This story was originally published on Sept. 6, 2011.
“Flight attendant Cameron?’’ the voice from Dallas barks. “Are you going to sign in for your trip? Are you stuck in traffic?’’
Halle Cameron squints at the clock on her nightstand: 7 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001. American Airlines Flight 11 departs in 45 minutes from Logan International Airport, nonstop to Los Angeles.
She had finally earned the seniority to pull cross-country flights like this, after 10 years of short-hop connections and layovers in Des Moines. But she came home yesterday from playing in a golf tournament feeling shaky, maybe heatstroke, maybe more.
Dragging her to dinner, a flight attendant friend had urged her not to waste a sick day on such a good route, reminding her how she loved the beds at the Westin in Los Angeles.
So she packed her bags and set the alarm for 4. But when she couldn’t sleep, she called American’s automated line to withdraw from the flight. Or so she thought.
“I called in sick last night,’’ she says.
“Oh,’’ the voice from Dallas says, hesitating. “That was you.’’
A rare glitch. Now someone is scrambling at headquarters, someone else is scrambling in Boston. On standby at Logan, 24-year-old Jean Roger gathers her belongings and hustles to Gate 32.
THIS IS WHERE it began. Two flights, one airport. Everyone knows how it ended. Nearly 3,000 dead, families devastated, a crater in the earth.
Back home, Logan reinvents itself. Around the airfield, a 10-foot-high concrete barrier, prison-camp thick, with razor wire on top. Inside, a new security force, full-body scanners, hundreds of cameras, liquids in bags, beltless travelers in socks. And unseen, scars unwilling to fade.
They are the rarely noticed casualties of the terrorist attacks: the security guard, the ticket agent, the baggage handler on the ramp. They made it home that night, but with images they couldn’t shake, a pain uncomfortable to voice. They can’t believe it has been 10 years. They can’t believe it has only been 10 years.
UNDER THE SWEEPING ceiling of Terminal C, Gail Jawahir stands at United Airlines ticketing, working the 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. She is a compact, cheerful woman with a relaxed West Indian accent that belies a formidable will.
Out of uniform, Marianne MacFarlane and Jesus Sanchez come by to use their employee flight benefits, heading to Las Vegas. They consider a connection through Denver, but Flight 175, to LA, has openings in first class.
Everyone crowds around Jawahir’s counter to see them off, saying how great they look in street clothes, telling them to win lots of money and share it at work: Sanchez, round-faced, mustachioed, a man who loves decorating cakes and is incapable of being mean; and MacFarlane, with curly hair and electric smile, a woman who is happiest at Disney , riding Splash Mountain over and over.
Two men in their 20s approach, Middle Eastern, hair carefully trimmed, clothes so new they are still creased from the store. Jawahir takes them for students. The first holds a United envelope and itinerary.
“Checking in or buying a ticket?’’ she asks.
“Purchase. Ticket,’’ the first says, haltingly.
Jawahir, spotting the paperwork, suggests he has one already. She points them to the check-in line.
Several minutes later they are back, redirected once more, looking confused. She examines their paperwork: Booked on Flight 175, business class, 9C and 9D.
She requests IDs. One from Florida, one from Virginia. She asks the security questions she has asked thousands of times: Did you pack your bags yourselves? Have they been in your possession the whole time?
They nod hesitantly. She needs a verbal answer. She repeats the questions, very slowly. They say yes. They check two bags, light and new. She circles their gate number, 19, and points to the security checkpoint, making sure they know just where to go.
ON THE TARMAC, Howard Crabtree and Sal Misuraca are enjoying the kind of morning that ramp workers dream about: warm, still, light on passengers and freight. Across the airfield, the sun rises over the egg-shaped sewage digesters of Deer Island, glistening off Boston Harbor.
Misuraca is a company man, started as a ticket agent in 1970, a North Ender married to an East Boston girl, commuting now from the suburbs but still moonlighting Mondays at Santarpio’s Pizza. Crabtree, 19 years younger, is a straight-shooter, accepted despite being a recent transfer from Providence. They are supervisors, overseeing the crews that hover about each plane coming in and out of the dozen American gates.
Misuraca waves to the captain of Flight 11, John Ogonowski, a Dracut farm boy who flew cargo runs in Vietnam. Ogonowski slides open the cockpit window. “I owe you a cup of coffee,’’ he promises.
A call comes down from the gate. One of the last passengers aboard, a transfer from US Airways , wants to know whether his bags made it. They sit on the back of an electric cart, driven out to the plane by Philip “Zip’’ DePasquale, a streetwise character from Revere old enough to remember loading turboprops.
“No way those bags are getting on,’’ the crew chief assigned to Flight 11 tells DePasquale, and Crabtree and Misuraca back him up. The hydraulic doors of the 767 are already sealed, and they’re not about to delay the flight for two rollaboards.
DePasquale drives off in a huff, told to hold the bags for the next flight to LA. Each one carries a tag, printed by US Airways in Maine, that reads “M. Atta.’’
IN AN OFFICE in the belly of Terminal B, Jim Sayer is on the phone, scribbling down everything Amy Sweeney says, trying not to miss a thing. Two flight attendants in first class stabbed; in business class, a passenger’s throat slit. The plane is flying low, maybe toward New York.
Sayer, heart racing, hears and writes feverishly, no time to picture things in his head. Sweeney sounds so composed, he thinks.
A manager who knows Sweeney grabs the receiver, instructing Sayer to call their boss. As Sayer turns, the Flight 11 crew list catches his eye on a computer screen, Jean Roger’s name standing out. Friends from the academy - Barbie boot camp, they called it - they shared a tender Christmas their first year as flight attendants, alone in a leaky hotel on a Texas layover, exchanging goofy gifts as a Fort Worth rain turned into snow.
Sayer moved to the office the following year, becoming an assistant to Kelley Cox, who oversees American’s 1,200 Boston-based flight attendants. He reaches Cox at home, about to leave. Air rage, she thinks, pounding the kitchen counter. She envisions an awful day, full of difficult calls, a media circus. She hopes no one is badly hurt.
AT THE UNITED security checkpoint, Jennifer Gore, a reluctant supervisor, answers a phone mounted on the wall. “Jen, stop admitting people without boarding passes,’’ her duty manager says, cryptically. She does as told. Spouses and siblings accustomed to seeing off loved ones at the plane grumble and grouse.
Gore, 19, is a year out of East Boston High School, still sharing a bedroom with her kid sister. Four months at Huntleigh USA, United’s security contractor, qualify her as a veteran in this high-turnover field. With her serious demeanor, reliable attendance, and high school diploma, she had been swiftly promoted past people twice her age.
There are supposed to be two supervisors at the checkpoint for gates 11 to 21, but the other is off searching for wheelchairs. Gore does not like to be alone, overseeing the dozen screeners. The phone rings again. Before she can answer, a gray-haired woman with a rolling bag tugs her arm.
“It’s all your fault!’’ the woman shrieks. “You people!’’
“Ma’am, please, what are you talking about?’’ Gore says, breaking free to answer the phone.
On the line, her duty manager says a plane has been hijacked, maybe from one of their gates. Gore gasps. Her head is swimming, wondering whether they missed something.
Her boss orders her to seal off the security lanes, shutting out even those with tickets now. She approaches the heavy folding gate, realizing no one has ever shown her how to unlock it.
IT IS NEARLY 9 on this Tuesday morning, when Captain Brian Dubie, a lantern-jawed Vermonter with a brush cut, walks out from operations, paperwork in hand, toward his American Airlines flight to Dallas. He made captain three years back, after the better part of a decade as Ogonowski’s copilot.
In all those hours in the cramped cockpit, Dubie soaked up a lot of lessons about marriage, fatherhood, and farming, taking them back every week to his sugar woods in northern Vermont.
Before reaching the tarmac, Dubie sees the administrative assistant for the chief pilot’s office. “Flight 11’s been hijacked,’’ she tells him. He follows her to the office, where the phone rings. It is Peggy Ogonowski, a friend, American flight attendant, and John’s wife. She has tried to log in from home to see if he is on 11, but the computer system keeps blocking her out.
Dubie jumps in the car, bound for Dracut, working the phones for information. He calls Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua , telling them to send the Ogonowski girls home.
THE RAMP GUYS are gathered around a TV in the “ready room,’’ trying to make sense of the news about the World Trade Center, when their manager, a Texan who can keep order but still crack a joke, comes downstairs. He tells them the first plane was Flight 11. He breaks down, weeping before dozens of men.
Anarchy bubbles up. Guys scurry around, tough guys, saying they don’t feel safe, they need to go home to their families. Crabtree has to play the heavy, telling them they are free to go but will not be paid if they leave. The Federal Aviation Administration has shut down US airspace; 3,300 commercial flights are diverted, bound for home, or need unloading without ever taking off.
Crabtree, Misuraca, and DePasquale remember those bags that didn’t make it on Flight 11. They are marked now for Flight 181, grounded before takeoff. The bags retrieved, a State Police dog sniffs them for trouble, but there is no telltale whine or pawing of the ground. They clip the locks and unzip them, a black Travelpro and a green Travel Gear.
What they see knocks the wind out of them: Boeing flight-training videos; flight planner sheets; a pilot’s slide rule for calculating weight, fuel, and range; a knife; a can of pepper spray. There is clothing - immaculately folded, arranged for wear, a tie knotted on a shirt inside a jacket - and mundane items, Brylcreem, a $20 bill.
There are pages in handwritten Arabic, which the FBI will later translate: Mohamed Atta’s will, and a letter that will also be found at crash sites in Pennsylvania and Washington, containing instructions for the hijackers.
CAMERON, THE FLIGHT attendant, is in her living room, still in pajamas, glued to the “Today’’ show. She is standing alongside her husband at 9:30, when Katie Couric says the first of the two planes may have been an American Airlines flight hijacked from Boston to LA. Cameron collapses, her husband catching her before she hits the ground.
Her mind flashes to that flight to the West Coast earlier in the summer and the Middle Eastern man in business class who carried no bag, declined food and drink, didn’t watch the movie, didn’t want a pillow to sleep.
“You’re going to be my easiest passenger of the year,’’ she told him, but he only glared back. In the galley, she joked to another flight attendant, “Uh, hello! Terrorist in 11J.’’
Was it a test flight, casing the plane?
Her mind is spinning. Yesterday had started out as a “good mojo’’ day. She shot in the 80s, won a watercolor in the golf tournament raffle, and told everyone about the morning flight to LA.
The doorbell rings. Cameron sees her friend Kimmee and her aunt Gynni, standing with flowers for Cameron’s husband.
“I’m here,’’ Cameron says. Kimmee drops to her knees.
Twenty friends follow, steeled for a vigil that never occurs. Around the back patio, Cameron keeps catching them staring at her. She feels like a ghost, a spectator at her own funeral.
EVEN WITH a two-hour commute, Crabtree usually pulls up at home by midafternoon. Tonight, fingerprinted and interrogated, he arrives at dusk. He tells his wife everything, and she is terrified.
“What if there’s a sleeper cell in Boston?’’ she asks. “Are they going to put you in the federal witness protection program?’’
He hasn’t considered that, but now he is worried, too. Seventeen thousand people work at Logan, and word could easily get around, and get out, that he is one of the guys who kept Atta’s possessions from following him to martyrdom, and who put them in the hands of the FBI.
He has a vacation planned starting Friday, but that is scrapped now, no flights to Florida. He mentions his fear to a friend of Misuraca’s in Troop F at Logan, and each day while sitting home the next week he will see something that makes him rub his eyes: a Massachusetts State Police cruiser, patrolling a Rhode Island cul-de-sac.
ST. MARY OF the Annunciation Church, Danvers, 11 days later. The funeral of Karen Martin, a friend who always made Cameron’s flights more fun, a live wire with a great sense of humor. The flight attendants are all there, dressed in uniform. Cameron feels clammy and nauseous. On the way out, she collapses.
She comes to in the rectory, a priest offering her a glass of water.
“I think I have the flu,’’ she says.
“You don’t have the flu,’’ he says.
Back home, she is in no rush to return to work. A friend with a mortgage company offers to train her, something to keep busy, a little income until she goes back.
Nov. 12, two months and a day - and American Airlines Flight 587 smashes into a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing all 260 on board and five on the ground.
“This is going to keep happening,’’ Cameron thinks. Her fear does not subside even after it is ruled an accident.
She calls flight services to exercise early retirement, a modest buyout bundled with free flights for life. The call is quick. They fax her one page. She signs and sends it back, no counseling, no final visit to the office. Her friend at the mortgage company kisses her on the cheek.
“You’re retired!’’ he says.
“Well, not really,’’ she says, feeling flat.
A MONTH IN, Jawahir, the ticket agent, thinks she might get through this. She imagines what happened as a package placed high on a shelf, out of sight, out of mind. She vows to stop beating herself up, wondering whether she missed something with those “students,’’ replaying the scene, blaming herself for helping them, and for helping her friends, Sanchez and MacFarlane, onto the same flight.
She tells her fiance, Robert, she will finally marry him. Life is too short to wait. She becomes Gail Moona-Nevulis, reclaiming her maiden name, taking Robert’s, ditching a vestige of the bad marriage she left behind in Trinidad. She avoids TV and news about what happened, remembering the first night when she came home to Quincy, caught a glimpse, and fainted on the spot.
But reminders are unavoidable at Logan. She catches MacFarlane’s mother, an airport public service representative, staring mournfully at the United counter from across the terminal.
A passenger approaches with a paper ticket, a flight to Los Angeles, purchased far in advance. It says Flight 175, the number retired after the crash.
“Excuse me,’’ she says, asking a friend to finish the check-in. She runs for the backroom, sobbing and shaking.
FOR THE FIRST time since his aborted flight to Dallas, Dubie walks onto the airfield in his American Airlines uniform. He was absent from Logan for weeks, activated as an Air Force Reserve colonel. He went to ground zero in New York, acting as a bridge between civilian and military authorities in moving supplies to the scene.
Arriving in Lower Manhattan two nights after the attacks, he found a sanitation worker about to toss away scrap metal that he recognized as part of Ogonowski’s landing gear. Escaping the dust and chaos, he slipped into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, knelt in a pew, and tried to say the Lord’s Prayer. It took 50 attempts before he could get through “forgive those who trespass against us’’ without faltering.
Back in Boston, he is resolute and confident, as all the pilots seem to be. In the cockpit, he eyes the newly reinforced Kevlar door. In the past, the feds suggested the doors remain closed, but they were often open, especially at night on long trips, pilots passing the time chatting with flight attendants. Even when locked, they were little more than closet doors.
As he closes the reinforced door, he pauses just for a moment, considering that he is locking himself safely in the cockpit, and sealing all the flight attendants off with whoever might be on the plane. It is a fleeting feeling, but one he will never forget.
SEPT. 11, 2002, Cameron wakes up and turns on the TV, coverage of the anniversary of the attacks on nearly every channel.
“You going to watch this?’’ her husband asks.
She does, drawing the shades, lying in bed all day.
In East Boston, Jennifer Gore calls in sick. She plays with her nephew, avoiding all TV coverage, watching cartoons. A mile and a half away, all activity stops for a moment of silence at 8:46, the time Flight 11 struck the World Trade Center.
MOONA-NEVULIS transfers to Florida, starting over amid the palm fronds and fountains of Orlando International Airport. Three years out, it feels good to work in a place without so many reminders. Her husband gets a job as a chef at Disney, and they move into a tidy ranch.
She skips work every year on the anniversary. Sometimes she is called away, to Boston or New York, another deposition before more lawyers, each time a little easier. She keeps her story to herself, most of the time, but she vows never to forget - “Gone But Not Forgotten,’’ the front plate on her Hyundai says, as does one of three pins she rotates on her uniform.
She is in New York again, and a lawyer asks whether she has read the 9/11 Commission report or the records released around it. She has read nothing, seen nothing, for five years. The lawyer tells her the records indicate she checked in at least four of the hijackers, not two.
She is in shock, all down the elevator and onto the plane, where she cries, alone, the entire flight back. Her grief and guilt does not just double, it mushrooms out of control. In Florida, she cannot leave the house without Robert, stops running errands, stops going to the gym, always looking over her shoulder.
MISURACA IS IN the “bat cave,’’ the cramped office he shares with other ramp supervisors on the rare moments when they are not outside. On his desk, a plaque says, “This day will end.’’ A bad day used to mean fighting your way to Logan with a foot of snow on the ground at 3 in the morning, spending all day in subzero weather deicing stubborn planes, and even that could be sort of fun. Now, they are all bad days.
There had been a flicker of hope, when they all gathered to raise the flag the first week, Misuraca thinking nothing is going to stop us - the country, not just the airline. But time passes and he cannot shake what he saw and felt, peering into Atta’s bag. People on the ramp have become meaner. Up in the terminal, you can see the fright on passengers’ faces.
Misuraca clears off his desk and packs up for retirement three years and a month after Sept. 11, three years and a month too long.
He had loved the job, wanted to try for 40 years. So much for that.
FIVE YEARS ON and Gore is still working at Huntleigh, the company a vestige of what it was. The federal Transportation Security Administration handles all passenger and bag screening, with Huntleigh staying on to provide security for Logan construction. Since catching a glimpse of TV that first night, and bellowing at her parents to shut it off, she has avoided all news about the attacks. At first she turned to drinking, downing hard liquor at a friend’s house every afternoon for a year, obliterating her emotions, until her parents delivered an ultimatum: Quit or get out. She quit.
She meets a truck driver from El Salvador, marries, has a baby girl, moves to Everett, and thinks she is done with subsidized housing. In October 2006, she checks into Massachusetts General Hospital to have her second child, planning a short maternity leave.
At circumcision, her son does not stop bleeding, and the doctor breaks the news that he has hemophilia, a bleeding and clotting disorder. Gore never goes back to Logan, devoting herself to her children, keeping close watch on a son who needs three transfusions a week. It takes her mind far from Sept. 11, 2001.
Her marriage ends, and she moves back to the apartment complex where she was raised. When her daughter is 5, the little girl unearths a copy of Time magazine that Gore had purchased at Logan but could never bring herself to open.
On the cover, the twin towers are engulfed in fire and smoke. Gore, startled, says it is from back when she worked at the airport.
“Were those buildings at the airport?’’ the daughter asks.
“No, they’re in New York. But the airplanes were, they came from Mummy’s job.’’
“What happened to those people?’’
“Well, they got really hurt.’’
IN ORLANDO, a passenger approaches the United counter in a burqa, only her eyes visible. Moona-Nevulis freezes, hands refusing to move to the keyboard, tongue stalled. “What’s the matter?’’ the woman asks. Moona-Nevulis cannot breathe, trapped by what feels like the piercing glare of those eyes. She teeters, wobbles toward a door, can’t grasp the handle, stumbles in when someone else opens it, and curls into a ball.
She talks to her doctor about her chest pains, and he points her toward a good therapist. The weekly visits help. She goes to church, volunteers. By 2011, she sees her therapist every other week, then once a month, inching toward peace.
“I pray, and I ask God to keep me in good health, and hopefully I will get better,’’ she says. “Because I have to get better, for my husband and my kids. I have to.’’
JIM SAYER RETURNS to flying reluctantly, after American downsizes his office role in 2004. Given all the layoffs and cutbacks, he is glad to have a job.
Back on the line, as flight attendants call it, he sticks with narrow-body planes, 737s and MD-80s, when others bid to work 767s. Their lone aisle and their galleys are cramped, but they do not remind him of that day.
Much of the joy has been drained from flying, gone with the meals in coach. He used to think of it as customer-service work. Now, it is so much about vigilance and suspicion.
He holds it together, just as he had at Logan. He thinks of himself as having two brains, one to focus on the work at hand, one to sequester his emotions.
Sayer decides he has had enough. He returns to teaching, his first career. He takes classes to become a massage therapist, a thought entertained since visiting ground zero in 2002, and learning of the comfort massage therapists provided to rescue workers and volunteers.
He keeps in touch only with Cox, his former boss, the one who notified the flight attendants’ families that day; she left the airline, too, moving to Washington, D.C. But no matter how much time elapses, the emotions and the memories remain; Sayer can still hear Amy Sweeney’s voice.
More spiritual now, he believes that he, and everyone, was in a certain place that day by fate. “Every time something odd happens to me in my life I sit there and think, ‘What’s the purpose, what’s it trying to tell me?’ ’’ he says. “There has to be a reason.’’
HOWARD CRABTREE’S cat throws up on the carpet, and he can barely contain his rage, wanting to hurl it through the living room window. The anger has become familiar, along with the insomnia, straining his marriage.
“I’m wasting a lot of energy,’’ he realizes. “Things have got to change.’’
He has notes that he scrawled all over a legal pad that first night, like a journal. He burns them, feeling calmer afterward.
He is laid off in 2008, out of work for more than a year, eventually hired by a contractor handling cargo for airlines at T.F. Green Airport.
At 46, he has the eyes of a man a generation older, but he is at peace. Investigators think Atta intended for the bags to make the flight - to be consumed at the crash, or retained if they had to abort and try again. The translated notes included a line about “the women of paradise’’ awaiting the martyrs on the other side. Crabtree imagines that Atta, without his luggage, will never meet them.
“I’m hoping he’s in some kind of bad place, without his 400 or 700 virgins,’’ he says, over dinner at a North Attleborough chain restaurant. “Without people feeding him milk and honey.’’
NINE YEARS to the day, and Misuraca is saying his customary anniversary prayer for the victims, wishing them well wherever they are. He has gone back to Logan a few times on the anniversary, but he has had his fill of that.
Today, there is joy and beauty around him, music and celebration. It is his younger son’s wedding day, and the Tewksbury Country Club ballroom looks like something out of a storybook, vaulted ceiling, fieldstone fireplace.
The date is no accident, not after his son saw that Sept. 11 would fall on a Saturday in 2010.
“Dad,’’ the son says, “it will be good memories for you now.’’
THE MORTGAGE BUSINESS falters, collapses; so does Cameron’s marriage. She does not blame it entirely on Sept. 11, but it does not help. The relationship thrived with the rhythms of her job, days-long trips separated by leisure that always began with a celebratory dinner. Now they are both around all the time, working mostly from the house, getting in each other’s hair.
She is numb, a walking casualty left alone with survivor’s guilt that remains secreted away. She tells herself she should feel lucky to be alive. But it is her friends and family who are the lucky ones. She suffers. It is the inverse, she thinks, of the flight attendants who met a swift death.
With her flight benefits, she is an occasional passenger on American out of Boston, drawing double-takes and bear hugs. “Oh my God! Halle!’’ they say. “We miss you!’’
She rationalizes away the guilt she feels about Jean Roger, knowing American botched her sick call the night before, that the fill-in should have been someone else, notified earlier. Someone else survived and doesn’t even know it.
She separates from her husband in 2008, moves to their vacation golf home in Florida, takes a job at the pro shop nearby, their divorce final in 2009.
When people ask about her career, she says she put 16 years of private education to use as a waitress, then became a flight attendant, now retired. They ask her if it was glamorous. They insist she is too young to be retired, not yet 50. Sometimes she explains, and sometimes she does so without crying.
She has no desire to go to New York. She thinks of the courage of her friends on the plane, but that is someone else’s Sept. 11 story.
She is working up the nerve to make the call to American, considering a return even if it means starting over at the bottom, without the seniority to pull cross-country flights. In storage at home, she still has her uniform jacket, still has her wings.