sat there listening to the drone of the engines, my mind kept playing back the images I'd seen only two days before on my tv, images of such death and destruction and incomprehensible carnage that it was difficult to believe it wasn't a dream. A very, very bad dream. I had watched for hours as the story streamed across my screen and, being 12 hours ahead, I stayed up into the early hours of the next morning watching that day in New York unfold. Then the following day at work it was the subject of all discussion. The disbelief, the struggling to try to make sense of the senseless.

So many people told me not to fly but I had to. I had to go on with my life and my plans. I was not going to be pushed into a corner fearing the 'what ifs'. The US was still shut down. People were stranded everywhere. And when I got to Gatwick airport to wait for my connection to Tenerife, I found it crowded with people just trying to get home.

Squeezing myself into a solitary empty seat between an elderly gentleman and the feet of a sleeping child, I developed a morbid fascination as I watched people, wondering which of them was facing a personal tragedy. That's where I met Bill. He was seated on my left in jeans and a plaid shirt, with a NY Yankees cap on his head. I'd asked him if the seat next to him was taken and he smiled and said no. I couldn't escape the look in his eyes though, even through his smile. An emptiness, a fear, his sky blue eyes red-rimmed I thought from lack of sleep.

We started up a conversation and it turned out that his son worked in the WTC and he hadn't been able to contact him. Bill was a widower and William (Bill Junior, he told me with a small smile) his only son. A single man, so no wife to try to contact. I felt helpless and any words I could come up with seemed such platitudes. He told me that his cell phone's battery had long since drained and there were huge queues at all the payphones. I offered him my phone to use and he made some calls. I tried not to listen, to intrude any further than I felt I already had, into his personal tragedy. He seemed to be talking to people a long way away from New York, asking if they had news. He handed me my phone back with thanks and an offer to pay for the calls. I said no, absolutely not. Then as we sat talking they announced they would be holding a three-minute silence and a request that everyone observe it.

When the sound of a bell rang out to mark the start of the silence, Bill bowed his head and his shoulders started to shake. I saw tears roll down his cheeks and fall to the carpet between his feet. I did the only thing I could do, I reached out and took his hand in mine. And he held on so tight as he let his grief take over, for just a moment. From what little I'd come to know of him, he was a strong man who wanted nothing more than to hold onto hope. That day, as I sat holding this man's hand, this father's hand, in the still of an airport that had stopped in its tracks, I felt more than at any other time, the depth of this horrific tragedy that has beset so many.

I still wonder if Bill's son made it. If Bill got home to find him safe. And if Bill still remembers the hand of a stranger in his, when all he needed was another human being to hold onto.


Miranda said...

9/11 Was so tragic, that poor man. I cant even phathom not knowing where my children are. I do hope his son was found alive and well.

I admire You for taking that plane so soon after. Last year I was in Texas, and got evacuated because of hurricane Rita. I think it will be a while before I go back in fall again. I usually go every fall. But not this year.

Fiona said...

More often than not, the times when the alert goes high, is when it's actually the safest.

I once wrote to UA and Homeland Security about what I perceived to be a horrific security lapse at SFO International.

I boarded a domestic flight from Monterey to San Francisco to transfer to an international flight back here. Upon arrival at the domestic terminal, UA were transporting their international passengers to their gates. So I walked through the domestic terminal, down a back stairway monitored by UA staff to check tickets, onto a bus which drove around across the airport to international departures, off the bus into an elevator up to the departure gates. And there was NO further security check from the one I was given when I departed Monterey. Onto an international flight. I could have picked up goodness knows what at any point along that journey and I just walked onto an international flight. No immigration procedure, no monitoring of any kind. They just collected my little landing receipt I was given on arrival in the States and checked passport name against ticket as I boarded the plane!

I got a 'thank you for writing to us' letter from UA and nothing from Homeland.

I actually avoid SFO if possible now.

Sunny Delight said...

Memories of 9/11; that morning I was talking on the phone to my sister..trying to help her deal with with her own personal tragedy...she told me to turn on the tv, from that moment it seemed time stopped for days....with most of us not being able to do anything to help those who were suffering....

I sincerely think that Bill does remember you, very fondly ....I also hope along with you that his son survived....my most intense hope though...is that others who were grieviing at that time..had the opportunity to be near someone like you..someone who was willing to reach out and help a fellow human being who was suffering so terribly.


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