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.