September 11th, 2001 was a deeply traumatic event for our nation. I have seen changes in others profoundly affected by the devastating events of that fateful day. Many Americans have slowly picked up the pieces and moved on with their lives, and that's a good thing. However, the story I am about to share is dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and abroad, still struggling with what happened on 9/11. It is my hope that in sharing my story, those of you that are left feeling "still stuck" 10 years later will understand that you are not alone.
On 9/11/01, I was an international flight attendant for United Airlines with 17 years of seniority and a single mom with a 5- and 9-year-old at home. I was commuting from Phoenix to Los Angeles, and on this trip was headed from LAX to Lihue, Hawaii. I had no idea what was about to happen.
We arrived at our five-star layover hotel just before 11 p.m. local time, and I went to my room to catch up on some much-needed sleep. At about 3:30 a.m. my phone rang, and thoughts started running through my head.
Is it the kids? Is it a plane crash? Is it one of ours? I could barely get out a "hello" before I heard a sobbing, hysterical voice on the other end of the line shouting through gasps and tears.
"Turn on CNN!" she said.
"What?" I asked, still wondering if this was a bad dream. "Who is this?"
"It's Julie," she choked out. "Turn on the TV and turn to CNN, now!"
I fumbled for the light and found the remote, wondering again if I was dreaming. As I turned on the TV, she continued to say what I thought was, "We are at war!" I found the CNN channel and sat up in my bed, in shock.
"What happened?" I demanded as anxiety rushed through me and I stared at the TV screen. I was wide awake now. I saw one of the twin towers I had just walked past the month before while shopping, and it was engulfed in flames. There was a huge hole near the top of the tower and fire was spewing out of a gaping hole. A trail of dark, black smoke covered the otherwise pristine blue sky. Was that done by an aircraft? As CNN tried to determine if it was a small plane, I immediately knew it was from a jet. No small aircraft could have done that kind of damage.
Julie snapped me out of the daze and yelled at me through more sobs: "Grab the crew manifest and come up to my room, now!"
I grabbed the manifest and ran out of my room in my pajamas. As I was running in the hallway corridor to the elevator, I thought about all the guests still sleeping peacefully in this beautiful resort, unaware of the terror unleashing across the Pacific from us. We might as well have been on the other side of the world; there was an ocean and 5,000 miles between us and New York City. The elevator bell rang and pulled me back to reality again. "They'll find out soon enough," I thought to myself as I pushed the button to the fourth floor.
Julie was standing in the hall waiting for me when I stepped off at her floor and we both ran back into her room only to discover the Pentagon had been hit by an aircraft too!
We called the rest of our crew and everyone met in Julie's room. We now had learned that the plane that had hit the first tower was an American Airlines jet, and with sickening survivors guilt, we let out a sigh of relief. But, just minutes later, we saw a gray aircraft, traveling at excessive speed, headed right into the second tower. The distinguishable gray tail with the blue U emblem on it was all too familiar. There were screams of absolute horror in that room. There were tears, and there was ANGER.
It was confirmed an American Airlines jet ran into the Pentagon. That was now two American Airlines, and one United, all coast to coast flights, full of fuel and passengers, hijacked and used as human missiles. It was just too hard to comprehend.
Next, we heard that the FAA was ordered to land every aircraft over U.S. airspace at the nearest airport. This was unprecedented, but a direct order from the president, and clearly the only way to find out how many more planes were hijacked. All international travel was re-routed back outside U.S. airspace. Anyone in the airline industry knows this is a tremendous undertaking, but it was done in amazingly fast time.
As the skies shut down, there was one aircraft left unaccounted for. A few minutes later, it was announced that United 93 was not responding and fighter jets were en-route to find it. I prayed that the crew and passengers of Flight 93 would land safely before the fighter jets got to them.
Updates kept coming on the twin towers and the Pentagon as we waited to hear the fate of the last aircraft in the air. Then it was announced, and confirmed, that United 93 went down in a field in Shanksville, Penn. Again, there was the helpless, horrible feeling; we were watching this all unfold before our eyes and all we could do was console one another.
The first tower then collapsed to the ground, and an eerie white smoke and dust filled the air and streets. I remember papers fluttering to the ground while the weight of the monstrous tower fell with the force of a hurricane. Within an hour or so the second tower fell, something no one could even imagine seeing in real life; it was surreal. It was a day I will never forget, ever.
God only knows the details of what that happened on those four flights, but we learned a lot about what happened to the crew members, and who we lost, when we were finally cleared to return to Los Angeles four days later. As we were doing our demo on the return flight, every set of eyes was on us, and many passengers needed reassurance that we were safe. One of our flight attendants had to stay in the bathroom after the service; she just could not handle all that had happened. I wanted to get home to my children, and many flight attendants from international bases quit. I don't blame them. If we were terrified in the U.S.A., imagine how they felt living in another country?
When I arrived at LAX and found out who we lost, I requested some time off immediately. These people at United were my family for almost 20 years, and I truly loved my job. Safety was always first at United, so how did nine hijackers get on two of our flights? Would I have noticed them if I was working one of those trips? Would I have been as calm when I knew we were headed right into the twin towers? Could I have helped devise a plan with the passengers to take over the cockpit and attack the hijackers on Flight 93, or would I have panicked?
Every crew member on those four flights acted so bravely and courageously, under unimaginable circumstances. And the pilots, who were always looking out for our cabin crew and passenger safety... well, they never had a chance. It just breaks my heart, even now. Many questions have haunted me for a very long time since 9/11.
Ten years later
I took a three-year leave of absence after 9/11, and eventually decided to take the "early out" retirement with 20 years. Life as I had always known it as a flight attendant had changed dramatically. The fun, exciting and social life I had known was gone forever.
I opened a writing business during my leave of absence. I had to launch a new career, because I had always assumed I would spend 30 years with United. I focused on my kids, and became more involved in their day-to-day lives. I got some much-needed therapy, and tried to process all that I had seen, and grieved all the crew members we had lost.
I now write all kinds of stories as a freelancer, and lately my genre has turned to country music. This past six months I have interviewed and written about many famous artists and groups. I enjoy this work and it was always my plan to write after I retired, but sometimes life forces us to change.
Ten years later, my kids are 15 and 19, and almost gone from the nest. The wounds from 9/11 are still healing, but I refuse to let them stop me from having a life at all. Alone, yet together, as a nation we are all slowly healing at our own pace, in our own way.
Shirley Lind is a Valley resident and can be reached at lindfreelancewriting.com