Long before sunrise on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, my wife Katherine and I boarded Singapore Airlines Flight 26 from Frankfurt to JFK. The flight had originated in Singapore, and a few travelers from southeast Asia remained on board, but most of the passengers leaving Frankfurt were either Germans going to the U.S. or Americans going home, in about equal numbers. We had planned to change our Deutschmarks to U.S. currency at the airport, but the change kiosks weren’t open at that early hour.
After many hours of flying, the sun had risen even west of the Atlantic, and the seat-back monitors showed the plane over the eastern tip of Long Island, when suddenly the plane made a sharp right-angle turn toward the north. After a few minutes, the pilot came on to say, “We’ve been directed to find an airport in Canada. U.S. airspace has been closed. Something about a terrorist attack.”
In those days about half the passengers were carrying cellphones, and all of them attempted to call people they knew in the states (although it was forbidden to make cellphone calls while in flight). Word got around the plane almost instantly that the World Trade Center towers had been hit. We all seemed to take it more or less in stride (what was our other choice?), and our own plane seemed to be unaffected except for the change in plans.
Having left Europe so early in the morning, we were one of the first few overseas planes to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia ,that morning. Eventually about 9,000 travelers landed in Halifax, and even larger numbers in Gander and Goose Bay, closer to Europe.
The Halifax airport didn’t have jet bridges, and none of the modern jetliners had built-in stairways that could reach the ground. The problem was solved by bringing portable staircases to each plane, but there were many more planes than staircases.
City buses and school buses were drafted into use to bring passengers from the parked planes to the terminal.
As we were waiting for hours watching the same movies over and over, we were pleased to note that airport personnel working near the planes were wearing Bermuda shorts. The previous few days in Germany had been so cold that we wished we’d brought gloves or mittens.
Of course, the terminal was mobbed. Sometime, either then or later, I was able to take a turn in a room full of landline telephones to call my office and our closest relatives. As the sun was setting, we and other passengers from our flight were taken by bus to Millwood High School in Middle Sackville, Nova Scotia, about 10 miles northeast (inland) from downtown Halifax. The rumor was that the airplane crews were being put up in better accommodations than the passengers, but nobody complained about that.
Some food was already being prepared and served in the school cafeteria, and we were hungry, so we broke our last U.S. $20 bill for a bite to eat, receiving change in Canadian currency. Within an hour or so, word went out that the food would be free to the stranded travelers. Cots, army blankets, toothbrushes, etc. were soon brought in by the Red Cross, whose ranks of volunteers had suddenly greatly multiplied.
Most of the passengers remained in the gym where the cots first appeared, but my wife and I hauled our cots and blankets upstairs to a science classroom, which we had to ourselves. We had not been allowed to take our checked luggage off the plane, but we could take our carry-ons with us. Since this was our return trip, our carry-on luggage was full of the fragile souvenirs (beer steins and a bust of Beethoven) wrapped in dirty laundry.
Soon, we had a meeting with an executive from the airline, who had interrupted his vacation on a nearby island to stay with us. One question many of the Germans wondered was, why couldn’t we simply fly back to Germany?
The events they had been planning to attend in the U.S. had already been canceled anyhow.
The response to that was twofold. The airline’s first responsibility was to the people who had bought tickets to New York and still wanted to go there, and second, if they took on enough fuel to get back to Europe, the runway at Halifax would be too short for the plane to take off.
Wednesday evening, those who were willing were “billeted” with local people who had volunteered to put up travelers for the night, let them have showers and serve them breakfast. The two of us and a single American gentleman who had started his flight in Singapore went with a family named Ali. The wife was a native of the Canadian Maritimes, while Mr. Ali was a native of Baghdad. Their two young daughters looked as if they were at least partly Middle Eastern, and I worried how the terrorist action might affect how their schoolmates or strangers would treat them.
A decision was made on Thursday that we should all be back at the high school fairly early in the day, just in case we might be able to leave before the night was over. As that began to seem more and more unlikely, the airline and the local people found ways to entertain us.
In the afternoon, we were invited to take a bus trip to Peggy’s Cove, a scenic spot on the coast with a picturesque lighthouse. It was indeed a beautiful sight in the late afternoon light. We did our best not to let our thoughts dwell on why the name “Peggy’s Cove” had first become familiar to many of us — it was the nearest civilization to where Swissair Flight 111 had gone down in the ocean three Septembers earlier.
After supper Thursday evening, the school cafeteria was transformed to the “Millwood International Bar and Grill.” The Haligonians were eager to prove to the Germans among us that the local product (Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale) was as good as any German brew. Music was provided by, among others, the school principal and his son. A tall lady Mountie was posted at the front door to the school to keep drunks outside from coming in and to keep any of us from bringing open containers out of the building. It felt incongruous to be having so much fun considering the grim occasion, but enough beer can do that.
Only a few people on the plane actually lived in New York City, or even had close relatives there. Two young men who did have close connections there, and were traveling with a German Shepherd they had purchased in Germany, weren’t pleased and didn’t participate in the merriment.
Friday morning we began to see some airplanes in the sky again, and in the afternoon buses were dispatched to the school to take us back to the airport. A crowd of people gathered in front of the school to say goodbye to us, many of them waving little red and white Canadian flags.
Again, we spent hours at the airport waiting for our flight to be announced. By then it was getting dark. All of the checked luggage had been taken out of the plane and placed on the tarmac alongside our route to the plane. We were instructed to identify our own luggage, which was then placed back on the plane. Unclaimed luggage was not returned to the plane.
We reached JFK well into the night. We tried to use the first ATM we could find at the airport to get some U.S. cash, but the ATMs weren’t working. The fee for parking our car at JFK was kindly waived, but the toll collector at the Triborough Bridge wasn’t amused when I asked whether he’d prefer to take Canadian or Deutschmarks. We were allowed to proceed homeward after letting him keep my driver’s license until he had a long enough break to bring us paperwork to sign promising that we would repay our debt.
It wasn’t daylight yet when we got home, and we got enough sleep that we felt refreshed enough to attend a young friend’s wedding in Schenectady later on Saturday. Not all of the invited guests were so lucky. The bride’s brother, for example, still hadn’t been able to get out of California.
-Thomas Miller, Niskayuna
More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section