A Day to Remember
by John J. St. John
There are days that affect so many of us so deeply that they enter our collective memory, and ever afterward each of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on that day. December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, was such a day. November 22, 1963, President Kennedy’s assassination, was another.
This is the story of where I was, and what I was doing, on yet another of those fateful days.
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As I hurried through the airport in Cuzco, Peru to catch an early morning flight back to Lima, I saw Secretary of State Colin Powell’s face smiling back at me from the front page of a local newspaper. Apparently he was there in Lima for a round of meetings with the Peruvian President and other high officials. I had met Powell some years before , when he headed the National Security Council for the first President Bush and I was the State Department’s Director of Mexican Affairs, and had formed a strongly favorable impression of him, so the news article awakened pleasant memories.
In the departure gate waiting area, I was pleased to find an empty seat next to four of the people I had gotten to know on my tour of Machu Picchu and the Inca highlands – a magnificent trip, by the way, which I recommend to anyone able to handle some moderately strenuous walking and climbing. In the seats to my left were two attractive young women in their mid-thirties, one of whom I had prevailed upon to take my picture at Machu Picchu’s most dramatic vantage point. On my right was a British couple I had dined with at our hotel three days before, and with whom I had shared an unexpected four-hour wait for the Machu Picchu train, which had been delayed by a rockslide – not an uncommon occurrence we were told. All four were scheduled to connect in Lima that same day with flights to New York; the young women returning to their office jobs in the World Trade Center, and the British couple to spend a few days in the “Big Apple” before heading back to London.
I was looking forward to an afternoon of sightseeing in Lima, then a good night’s sleep before my own flight home the next day.
Our flight to Lima was uneventful, as all good flights should be. The day was Monday, September 10, 2001.
The following morning, my wake-up call came well before dawn, as I had requested. Why is it that, when there is only one flight a day to your destination, it is always scheduled for “oh-dark-thirty”, as my military friends like to put it? On this morning, in the large and already-bustling Lima Airport, I saw no familiar faces. Even Colin Powell had apparently been relegated to an inside page at the newsstands. Luckily, my American Airlines flight boarded on time, so I took my accustomed window seat in cattle-car class, opened my paperback novel, and got down to the serious business of trying to make the best of an inherently uncomfortable multi-hour experience.
Four hours or so into the flight, its routine was interrupted by an announcement over the public address system. The pilot’s voice conveyed somewhat less assurance than one usually hears from the flight deck, as he told us there had been “an unusual occurrence” in the United States. “A computer failure”, he said, “had caused the entire U.S. Air Traffic Control System to go down from coast to coast”. All commercial aircraft bound for the U.S. were, as a result, being ordered to land at the nearest available airport. In our case this was to be in Panama. Emphasizing that there was no problem with our aircraft, and that it was beyond the power of American Airlines to do anything about the situation, he said there was reason to hope the problem might be resolved within the next twenty-four hours or so, but it was clear we would all have to spend at least one night in Panama. He added that airline employees at our new destination were already working to line up hotel accommodations.
As I absorbed this information, it just did not seem to add up. More likely something big – and not good – had happened at home, which the pilot thought it best not to tell us about. Or maybe had been ordered not to tell us about. It crossed my mind that the Air Traffic Control System might have been taken down by a terrorist incident. But then I remembered that my nose had been buried for the past several hours in a Tom Clancy novel. If you’ve heard of Tom Clancy, you probably know he has earned millions writing vivid and highly realistic page-turners – the kind of thrillers that often involve rather extreme forms of mass violence. In one of his books, a terrorist had even crashed a passenger airliner into the U.S. Capitol Building during the State of the Union Address, killing the president, as well as most of his Cabinet and the Congress. Remembering that, I smiled and brought my imagination back under control. A Tom Clancy novel is a great read, but real life it’s not.
We were not the only unexpected plane at the Panama airport that day, nor were we the first. The arrivals area was jammed, and the airport personnel were overwhelmed. At first we were allowed to de-plane, but were then halted at the end of the boarding bridge, where the pressure of passengers quickly built up behind us. After about ten minutes I pleaded bladder urgency, and the guard took pity on me. On my way to the rest room I saw a couple of TV monitors with large groups of people gathered around them, but took no further notice as I had more vital business to take care of. In the Men’s room someone told me that both towers of the World Trade Center had been hit by passenger planes, and were burning. Finishing my business, I went right to the TV’s and stood transfixed, along with everyone else.
In the meantime, the passengers from my flight were released to proceed to the baggage pickup area, where we were to be given our hotel assignments. I lagged behind, unable for the longest time to take my eyes off the black smoke pouring from the twin towers. Finally I pulled myself free, both physically from the TV and mentally from the events in New York, and forced myself to take stock of my own situation. My immediate priorities, I decided, were telephone, baggage and lodging, in that order.
Telephones in that area were few, and each had a long waiting line. I found an American Airlines employee, asked if there was an Admiral’s Club in the airport, and was told “yes” and “that way.” I had allowed my membership to lapse a few years earlier but, in the circumstances, the Club’s gatekeeper was only too happy to make a phone available to me. I was able to reach my daughter-in-law, who agreed to pass my whereabouts on to other family members, especially to my wife, Elsa, who had remained in Ecuador with a friend while I visited Machu Picchu. Task #1 accomplished.
Baggage turned out to be no problem at all. Task #2, taken care of.
Settling the matter of accommodations was a bit more challenging. Different people had been told different things. Our flight had been assigned to the Continental Hotel. No, it was the Inter-Continental. No, the Marriott. Not really a problem. Once I identified the person in charge, I was able to determine – with perhaps an 80 percent or so degree of certainty – that it was indeed the Continental.
Task #3, not quite yet accomplished: we still had to physically get there.
We were told that buses had been arranged, and they would arrive “within a few minutes.” Sure they would! Experience told me that things seldom work that smoothly in emergencies. Moreover, there were about three busloads of people already in line ahead of me. I asked an honest-looking passenger if he would mind watching my bags while I scouted out the taxi possibilities. Just about a football field distant there were in fact a few taxis awaiting customers, but the best price I could negotiate was $60 dollars US. I accepted, told the driver to follow me to where I had left my bags, and quickly recruited two other passengers to share the ride.
After a comfortable 20-minute trip into the city, we arrived at the correct hotel (we made the driver wait until I went inside to confirm this), then gave him our thanks and a handsome tip. Inside the hotel, a special reception desk had been set up exclusively for our flight, and we were the first passengers to arrive. We found out later that the buses reached the hotel about two hours afterward. Task #3, very well accomplished!
I took a quick shower, and settled down to become acquainted with my TV which, except for meal breaks, was to become my constant and only companion for the next 48 hours and probably more -- it all tends to run together in memory. The room, by the way, was an excellent one. And, contrary to what the pilot had intimated just before landing, American Airlines assured us they were picking up the tab, meals included. Pretty decent of them, I must say, since they bore no responsibility whatever for our little side trip.
Despite being in a foreign country, and a developing one at that, all of us – glued to the tube – were able to follow that day’s events as fully, and at exactly the same time, as everyone at home and indeed in much of the world. I found out in my mealtime conversations, and in later ones after eventually returning home, that my impressions of that day were nearly universal.
Mainly there was this colossal disconnect between the realization on the one hand that these things were actually happening, and the unreality on the other hand of us being here in comfort – indeed luxury – seeing it all take place as though watching a movie.
The moment when we watched the towers fall – that very moment – thousands of persons died as we looked on. Intellectually, we knew this to be true . Emotionally, it was impossible to comprehend; they were pictures on a tube, nothing more. The scene that remains with me most vividly is when, just after the fall, dense clouds of dust and debris rose, boiling and churning, turning the corners and filling the canyon-like streets while crowds of fear-stricken people ran, literally for their lives, trying desperately to stay ahead of it. Just like a very well-made disaster movie. Hadn’t we seen this before in some darkened theater? But today, it was all too real.
As days passed and flights into the United States remained grounded, a few of the passengers began to seek alternative ways home. Having made telephone contact with Elsa, still in Ecuador, and with Mexicana Airlines’ Panama office, we were both able to arrange flights to her original home town of Monterrey, Mexico, where she still has family, and from where we could enter the U.S. by land. Since domestic U.S. flights were back in business, it would then be a fairly simple matter to get back to the D.C. area.
What Elsa didn’t tell me, and I found out only when we were re-united in Monterrey a few days later, was that she had had an accident while in Quito, in which one of her elbows was shattered. That same afternoon, we consulted the best known orthopedist in Monterrey who, after studying the x-rays, recommended in the strongest terms that we take the first flight back to the Washington area for treatment. Luckily, the ban on international flights had just been lifted, to be effective the following morning. Even more luckily, and with the assistance of a family member with connections, we got on the first flight out.
More luckily still, we were seen late that afternoon by Elsa’s orthopedist, who told her there were only two orthopedic surgeons in the entire D.C. area capable of performing the surgery she needed. And, to top off this amazing run of luck, one of those two had her under the knife shortly before midnight. The surgery went splendidly, and two years of therapy later, Elsa had regained most of her normal range of motion.
It has been nearly nine years since that week in 2001. My and Elsa’s experiences during those days are manifestly inconsequential when compared to those of persons at the various centers of events, and of their families. I hope nothing in this small memoir gives the impression that I believe otherwise. But these are the places I was and the things I was doing – and feeling – at those moments. However insignificant they were, they are fated to remain forever linked in my memory with the much larger events that made that day and week so terrible, and so memorable.