September 11th

This blog is about books and writing, but today I’m going to recount my own experience on that day twelve years ago, and the days immediately afterwards.  It was not unique, but it was different.

I was sound asleep in a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.  Melbourne is fourteen hours ahead of New York, and the first news I had of the attack was from the newspaper on my breakfast table almost a full day after it occurred.  I recall feeling left out at the time, not experiencing the pain personally with the rest of my country.  I was scheduled to leave Australia the following Saturday, but air traffic in the US had been shut down and overseas flights into the country halted.  I wanted to go home very much, but had no idea when I could.  I can’t remember what the state of personal communications devices was in 2001, but–always far behind the times–I wouldn’t have had one anyway.  My only contact was with with my wife via the hotel telephone, and the two or three times we spoke there wasn’t much to say.

The people with whom I was working–all Australian lawyers–offered heartfelt condolences as if I were somehow an official representative of the US, but there was apprehension as well.  They all wanted to know what we–the President– were going to do.  It was clear that they thought a world-wide conflagration was on the horizon, one that–despite its geographic isolation–would embroil Australia as well.  Some muttered about the possibility of nuclear weapons, given the “cowboy” in the White House.

My plane was due to depart at 10 a.m. Saturday morning but, as of Friday afternoon, air traffic in and into the US was still forbidden.  When I called, though, Qantas said that my flight had not been cancelled, and that I should go to the airport and see what happened.  I arrived around 9 a.m.–things seemed relatively normal, the screen showed that my flight was “on time,” and the people behind the counter took my checked bags with encouraging words.

Our departure time came and went.  Nobody knew whether we were leaving or not.  Around 1 p.m. I gave up, but when I tried to get my bags back, I was told that they were on the plane.  That seemed promising, so I decided to wait.  At about 2:30, the people at the gate announced that we would be boarding shortly.  The relief was palpable–everyone was very eager to go home.  A few minutes later, however, policemen in commando gear appeared with several large German Shepherds, and we were advised that the dogs had to check for explosives before we could board.  The aircraft was very large–a 747 that carried several hundred people–so the dogs took more than an hour to perform their task.  Next, we were told that everyone’s carry-on bags would be hand-searched.  That was my first experience with “homeland security”–I lost a corkscrew and a pair of tweezers from my dop kit.  Our plane–a fully-loaded 747 ostensibly bound for Los Angeles–was wheels-up around 6 p.m., eight hours late.

The flight itself took twelve or thirteen hours.  Only a few minutes out of LA, the pilot advised us that we had just been cleared to land in the US, among the first, if not the first, allowed to do so.  We (Qantas) had left Australia not knowing if we would be permitted to land or not–the alternative destinations were Mexico City or Vancouver.  We touched down at LAX late in the afternoon on September 15, 2001.

The Bradley International Terminal was a ghost town.  Domestic air travel was just starting up again.  I stood in line to get my travel arrangements changed–I ended up going to Myrtle Beach, SC via Cincinnati–just glad to be home, after which I wandered through the empty terminal.  A few of the bars that lined the concourse were open.  All had televisions tuned to news accounts of the September 11 attacks and the aftermath, accompanied by the revolving, endless repetition of tape depicting airplanes crashing into buildings and a field in Pennsylvania.  Headers, like a stock market tape, ran across the bottom of the screen.

Exhausted, I found my seat on the flight to Cincinnati.  Sitting across from me were two men with beards wearing long white robes and turbans.  I pondered that for a moment before I fell asleep.

A few months later, I bought a book published by Simon & Schuster called What We Saw.  In addition to written accounts from various news outlets, it includes a full-length DVD of CBS’ coverage of the attacks.  At the time, I thought I wanted to see what everybody else saw on that bright morning in September, but I’ve never opened the book or played the DVD.  I guess I don’t need to.

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