Archive for September, 2011

9/11 Resonated for me on 9/14

13 September, 2011

I was in Melbourne, Australia when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I was working in-house at Lonely Planet as a publisher then and was on one of my frequent visits to the home office. I was due to fly back to my home in San Francisco and my desk in the LP Oakland office on Sept 12. I slept through the attacks, which happened in the middle of the night Melbourne time.

The first I knew of the events was when I stopped into the Greek news agent’s store for my  morning paper. Instead of the usual smile, he gave me a stricken look and handed me the paper, which had an enormous picture of the United plane striking the South Tower. The tram ride into work and much of the rest of the day are a blur. I was streaming US network TV on my laptop while friends and colleagues wandered in and out of my office. People were sympathetic, we talked about what the attacks meant and I shared hugs and tears with the few other Americans in the office.

I also found myself stranded at the wrong end of the world. Something inside me said “go home” but that was not an option. Nothing was flying to the US and it was too soon to look for a freighter. I moved hotels – to one with CNN – and literally lost myself in work. We had dozens of authors researching books worldwide and I wanted to find out where each one was, confirm they were safe and find out if they needed anything. No one knew if 9/11 was the start of something larger and yet more horrible. I could only imagine being on the road and alone, far from home.

 The Return Home

Flights to the US were set to resume on 14 Sept and I got a seat on the first United flight out. The prospect of flying didn’t bother me and I was constantly cognizant of being in the wrong hemisphere, a world away from life-changing events. At the airport, nothing seemed different at first; Australia was still digesting the events in the US and while the attacks were talked about, they hadn’t overwhelmed all other discourse and Australian airplanes had never stopped flying.

But once aboard the United 747 on 14 Sept I began to enter the new reality of life in the US. For the first time since 9/11 I was surrounded by Americans. Faces were taut and there was a palpable tension. Everyone seemed to have a copy of a special issue of Time or Newsweek and the images on the pages conveyed a stark horror we’d been insulated from. I was in my usual seat on the upper deck, right at the emergency exit on the right side. As I sat sorting my thoughts, the purser appeared and knelt down in front of me. He beckoned me closer and as I leaned forward he said in a whisper: “Would you be willing to help the crew?” I knew immediately from the quaver in his voice that this wasn’t going to be the usual special instruction about opening the door in an emergency.

“In case there’s trouble on the flight,” he continued, “we’ll need all the help we can get.” Feeling my eyes starting to bug slightly, I murmured a quizzical and tentative “okay…”

Taking my arm, the purser pulled me from my seat and over to the flight attendant station directly across. “Here,” he said pointing at a big cylinder mounted on the right side, “this is the fire extinguisher. If something bad happens, please take it and hit whoever is causing trouble.”

I stared at the celery-green cylinder mounted on the side and managed another “okay…”

“Here’s how you remove it,” the purser continued as he showed how the latch worked. “You try.”

"My" fire extinguisher is tucked away on the side.

I unsnapped the strap and hoisted the extinguisher, which was surprisingly heavy, maybe about 15 pounds. It felt like cast iron and had a slightly pebbled texture to the cold metal case, sort of like the skin of an orange. “Just swing it, hit them over the head,” the purser said encouragingly. “Okay…” I managed as he replaced the device and I sat back in my seat.

The first accounts of the heroics of the passengers and crew on United flight 93 had been published that day. I’d read them, but now they took on a sudden relevance that left me deeply unsettled. I was blithely going to fly home, I was an outsider to everything that happened in the US. Now I was lost wondering what I’d do if trouble erupted. It was easy to assume some Rambo-like role of heroics but who was I kidding? If the unthinkable happened, would I fly into action with my fire extinguisher or would I freeze? Could I drop my role as the bemused observer and actually do something?

Hearing “we appreciate your volunteering” I looked up to see one of the pilots, a guy right out of pilot central casting, giving me warm smile. “I’m sure there won’t be a problem but its good to be ready just in case,” he said, “we don’t want anyone reaching the cockpit.”

“Okay…”

Once in the air, I found it hard to focus on anything but my thoughts about 9/11 and that celery-green fire extinguisher a few feet away. The Producers was showing and normally a gin and tonic enjoyed while Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel realize their improbable path to wealth through theatrical failure would have been the ideal escape. But I couldn’t focus on it. I drank a soda water. The flight attendants were my new best friends. They came by constantly asking me if I wanted anything, they gave me conspiratorial winks. But they also showed plenty of strain.  Several hours into the 13-hour flight I chatted with a few for a while. They knew crew on the flights that crashed, they worried that this was just the start of much greater horrors and they worried – with good reason as it turned out – what would happen to air travel.

Ten years later I have no recollection of who sat next to me, or if anyone did. I didn’t sleep but passed the hours glancing at the flight attendant station, trying to sense sudden movements from the back of the cabin, wondering if I could be of any use and starting to think about 9/11 on a level deeper than just an almost unfathomable spectacle of horror. We landed in San Francisco and I was soon focused on catching up with a society that was profoundly changed from the one I’d left a few weeks before.

 Ten Years Later

Just last week, I was flying back to the US from Sydney on a United 747. As I have during my many flights on these planes over the last 10 years, I looked at the now-familiar and still oddly celery-green fire extinguisher at the flight attendants station. If anything, it now brings back thoughts of “what if” and self-absorbed ponderings of self-doubt. It also reminds me of how we are all cast into roles. Being white, large and then nearly middle-aged, I must have fit the ideal of someone the crew could assume wasn’t a terrorist and would be useful back-up if trouble happened. Nothing about my appearance I guess suggested that I’ve never hit anyone in my life or that I was always picked dead last at baseball, thanks to my inability to swing a bat in any useful way.

But mostly I just fly. I hang onto my droopy-drawer beltless pants as I shuffle shoeless through security I find a much-larger than allowed bottle of liquid forgotten in an obscure pocket of my bag that has gone undiscovered through at least 40 security screenings, and I read accounts like this (Woman flyer strip searched and locked up) which show us just how much we’ve lost and how we’ve collectively allowed these changes which diminish us all. Where’s my fire extinguisher now and why aren’t I using it?

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