I was among the very first flight attendants hired in the U.S. after that dark day in September of 2001, once the dust literally began to settle in New York City. I had not once been dissuaded to heed the calling I’d always felt to wear the wings of a flight attendant, and witnessing the events unfold firsthand did nothing to change that. Of everyone, my mother was the most understanding of that need. When I broke the news to her that I would be going to training, she told me that I could not live my life in fear and it was the right call for me. Her support underlined my decision, which wouldn’t have changed even if I’d lacked it. (Sorry, Mom.)
The morning of September 11, 2001 exuded warmth and beauty. In fact, I almost feel like I would have been able to recall it these sixteen years later even if nearly 3,000 people hadn’t been murdered before lunchtime. I shuffled between the bathroom and my bedroom getting ready for work, an office job at a cable company, while the sound from the morning talk show I’d had wafted in and out. I heard bits and pieces about casseroles and movie premieres and an exposé about food-borne illness at salad bars. Soon the voice of the host changed to a man screaming. He carried on and cried as he claimed a massive passenger plane had just slammed into the World Trade Center. This man was clearly being dramatic for his fifteen minutes of fame, and this was merely a propeller plane that crashed into the building. How on earth would an experienced commercial pilot crash into one of the most obvious buildings in the entire world? It was not as he said it was.
Except that it was. I was ready for work and stepped out onto my doorstep to see that, indeed, the charcoal tower of smoke did penetrate the perfect sky. I was frozen solid as I felt an indescribable feeling – it was an emotion so strong that my body just couldn’t process it. I was overwhelmed, but in denial. Things like that didn’t happen in the world I lived in, so close to where I was standing.
I went to the subway station to go to work while emergency vehicles jammed the streets. I hadn’t fathomed the city even possessing that many fire trucks, ambulances and police cars, but they came from all directions as I stood slack jawed As they raced toward a mangled Manhattan skyline. I caught the G train to my office in Queens, still trying to process how this horrible accident happened. My worries grew as I sat alone on what was never a busy commuting route. It was emptier than usual, which didn’t put my nerves at ease. An old man stared at me with a dour look on his face.
I jogged from the subway station into the office building and said hello to the receptionist, who was talking to two men. I’d overheard one say the word “hijackers” followed shortly by “second plane.” I must have yelled at him inadvertently when I’d interrupted to ask what it was he was talking about, and when I confirmed that I had not misunderstood him, I ran to my desk to put on the news.
From my office window had been a distant but clear skyline view, which was now marred by smoke and anguish. I called my parents to let them know I was safe – they were relieved, but in a voice clearly meant to calm me, knowing that there was really no reason to actually be calm, they informed me that the Pentagon had now been hit and that more planes were supposedly headed to a locked-down New York City.
Fear and panic dominated the airwaves as we desperately searched for the emergency broadcast system. Someone will tell us what to do; it’s for times like this that we sit through the ear-piercing, minute-long shrill tone that breaks into the broadcast when we are home sick watching game shows or I Dream Of Jeanie, right? Instead, we had panicked radio DJs telling us, without evidence, things like the water and air had been poisoned by biological agents, or that eight more planes had been confirmed to be hijacked and were on their way. I was stuck where I was, as the roads were closed and subways now fully shut down. We prepared to spend the night or maybe several in the office as we huddled with the boss on how we would do that. I walked to the window, and stared at the new world when suddenly, silently, I saw the first tower collapse. Everyone in the office screamed. I could not. I fell to my knees on the empty floor upstairs from mine later on when I watched second tower came down.
Some people thought I was absolutely insane when I started my flight attendant training shortly afterward. Especially being in New York City and witnessing all the horrors – and that smell – people thought I must be morbid or careless. In fact, there’s nowhere I would rather be these sixteen years later. We do indeed live in a different world now. But the last thing we ought to do is live in fear. I honor the memory of all we lost that day, but particularly those on the crew that awful morning. Many of my friends knew those crewmembers personally, and I can’t imagine the compounded pain when 9/11 rears its head. But we plug along, grateful for the extra kindness of passengers we all experience, at least for one day.