Stealing a Car on September 11 2001

AUTHOR’S NOTE: While my 9/11 story hopelessly pales in comparison to many, I happened to be on a plane that morning. Little did I know that by the end of the day I would have stolen a car and the world would have changed forever. Clearly, this is a variation from the usual humor posts.


Flying from Texas to Maryland following a business trip, my plane began its decent into Memphis International Airport for a short layover. The moment the wheels touched the tarmac, my cell phone rang. I grimaced, realizing I’d neglected to ‘turn off all electrical devices.’   As I fished through my purse, I heard not one, but several other cell phones spring to life behind me.  I took solace in the fact that I wasn’t the only offender.

I answered, barely forming the second syllable of “hello?” before I heard my father’s voice on the other end of the line barking, “Don’t get on another plane!”   I tried to inquire why he suddenly thought I should settle in Memphis, but any attempt to speak was cut short by the repetition of his first urgent command.

“A plane hit the Towers,” he said, finally unsticking his record.

“A plane hit the Towers?” I repeated, not comprehending the phrase. The business man seated beside me caught my eye. I followed his gaze as he proceeded to scan the plane, both of us noticing other people jabbering excitedly on their cell phones.  Too many people.

“Dad, what are you talking about?”

“Someone flew a plane into the Trade Towers in New York. They’re probably going to shut down all air traffic, but just in case, don’t get on another plane, even if they are going to let you fly.”

My neighbor again looked at me, clearly searching for information. I put my hand over the phone.

“My father says someone flew a plane into the Trade Towers in New York and they probably won’t let us continue,” I said, trying to be helpful, but still baffled as to what all the fuss was about.

The man shook his head and offered a grim sigh. “We’ll never get a rental car,” he said.

“So, some guy in a prop plane zigged when he should have zagged and hit a building?” I asked my father, trying to make sense of his story.

“No… I don’t know,” said Dad. “I think it was a big plane. It’s all happening right now.”

“Like a real plane?”

“Right, like a…” his voice trailed off. “I think there’s a second plane!”

My jaw fell slack.

“Don’t get on a plane,” repeated my father, starting anew. “This is some sort of terrorist attack. I’m telling you. Don’t get on a plane.”

“I won’t, I promise,” I said.  No sooner had I hung up the phone than it rang again, this time my brother sharing much the same information. I hung up with him as the plane hatch opened and people began to stand and pull their bags from the overheads. I stood and shuffled my way off the plane with everyone else.

Inside the terminal, the airport felt wrong. Throngs of people hovered around the bars, silently watching television, drinks held frozen in mid-air. Though curious, I knew I didn’t have time to pause. I needed to get home. If something bad was happening in the world, I didn’t want to be stranded in Memphis, Tennessee, far from my family. I tried to glimpse at the televisions I passed, catching only flashes of sad-faced reporters and cloudy shots of the Twin Towers, dark smoke billowing from the upper floors.

The lines at the rental car kiosks were 30 people deep by the time I reached the luggage area.  I could hear the attendants announcing that they had no cars left.


I grabbed a cab and told the driver to head for the nearest train station, only to find the trains headed to the Washington DC area had been suspended as well.

This is insanity. 

Trains no longer an option, I called home and told my mother to try and book a rental car online at a rental place NOT in the airport. I knew the lines would be long, but maybe they would still accept an online reservation.  Another stranded airline passenger stood beside me and had overheard my conversation.

“I thought I could get a train, too,” she said. “Do you think we can get a car? I have someone here willing to give us a lift.” She had started a conversation with a local who agreed to drive her somewhere on his way home from the train. I hopped in the car with them and, receiving word from my mother, asked for a lift to Budget.

“I have friends that are New York firemen,” said the gentleman driving us to the rental agency.  “I just hope they’re ok.  I just heard one of the towers collapsed.”

“Collapsed? You mean one of the trade towers fell?”

“Completely collapsed,” he said.  “I hope my friends are OK.”

We reached the car agency and I said goodbye to my good Samaritans. I stepped up to the counter after watching several people turned away, key-less, determined to find my way home.

“Reservations for Vansant?” I said. “They were made online.”

The man shook his head. “You got lucky,” he said. “We’re no longer renting to anyone, but they forgot to shutdown online reservations.”

I silently thanked my mother for her help as the man typed away at his computer.

“Now you understand you can’t drive the car out of state, this is just for local rental,” he told me, holding the keys just out of reach.

“Oh, I know I’ll be stuck here a day or two,” I said, flashing my most convincing smile. Certainly no one with such an innocent smile would ever take a local rental and drive it to, let say… Maryland, for example.  “Actually, do you have any tourist pamphlets for local malls or anything I can grab? I’ll have some time to kill.”

“Oh sure!” the agent said, visibly relieved as he handed me my keys.  He pointed to the wall of brochures and I feigned interest, plucking out a few as he finished up the paperwork.

I signed on the dotted line and went out to the parking lot to retrieve my rental car. I hopped in, turned the key, and with the roar of the engine, felt my body flood with relief. I pulled out into the street, and followed signs towards I-40E; my most direct route home.

I spent the 15 hour drive to Maryland listing to the radio. I  listened to the death toll rise, many of the missing identified as first-responders, firemen and police.  I worried for that helpful man in Tennessee and his friends in the New York City Fire Department.

The entire world had watched the 9/11 tragedy unfold before their eyes. I had a lot of catching up to do.  Not seeing it happen made it more difficult to believe.  It would be nearly 24 hours after the incident that I finally saw the planes hit. Saw the towers fall.  Much more time would pass before I could process what had happened.

Just two months before September 11, 2001, I had been in New York with friends. We planned to visit the Trade Center. I had read that if you stood at the base of the Towers and looked up, the building appeared like a shining road leading into the sky.  I remembered seeing the Towers in the distance as we headed home that day, wistful that we had run out of time to visit.

“We’ll do it next time, ” I’d reassured my friends. “It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”

I was wrong.

When I dropped off my “stolen” car in Annapolis the next day, no one ever said a word.


Amy Vansant
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17 Responses

  1. Abby

    As trite as this will sound, great post. We all have a story of where we were that day, and thank god we’re all hear to tell it.


    • Amy Vansant

      Thanks! Considering what so many went through that day I almost feel silly even talking about my day, but was surreal… as I’m sure it was for everyone one way or another.


  2. Carol Mc

    I’m always interested in hearing where someone was on 9/11 and what they were doing when they heard the news of that first plane….I think the reason I’m so interested is I’m still struggling to make sense of it all…..


  3. Christine

    First, this is just a good, well written piece.
    Second, as the decade anniversary approaches, I’ve been realizing that the majority of my adult life has been “post 9-11” and just how significant and epoch it was. It’s really interesting to me to hear the experience of my contemporaries, whether, like me, one awoke on the West Coast into the midst of the inexplicable and sat glued to the TV for the next 4 days and then got frisked ever afterward at the airport; or like my friends here in Hoboken who say they remember the smell in the air for months afterward are taken back to the day every time they smell electrical wires burning, or tires burning or basically anything that shouldn’t be burning. Thanks for sharing your story.


    • Amy Vansant

      Thank you. That description about the smell taking people back was very well drawn – really hit me. I love little details like that.


  4. Courtney

    Wow. Your story really took me back – you have an amazing writing style, and this post was particularly wonderful. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.


  5. Jessica

    You shouldn’t feel trite at all about this story, it’s actually very powerful. It honestly gave me chills.
    I think the crazy part about something like this is it effects all of us in such a different way, but hearing other people’s stories actually makes you feel connected.


  6. Amy Vansant

    “it effects all of us in such a different way, but hearing other people’s stories actually makes you feel connected.” Well put!


  7. Cheryl

    I, too was flying on 9/11. I was on my way home to Jackson, MS, from visiting friends in St. Paul. I had a layover in St. Louis. Initially we were told not to leave the gate area in case our flights could leave, because we would not be allowed back through security. Stupidly, I waited. A woman struck up a conversation with me…she was on her way to Lincoln, NE. Eventually, we were all told that we had to leave the gate area. That is when the full shock of what had happened hit me. Lots of extra flights had landed in St. Louis, and there was utter pandemonium in the airport. By that time, there were no rental cars to be had, and the bus and train stations were very near a federal building, and so had been closed. In those days, I did not take my cell phone with me everywhere I went, so I didn’t have it with me. I spent lots of time standing in lines at pay phones. I figured I’d just spend the night in the airport. But then an announcement was made that everyone had to retrieve their luggage and leave the airport ASAP. I had no idea what I was going to do. As luck would have it, while I was searching for my luggage, I ran into the woman I had been talking to earlier. Her husband was in the military and he had suggested that she go to the USO office in the airport and see if they could help her find a hotel room. She graciously told me that if she got a room, I could share it. The USO got her a room at the nearby Marriott, and after we FINALLY located our luggage, we got on the shuttle to the hotel. By this time, it was around 3:00 p.m. My flight had left Minneapolis at 6:30, and I was hungry, exhausted, and emotionally drained. But I will never, ever forget the kindness a total stranger showed me that day. Some really good friends drove to St. Louis the next day and brought me home. While what happened to me was nothing compared to what happened to the people on the East Coast, it was still overwhelming and traumatic. Everyone has a story of that day, and I believe it helps to share them.


  8. Steve from NYC

    Great post. It made me laugh on this Day of Remembrance. I was there when the towers fell, was there for the cleanup, and was there to bury loved ones. Thank you for making me laugh today, I can’t tell you how much that helps.

    Steve from NYC


  9. Talkative Taurus

    I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be on a plane when all of that happened! It was bad enough being at work and having my mom call to tell me. I’m glad you got home safe and were here to tell us the story. I was glued to the TV for about a week, I think. I can’t imagine what it was like to not see what was going on when you were driving back home.


    • Amy Vansant

      It was definitely weird – I had no one to react to with it when I finally saw it – they had already been talking and watching for 24 hours.


  10. Jessica

    Wow, your story really took me back. I didn’t really get a chance to reflect or think back on the day because we were actually flying home on Sunday from a lengthy vacation and pretty much spent the whole day traveling. Now, I’m trying to catch up on the 300+ blogs I’ve missed while on vacation and so far this post has been the most meaningful one I’ve come across. I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Thank you for sharing your story. I almost started crying while reading as it brought back memories of that day. I don’t have much of story of my own to share, no family or friends affected, but it was still such a massively traumatic event for us all.


  11. Amy Vansant

    Thank you for the kind words! I’m lucky I didn’t know anyone either. I knew people who knew people though, and that was bad enough. I met a delivery truck driver who said a body landed on his truck and he had to abandon it at the scene. The long trip from TN was nothing!



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