Whenever an event having the magnitude of Sept. 11, 2001, occurs, for years later there is total recall as to where one was when first hearing such catastrophic news. Ten years ago today, my wife and I were aboard a cruise ship entering Vancouver Harbor, returning from an Alaskan tour that had been just about perfect in every way.
We first heard the horrific news that America had been under attack while finishing breakfast and rushed back to our cabin to watch the replay of the planes hitting the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Just the night before, there had been an unforgettable performance by the ship’s entertainers in celebration of the last night before docking. What a difference a day made!
The worst of the attacks, on the Twin Towers, took place 20 miles from where we lived then, in the suburbs near New York City. Consequently, what had just happened was very personal. The ship’s officers and crew were solicitous of the Americans aboard, especially those of us who were from New York. Meanwhile, most passengers were in a bewildered state, asking one another: How could this have happened?
Providing a lifeline
When our ship docked, all Americans were shuttled to a nearby hotel where, in a huge ballroom, several counselors were on hand to provide whatever assistance they could. These counselors were a lifeline and helped us obtain very reasonable hotel accommodations for our indeterminate stay in Vancouver. From the outset, it was clear that no one was capitalizing on the disastrous situation by price gouging.
Once checked into our hotel, we were treated in the same thoughtful manner as aboard ship. We were immediately offered ample bottled water to quench thirst brought about by nervous anticipation as to what was next. The hotel also made available additional computers so that their involuntary guests could update friends and family via email and make alternate travel arrangements to get home.
There were no planes leaving Canada for the United States as Washington, D.C., had ordered the closing of American airspace to incoming international flights. We had no idea how long this situation would last, so it was imperative for us to keep checking bus schedules and car rentals, which was our only means out of Canada. We also needed to stay apprised of if, and when, any flights leaving Seattle would resume.
In the meantime, my wife and I had another problem. We both were running low on our medications. When the hotel concierge learned of this, she made a doctor’s appointment for us at a nearby clinic. There, we were greeted by a Dr. Wilson, who patiently took our medical histories and asked what specific medications we needed. After some routine testing, he issued the required prescriptions and gave us directions to the nearest pharmacy.
When it came time to settle our bill, the good doctor explained that Medicare is not accepted in Canada and then spoke the unexpected words I will never forget: “You New Yorkers have had it rough enough this week. Forget my fee, just get home safely.” Three days later, we did just that when it was possible to book a domestic flight from Seattle to New York.
Feeling like fugitives on the run, my wife and I left Vancouver at 2 a.m. and started on the 150-mile journey to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Pitch-black darkness and heavy fog enveloped our rental car as we traveled the lonely stretch of Canadian highway. Finally nearing the American border and the customs checkpoint, we saw the alabaster form of the Peace Arch rising out of the thick mist, fully illuminated by floodlights. This majestic edifice symbolizes the strong bonds of friendship that exist between the U.S. and Canada. It is also metaphor for how well my wife and I were dealt with under extreme adversity, outside our own country, and so far away from home.
Home at last
When we landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport very late on a dismal, rainy night, and with the terminal almost deserted, the somber, depressing atmosphere fostered thoughts of the terrible events of just a week before. We didn’t understand why the public phones had been disabled, yet still in the prevailing spirit of shared anguish, a fellow passenger waiting with us at the baggage carousel offered us the use of his cellphone. We got through to a relative who soon picked us up and shortly thereafter, we were home at last!
I will always remember the empathy and good will that was extended to so many hopelessly stranded travelers during those uncertain days following Sept. 11 by our truly good neighbor to the north. Perhaps our heartfelt and lasting gratitude can be best expressed by those opening words of the Canadian national anthem: O Canada!
William Wrigg lives in Clifton Park. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.