Fifteen years ago, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my husband and I were at Logan Airport, sitting in an exit row aboard Continental Airlines Flight 847 for a short flight to Newark. Our scheduled departure time was 9 a.m. But our plane never left the ground.
The first problem was small, something about a flap on a door. The captain announced it would take five, maybe 10 minutes to fix. The next problem was bigger than anyone then knew: There had been a security breach at one of New York’s airports. We were told to exit the plane and wait for further instructions.
We weren’t even out of our seats before we learned, via cellphones, that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The buzz was that it must have been a small plane, and this must have been an accident. But then someone said that two planes had flown into the buildings, and that it was a deliberate attack.
We made our way to Continental’s airport lounge in silence. The room was silent, too, pilots, flight attendants, passengers, all too stunned to speak. We stood and on the overhead TV watched a plane crash into the tower. We listened to a reporter say that another plane had hit the Pentagon. Thousands of planes were still in the air. When newscasters reported that two of the doomed flights had originated in Boston, cellphones started ringing.
“Thank God, you’re OK.” That’s what people said over and over that day. “Thank God you’re OK.” Cell service was erratic. Circuits were overloaded, calls to New York City next to impossible. But no one got angry about this. People just kept calling and calling until they reached the person they needed to reach.
There was no panic, either. When the State Police arrived and announced that they were evacuating the airport, people left quietly and quickly. No one grumbled about luggage left behind. Or refunds. Or the cost of getting home.
For days, for months after, there was a certainty that the world would never be the same, that we would never be the same. That this was like Pearl Harbor. Something had happened that had never happened before. Something unimaginable. And it had changed us.
I remember going to Richard Ross’s funeral. He was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11. Both he and my husband were in the travel business. Both were born into it. Both had sisters in the business. Both had three children, a boy and two girls, and both spent a lot of time in the air.
Thousands attended the service for Richard. His children, Abigail, Alison, and Franklin, spoke about their father, each of them with infinite love.
I remember the sadness and fear of those days. The New York Times did a series called “Portraits of Grief,” which were one-paragraph stories with photos and little details about every person who died. These stories filled a full page, every day, day after day, for months. Nearly 3,000 people dead, nearly 3,000 sad stories.
I remember going to New York 10 days after Sept. 11 to visit my son and his family (“Thank God, you’re OK”) and seeing all the missing-people posters everywhere, on subway walls, in store windows, taped to buildings and park benches, and printed on fliers, which sad, desperate people thrust into the hands of passersby.
And I remember prayer vigils and town gatherings and people wondering what was next.
I kept a journal. “October 4, 2001, A plane flying from Ben Gurion Airport to Siberia exploded today in mid air over the old Soviet Union. A 63-year old Florida man has been hospitalized with anthrax.”
“October 7: War looms.”
“More anthrax. Now there are ground troops in Afghanistan.” Oct. 21, 2001.
“Last week, a New York woman, Kathy Nguyen, died of anthrax.” Nov. 7, 2001.
“A passenger on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami tried to ignite explosives he had hidden in his shoes. He was 6’4”. The flight attendants and passengers wrestled him down and tied him to his seat and a doctor sedated him. The plane was diverted to Boston.” Dec. 22, 2001.
Last March, I visited the 9/11 Memorial. It’s a somber place. Respectful of what happened. Educational. Rubble transformed to beauty.
But heartbreaking. Because it exists. Because it is yet another beautifully constructed memorial where we go to mourn and remember the dead. And try so hard to understand why they died.