It was the ungodly hour of 4:30 am when my alarm rang. I was working that horrible 6 am shift at Northwest Airlines in Honolulu. I sat down on the couch to eat some cereal and turned on CNN. They were replaying something that looked like a movie stunt…just as the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. I suddenly realized it was real and choked on my cereal, almost spitting it at the TV.
I sat there stunned. Numb. I felt like I should call someone but it was 5:00 am. I knew I had to get ready for work but I couldn’t tear myself away from the TV. Like a car crash you don’t want to look at but just can’t help it.
9/11 – A day we will never forget. We’ll always remember the moment we heard. The shock and the numbness. It’s an event that is now being taught in high school history classes since those kids weren’t even born yet.
September 11th is the December 7th of our generation –
“A date that will live in infamy”
Fifteen years have passed since that day and I still remember it so clearly even though I was nowhere near the epicenter of the attack. I was on an island in the Pacific, but I still felt it very deeply…
I choked down my cereal, tore myself away from CNN, and wiped away the tears as I left for work. I anticipated a hellish day at the office. Passing by Hickam Air Force Base on my way to Honolulu International Airport, traffic was lined up all the way back to the highway, backed up due to increased security checks.
The airport was dark and eerily quiet as I arrived just before 6:00 am. I walked past the United Airlines ticket counter and saw two agents standing together in stunned silence. Our eyes met but we couldn’t speak.
All flights in US airspace had been ordered to land immediately. The last one down was NW022 from Tokyo to Honolulu. They were too far across the Pacific to turn around and go back to Japan. Once they arrived in Honolulu, all US air space was closed.
The airport was completely deserted except for the homeless people who still lingered. They collected carts for the quarter change they got when they returned them. Business was slow on that day but they had nowhere else to go. “Shirley” still lingered in our lobby wondering what the heck was going on. Her world was rocked.
Our manager was Canadian and he was an idiot. We were in the midst of a national crisis and his lack of people skills and weakness under pressure were evident when he ordered a group of us to the training room.
“Go work on your recurrent training,” he ordered.
Our collective response: “Huh? Seriously?“
A bunch of us went to the training room and ignored any of the required recurrent training, instead turning on CNN. Still in shock as they kept replaying the scenes from New York, we watched in amazement as the buildings began to crumble. Total chaos in New York City. One of my co-workers, Brenda, was from New York and owned a condo not far away from the disaster site.
Half of that group in the training room, glued to CNN coverage, were Asian interpreters. Expats from Asia making a new home in the US. China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong…all were represented in that small training room.
I looked around at the stunned faces and wondered how it felt as an expat to witness such destruction in your new home country. Somehow they seemed a little less moved by the sights on TV but I wasn’t sure if that was a sense of detachment from the US or just an Asian cultural thing. (Now that I understand Asian culture a little better, I believe it was a cultural thing.)
No planes flew in the US for the next three days and three weeks later I was laid off. Half of the staff in Honolulu lost their jobs in the aftermath of 9/11. Thankfully it was temporary, but life in aviation was never the same after that. The fun was gone.
My Taiwanese students sometimes ask about that day and I still can’t really talk about it. One time I played a video clip of Jon Stewart’s 9/11 broadcast, just so they could get a sense of how Americans were feeling at that time. Watching that clip with my students, I choked back the tears so I stopped showing it.
Fifteen years later and half a world away, I still remember everything like it was yesterday. The day everything in aviation changed and the whole world went a little bit crazy. Millions of people were closer to the epicenter and were affected so deeply they continue to deal with the scars from that day. They will never forget.
I also remember that tragedy brought out the good in people, like the people of the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. Over 10,000 passengers ended up diverting to Gander on 9/11 and spent the next few days being cared for by the kind and generous Canadian people in Gander and the surrounding area. The letter written by a Delta flight 15 crew member describes how touched the passengers were by the people of Gander they started a college scholarship for the area children.
Back at work after the six-week layoff, passengers seemed nicer too. People bonded over shared tragedy.
Too bad it takes a tragedy to bring out the good in humanity. The good is always there, it just sometimes remains hidden. Until disaster strikes.
Fifteen years later – we will never forget.
Where were you on that day?