Those of us of a certain age will tell you exactly where we were and what we were doing when the World Trade Center was attacked in September 2001. Many people in the UK will talk of being called to the office or home TV to watch the dreadful scenes unfolding in New York.
I, on the other hand, was sitting in an aeroplane in Cleveland, Ohio that sunny morning, waiting to take off and fly to Kansas City on a 4-day business trip.
We had been delayed boarding for around 45 minutes due to a technicality, otherwise we would already have been in the air when the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers, but as it was we had only just boarded. I remember clearly sitting down, securing my belt and idly flicking through the in-flight magazine when the captain came on the tannoy.
“Sorry, folks, but we have just been advised that there has been an incident in New York, so unfortunately we have been grounded by the Federal Aviation Authority. I have to ask you all to disembark and return to the terminal.”
Coming on top of the earlier delay, this announcement was greeted with a certain amount of annoyance. Initially nobody moved – as if by staging a sit-in protest, we could force the captain to reconsider. “Aw shucks, folks,” he might say, “if you really want me to, maybe I could stick two fingers up at the FAA, and sneak over to Kansas City under the radar… Whaddya reckon?”
But no, after a few seconds there was a collective resigned sigh, then everyone stood up and retrieved their hand luggage, before shuffling off the plane, muttering that nothing could possibly be so bad in New York that it could ground a plane in Cleveland…
Bear in mind that at that point we knew nothing of the incident – all we knew was that it had stopped us taking off. As we got back into the crowded terminal, nobody there seemed to know what was happening either. People were milling about, asking anyone who looked like they might have information, but all we found out was that it had been some sort of terrorist incident – although now we understood it had been a major one.
My objectives at that point were: (a) retrieve my suitcase and (b), find a way to get to Kansas City. The first of these proved a lot more difficult than expected. We were directed to Arrivals, where occasional carousels kicked into life, spat out a suitcase or two, then ground to a halt. Eventually it became clear that the worthy folk at John Hopkins Airport were unable to unload any planes at all, and that I would need to abandon my luggage.
Meanwhile, I was also pursuing my second objective; working my way round the crowds to find another passenger going to KC. I thought perhaps we could hire a car together and share the drive. Someone said they thought ‘that fellow there’ was headed that way, so I drifted over to a gingery chap with a beard, and asked him.
“Sure,” he said.
“Cool,” I answered, then asked, “where are you from?”
“Back in a moment,” I said, then slid off.
Eventually I got chatting to a girl who had been on my original flight from London. Her dad was driving up from Dayton, Ohio to pick her up. Dayton was on my route, so I bummed a lift. We then found someone who lived in Cleveland who was driving off the airport, so we got a ride to the Ramada Inn just off the Interstate. It was there that we had lunch and saw the towers come down on TV, so then we understood the full scale of the attack.
The girl’s dad arrived, had a coffee and a comfort break, then we set off. On the way we discussed the day’s events, with the Americans being almost unable to comprehend how they could be subjected to a terrorist attack on this scale. Perhaps my experience of seeing IRA attacks on the TV in the 70s and 80s gave me a different perspective, and we had an interesting discussion on the three hour drive.
They dropped me at the Avis car rental in Dayton, and I climbed into the only car that was still available, which I seem to recall was a silver Pontiac Trans Am. As night fell, I pointed its nose west and drove through cities like St. Louis and Indianapolis, enjoying the deep rumble of its muscle-car engine. I had the radio on, and was amazed by the way the Americans covered the news, with such gems as interrupting an interview with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to bring me a news item on… an interview with Rudy Giuliani. Or cutting to an ad break after a harrowing story on the casualties, with an insensitively placed ad for ‘Bob’s Auto Sale – get your 2001 Cadillac sedan with $$$s off!’
It was around 2am when I rolled into Kansas City, and around 3am when I finally found my hotel (these were the days before widespread sat navs or smart phones – and you needed a tri-band phone to work in the States, which I didn’t have).
“I’ve made it,” I said to the night receptionist.
He looked at his computer. “But sir,” he said, looking at me suspiciously. “I have you already checked in and asleep in the room.”
“I can assure you I am not,” I said, in no mood to argue. “Whoever is in my room, it certainly isn’t me. I have just driven all the way from Ohio and I am very tired.”
Eventually we cleared the confusion, and I got to my room. I rang my wife in the UK, where it was after 9am.
“WHERE… HAVE… YOU… BEEN?!”
I told her my story, and that without a mobile it had been impossible to call her (I had tried in the airport, at the Ramada Inn and at a gas station on the road, but not been able to connect). She had apparently been calling the CEO of my company, telling him to get me home. I understand he pointed out that (a) they didn’t know where I was, (b) they had no means of contacting me, and (c) the only way back was either by boat out of New York (not happening), or by plane (definitely not happening).
When the trip was over, my luggage and I had an emotional reunion at Kansas City Airport, before I boarded one of the first flights to leave the US on schedule. Again, we had just sat down, when the captain came on the tannoy. “I just want to let you folks know that I have a wife and kids back home, and I have no intention of not returning to them. I can assure you that I will get this plane safely to London. You have my word.”
My, how we cheered.