Marc Weissman: Remembering 9/11
Marc Weissman was one of the plane people who landed in Gander during 9/11
Ten years later, it's still so hard to truly comprehend the magnitude, impact and significance of what happened on that ill-fated day. For as long as I can remember, New York City has always been a spectacular and revered haven, whether because of my Dad's influential Bronx upbringing, my life-long allegiance to the Rangers, the unique ambiances of Chinatown and Little Italy or quite simply that unmistakeable flavor of Gyro II's tzatziki sauce across from Madison Square Garden. The word "tragedy", heaven forbid, just never remotely came to mind when I pictured "the city."
But, sadly, that all changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
I was actually flying home on Delta Flight #37 from London that morning, seemingly headed to Cincinnati after a routine business trip. Ironically, my colleague and I were originally scheduled to come home on September 12th, but we had "fortunately" wrapped up our assignment a day early. As I lay asleep somewhere over the coast of Greenland, our pilot suddenly came on the loudspeaker in a muffled voice and said: "Terrorism!.......We need to land!....."
That was it?!
No indication of what had happened, who had done such a thing, if they were on our plane. Nothing. It was eerily quiet after that as we made our way - not to destined Ohio - but to nearby Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. Us along with 37 other diverted aircraft.
It turns out that historically, Gander International was an oft-used refueling point for jets traveling from L.A. to Europe. But with the advent of increased fuel capacity, the need for bigger jets to refuel there had decreased over the years, so Gander Airport was rarely used and certainly ill-equipped to handle such a large number of simultaneously unexpected "visitors."
Once we landed, the plane's air phones quickly became jammed from all of the high call traffic, so I immediately called my family on my cellphone to find out what they knew and tell them that I was okay. It was a lucky thing that my cell was fully charged because other passengers soon needed it to put their loved ones at ease as well. When my wife, Dina, said, "You're not going to believe this but the Twin Towers are gone!", my jaw dropped. I couldn't stop shaking my head in disbelief. It turns out the last time I had ever been inside the World Trade Center was when she and I had gone to NYC for the Rangers' Stanley Cup Parade celebration back in 1994. I remember how echoey and joyous it was coming up the escalator as fans chanted: "Let's Go Rangers!" as loud as I'd ever heard inside "The World's Most Famous Arena."
But now those same towers were gone?!
Dina had inadvertently found out what had happened while routinely checking her email on AOL. She had noticed a small icon of a plane hitting the WTC and harmlessly thought it was simply an ad for a new video game. She was shocked and horrified after she clicked on it and the subsequent page opened to show what was taking place in NYC at those very moments. As it turned out, I only had enough pre-flight time to tell Dina that I was flying home early. The rest of my family had still been under the impression that I was scheduled to leave the following day. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law was working on Wall Street, but thankfully, he was able to make his way across Lower Manhattan amidst the sheer panic, and eventually, he took a tugboat across the Hudson to his car in Jersey City.
Back in Gander, it turned out we spent a total of 31 hours on the plane before getting off. With all due respect, it is probably the only time in the history of air travel that passengers were ever stuck on a tarmac that long without uttering a single complaint, given word spread quickly what had happened in New York City. While still on the plane, we could see ambulances circling in and around the runways in case anyone needed medical help. Nicotine patches were even handed out, and I guess more food was eventually brought on board. How still remains fuzzy to me. But I do vividly recall the pilot opening the cockpit door and, despite the circumstances, actually allowing us to eavesdrop on the reports that were coming in over the plane's radio.
The reason it took so long for us to deplane was, since none of these international flights were originally scheduled for Gander, no customs agents were on site to check in the 6000+ unexpectedly arriving passengers. The closest group of agents was over in St. John's, about four hours away. Somehow, on basically no notice, they were shuttled up to Gander. However, there was still the logistics issue of getting everyone from the planes over to an offsite "make-shift" customs area. In the first of seemingly endless heroic gestures from the local townspeople, the school bus drivers, who happened to be on strike at the time, instinctively put down their picket signs to help transport all of us.
I still remember how strange it felt to be sitting alongside predominantly adults on a stereotypical yellow school bus as we bounced along to nearby Gambo, NL. Once we arrived, everyone was divided into several "outposts", ours being the local VFW hall. It was there, on the large screens equipped with satellite TV, that I first saw the unforgettable images of the towers collapsing and the ongoing news coverage. Even after seeing it for myself, I still could not believe what had happened.
As has been well-documented since (a.k.a. "Operation Yellow Ribbon"), the people of Gander, Gambo and the surrounding towns responded during those three days in a way that can never be fittingly described or dutifully accoladed. The numerous acts of kindness that our "hosts" showed us - like making delicious soup and meals, opening their homes and even closing the schools to provide us with shelter and internet access - were just so, so welcoming and gracious. To a person, we were and are, still to this day, ever-so-appreciative for their altruism. Keep in mind that by days two and three, no one had any idea when, and, if we would be able to fly home as originally planned. In fact, as a fallback measure, Dina had ingeniously mapped out an alternative route for me to take home via various means of mass transit that even included a six-hour ferry ride to Nova Scotia!
Luckily, by Day 3, an impromptu website had been created that listed the 38 planes in order of their expected departure. Since Delta Flight #37 was one of the last planes to initially arrive, we were one of the first to take off on Friday, Sept. 14th to Cincinnati, thus clearing the way for other planes to depart soon after. Once my colleague and I landed in Ohio, we were able to rent a car and drive the six hours back to our homes in Indiana. Little did we realize the significance of what we had just experienced.
And to be honest, sometimes I wonder if we still do.
Nevertheless, I would like to send out my deepest, most heartfelt thoughts, prayers and condolences to the families and friends of those who were not as fortunate and, regrettably, did not return home. Though it may be professedly cathartic to formally grieve during so-called "anniversaries" such as this one, the intense pain felt from that day forward must still be just so difficult for them to cope with.
Hopefully, with each passing day, the healing process works as it should...
And to all those Newfoundlanders who opened their arms, houses and hearts: Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! :)
Marc Weissman Shelton, CT (formerly of Warsaw, IN)