[2001 - Cincinnati, Ohio]
I am sitting in one of several black vinyl recliner chairs, not really reclining; more like I am sitting upright and leaning forward staring at my large cellular telephone. I pull out the antenna and my finger hovers over the power button. I need to make a call but hesitate thinking it over first. The battery is almost dead. I picture my phone charger closed up tight in the top drawer of my nightstand at home. This phone is just for emergencies. I hardly ever use it, making my nightly calls home to check on my family from hotel phones. My layovers on this three-day trip have been extremely short. Barely enough time to get enough sleep before turning around and doing it all over again the next morning. I packed light. Clean uniform shirts and underwear for each day of the trip, pajamas, and one scruffy pair of shorts with a tank top and flip flops just in case I decide to venture out of my room in the middle of the night.
Since my Sprint plan is bare-bones only allowing me 30 minutes a month of calls, a typical “emergency plan” in 2001, it is a rarity for me to dial-up a number without a good reason. This entire morning qualifies as an emergency so I feel around one more time, down deep in my shoulder bag, hoping the charger might be hidden underneath my flight attendant safety demo gear or the bright red “Emergency Manual” we are required to have with us at all times, in case of an emergency. My hand snakes around the bottom of the bag feeling loose change, a pen, a rogue stick of gum, and snags on what feels like a cord. I get excited but then am let down as my hand emerges with the ornate gold locket necklace that I thought was lost.
I came across it at an antique shop in 1984, while on a layover in Portland, Maine. I was drawn to the beauty of it and paid the asking price ($25.00) even though I really couldn’t afford it. Being single at that time, I cut out a tiny picture of Tom Cruise during his Risky Business days and placed it inside the locket. I always loved seeing the looks of surprise on various coworkers’ faces when I told them I had a picture of my “boyfriend” in the locket and they opened it to see a tiny Tom Cruise smiling up at them with his beautiful pearly whites. The thought brings a smile to my face but then I think back to events of this morning and my mood becomes somber.
After a short night, 9 hours and 40 minutes to be exact, in Lexington, Kentucky, our crew worked a quick hop to Cincinnati, Ohio. We landed a little before 0955 ahead of schedule. Still, a long way to go until we reach our home base, scheduled to land at DFW airport at 18:46 after what was to be another tiring day. This would be the end of what seemed like a never-ending and thoroughly exhausting trip. The passenger load was extremely light that morning so all of us, passengers, and crew members, were standing around in first-class waiting for the gate agent to open the door so we could deplane. One of the first-class businessmen was having an animated cell phone conversation, rare in those days, and after hanging upturned to the captain to explain that his friend informed him of what appeared to be a small airplane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers just moments before we took off in Lexington.
I looked around at the somber faces reflecting what I felt. We stood in silence for a moment and then suddenly the door was whisked open by an apologetic gate agent and we all jumped to action picking up bags and heading out the door. I heard a voice saying, “That is weird,” as we all went our separate ways.
My two flight attendant coworkers and I immediately began to walk toward the flight attendant lounge. Still unaware of the events that had unfolded during our 45-minute flight to Cincinnati, we thought we had a couple of hours to kill before the continuation of our three-day trip. DFW airport still seemed like a light at the distant end of a tunnel so we contemplated grabbing some breakfast “to go” and taking it downstairs to eat in privacy without the gawking stares of passengers. Sometimes we just needed a moment to regroup before plastering ever-present smiles on our faces.
We spoke of the aircraft that had crashed in New York City, all of us still under the assumption that it was a small private plane with perhaps a disoriented pilot. We had never heard of anything like this happening before. Passing by an airport sports bar, open and serving Bloody Marys at this early hour, we noticed a large screen TV airing a panoramic view of the Twin Towers. One of the towers had smoke pouring out of its side so we drew closer, entering the bar and surrounding the TV to hear what the newscaster was saying. We collectively gasped as events, recently recorded and being aired for the first time, unfolded before our very eyes. The second tower became the camera’s focal point and we watched as what appeared to be another small plane crashed straight into the side of the building.
The bar was eerily quiet until a sob started somewhere in the back and tears streamed down our faces as we came to the realization that we were under attack. Until this point, we didn’t really understand terrorism and the hate that some groups had toward Americans and our freedoms. Our world just changed in a way that we couldn’t even comprehend at that moment.
As a group, the three of us made our way down the endless flight of stairs into the silent lounge. Flight attendants were sitting around in the black recliners with the shell-shocked look of war victims. The news had come out by this time that it was not small planes that crashed into the towers, but full-size passenger-laden jets. Jets carrying innocent families and business travelers and crew members, the horror they must have experienced unimaginable to us.
My thoughts come back to the present and I press the power button on that inexplicably huge cell phone with the retractable antenna and make the call.
“It’s good to hear your voice. I knew you weren’t scheduled to be in New York today and were headed home, but you just never know…” his voice trails off.
My phone begins to beep, an indication that the battery is on its last legs. I will talk to my husband until the line goes dead. “I am scared. I don’t know what this means for all of us. I love you and please let the kids know that I am okay and will get home to you as soon as I can,” my voice breaks and I hear one last beep as my phone dies.
The thing most memorable to me is the silent sky. Void of airplanes and jets, the birds seem to have even stopped flying for days following the tragedy. I will never forget the events of 9/11 and the way our world changed in an instant.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by the true events of September 11, 2001