Sunday, September 11, 2011

My 9/11 Memories

We will never forget where we were on September 11, 2001, will we? For my husband Hans and me, that location was on a train in Europe. A couple of weeks after getting home, I documented our experience of September 11 and the days until we were able to return home on September 14, which was our scheduled return date, but did not occur as scheduled. We had started our trip on August 30, including stops in Zurich, Switzerland; Paris, France; Prague, Czech Republic; Bratislava, Slovak Republic; and Salzburg, Austria; before boarding the train to spend our last few days in Europe with my German friend Andrea and her family in a little town called Goldbach, which is near Frankfurt. Here is what I wrote on September 26, 2001:

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We left Salzburg midday and headed to Munich to change trains. We had wonderful ham & cheese and chocolate pastries at the Munich train station to tide us over in anticipation of the wonderful meal Andrea's mother would prepare for us that night in Goldbach (the small town where Andrea’s parents live, which is near Aschaffenburg, about 30 miles from Frankfurt).

We boarded the train at 1:42 p.m. local time and settled in for the four hour ride to Aschaffenburg. Again, we mostly watched scenery, but did get in a little reading and a few hands of Crazy Eights. Arriving Aschaffenburg at 5:09 p.m. [9:09 a.m. Eastern Time - the first plane hit the WTC at 8:46 ET], Andrea's mother picked us up and we made the 10-minute drive to their house in Goldbach. As we neared the house, she remembered to ask us if we had seen the news. We told her that we had bought an English-language newspaper in Salzburg the day before. She said that something had happened, “today, in New York.” She didn’t know the details, as the attacks had probably happened shortly before she left. She knew that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane.

When we went in the house, Eva, Andrea’s younger sister, was there and broke the news to us in one sentence: “The World Trade Centers are gone.” Hans and I looked at each other in disbelief and immediately settled in front of the TV, which they kindly tuned to CNN (the only English channel they get) so that we could see what was happening to our country. We watched in horror as they showed the footage of the towers collapsing and people running for their lives or jumping from the towers. We never would have thought that something so catastrophic would happen while we were on vacation. After staying glued to the TV for over an hour, we finally came up for air and realized that we needed to try to get in touch with our parents to see if everyone at home was OK and let them know that we were OK.

We were not able to get through to the U.S. via telephone and her parents do not have internet access at home, so we had to wait until the next day when Julia, Andrea’s older sister, sent emails to my mom (who forwarded it to Hans’ mom) and our bosses. We were finally able to call home late in the day on Wednesday, 9/12. My mom had written Julia saying she would try to call at 7 p.m. our time, but the phone never rang, so we tried calling her and got through. We talked for a few minutes and promised her we would not travel unless it appeared safe to do so.

It was interesting to watch German TV along with CNN. I could understand enough to know basically what they were saying. They were truly upset by the events in the U.S. I remember seeing a segment about Berlin’s five minute pause for reflection. They showed traffic, including buses and streetcars, at a standstill in downtown Berlin for five minutes. We spent the day Wednesday with Andrea, then went to dinner with her and Giuliano (her boyfriend) and Julia and Marcus (her boyfriend) at the castle in Aschaffenburg.

Thursday we hung around the house part of the day and spent the afternoon running errands with Andrea's mom. She took us to the butcher shop where we bought N├╝rnberger bratwurst and fresh sauerkraut for dinner that night. We also went to their “supermarket” and looked around, buying a few items in case we got stuck there for a few days. (And we laugh at Andrea for thinking Kroger is interesting!) That night, we had dinner with her parents and shared a little of the whiskey Hans had gotten on the airplane. We tried to find out if our flight would be on for the next afternoon (1:50 departure), but could get no answers on TV [they have a channel that shows flight schedules] and could not get through by telephone to Delta.

We got up early on Friday, 9/14, and headed by train to the Frankfurt airport. We hugged Andrea's mom, thanked her for everything, and told her we would call if we had to come back to their house that night. Andrea even got us passes to the Frankfurt Auto Show just in case we got stuck there over the weekend. Once at the airport, we waited in line at the check-in counter for a while before being approached by an agent who told us to go stand in the ticket line, so we did. We waited in this line for about an hour before reaching the front. Having worked at Delta, of course I sympathized with the agents. Dealing with the occasional cancelled flight is bad enough, but when your entire schedule is cancelled except for 2 or 3 flights, every passenger presents a unique logistical problem.

We noticed while waiting in line that everyone was an American trying to get home and we were all sharing our situations with the others. One group had been in Greece for a photo shoot and flew to Frankfurt in hopes of getting home faster, since Frankfurt is a major airport and Athens is not. The other half of their group had gone to Munich and it appeared that they would not get home for days. The man in the next line over was going to Florida, the lady behind us was going to Rhode Island, and the entire line was abuzz with people sharing their stories.

Once we finally got up to the counter, we were told that the only flight left to the U.S. that day would be going to JFK in New York. We said that we would take it if we could, then find a way home from there. Once our tickets were corrected, we had to go back to the check-in counter to be asked the security questions and check our bags in. We had already made sure that any sharp metal object was in the checked bags, but they made us put all of our bottles of alcohol in the checked baggage as well. Then we went through airport security, which also checked boarding passes and IDs.

As we were walking down the deserted corridor to the gate area, the announcement was made requesting a moment of silence. It was already so quiet, you couldn’t tell a difference. When we got down to the final hallway to our gate, there were tables set up and German guards armed with automatic weapons standing by as airport employees hand-searched all of our carry-on luggage item by item. They looked at every crystal glass, inside every item of clothing and smaller bags, and even took my camera around the corner. I guess they were making sure it really worked. After repacking all of our previously perfectly-packed bags, it was on to the next table for the metal-detecting wand and a slight frisking. Finally, we were clear to go to the gate area.

At this point, we decided to call Andrea's mom and give her the flight information and have Julia email it to Mom so that they would all know if we got out or not. There was only one telephone in the gate area, which was a secluded room, so as people waited in line to try to figure out how to use the German telephone, we shared stories again about how long we’d been stuck and where we were trying to go. I did manage to get hold of Andrea's mom and give her the information.

As we were waiting in the gate area, the ground crew announced that the airports in New York were closed again and that the flight would now be going to Cincinnati, which was fine with us since we could get a direct flight to Huntsville, which we would not have been able to do from JFK. Shortly thereafter the flight attendants showed up en masse and the gate area erupted in applause for them. They were followed in short order by the pilots who also received a round of applause.

Finally, it was time to board at around 1:30. After they called first class, a girl a few rows away from us noticed that a black bag had been left unattended. Everyone scattered and an agent went running up to the counter. The girl yelled to the crowd to ask if anyone had left a bag and, to everyone’s relief, a man checking in realized that it was his. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

The flight was originally scheduled for 12:00, but the extra security measures and ticketing/check-in issues caused a lengthy delay. We actually didn’t end up taking off until about 3:30. They filled the plane slowly as they were able to change people’s tickets and get them through security to the gate area. As we waited after boarding, the main pilot wandered through the cabin speaking to anyone who was interested in saying hello. He assured us that he had every intention of getting us home safely. Once he spoke over the intercom, he told us a little about his family back in Texas and said he was ready to get home to see them.

There was a large group that boarded right at the end and a gate agent who accompanied them on-board to help out with last-minute logistics. As she left the plane, the entire group of about 20 applauded for her. She must have worked really hard to help them arrange their schedules.

The flight itself was uneventful. I found it hard not to look at everyone suspiciously, particularly those who looked Middle Eastern. The other language on the video and announcements on the plane was Turkish, which was rather odd. I kept reminding myself that Turkey is a safe country to visit and that I should not judge someone by the way they look. Once we got out over the ocean I felt better about being on a large plane with a full tank of fuel.

We landed in Cincinnati later that evening to another round of applause and easily made it onto a direct flight to Huntsville. It felt amazingly good to be home, even while we waited at the Cincinnati airport. Of course, when we got to the Huntsville airport and met our friends who came to pick us up, we felt much more relieved. The kitties were ever so glad to have us home and tried to keep us from sleeping those first couple of nights home.

I wanted to record my own memories of this strange vacation that was so wonderful at the beginning and so clouded by tragedy at the end. I will certainly always remember where I was when I heard about the attack on America and the world.

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When I woke up this morning, September 11, 2011, I realized what today is. Hans and I now have four children and two companies of our own, things that those who perished on 9/11 lost the opportunity to do. We Americans have not forgotten and will never forget. We do not go on as though nothing happened. We go on as though something significant and life-changing happened ten years ago today.

Feel free to post here where you were on 9/11. It is always fascinating to me to hear what others were doing on that fateful day.

Barbara