Author's Note: I was asked to repost my first hand recollection of September 11th when the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden broke, so here it is in its original form. I think it's important that we use this moment not to make twitter jokes or do cheerleading routines in front of the White House, but to look back at a solemn moment in history that changed our country in so many ways forever. This isn't a time to gloat or be flippant, but to look back at everything this cost us in lives, civil liberties, and our national identity. Hopefully we can use this opportunity to begin to heal, step back from the fear-mongering edge we've been on for years, and find some closure as a country. We can and must be better. We must learn from our past so we aren't doomed to repeat the mistakes we made in the aftermath of 9-11.
Many of you may know that I am a former flight attendant. What you may not know is that I was in the air on September 11th, working a flight leaving New York City going to Florida. I worked for an airline that has live TV's in every seat, so we were some of the few people in the air that actually watched the horrors of that day unfold live.
It all started normally enough. The crew of 6 (four flight attendants and two pilots) met for the early morning flight, expecting a short trip to Tampa and back. The plane was full of people, mostly bleary-eyed from having to make it to the airport on time. We did a quiet, low-key service, chatting with the few passengers who were awake, then went to our respective galleys to rummage up some breakfast for ourselves.
Then it happened.
We heard a murmur pass through the cabin and then dozens of attendant "call-buttons" went off. We ran into the cabin to find people crying and asking us what was going on. The crew had no idea (we don't have TV's in our galleys), so we sat with the passengers and watched in horror as the news came in: a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
The news didn't know what was happening- if it was an accident or something more. I got on the phone with our pilots, who knew only a few small facts from chatter on the radio. We set up a communication line, updating our pilots with news from the TV as it came in. No changes were made at first and we continued on the flight plan. We were almost ready to start our descent into Tampa when the entire plane seemed to scream at one time.
A second plane had hit. This was a terrorist attack.
The crew went into crowd control mode as we were told by the pilots that we were being ordered to land immediately. The plane went into a sharp decent into Tampa as we worked to calm passengers while at the same time arming ourselves with whatever we could find as "weapons" in case we had hijackers on board as well- coffee pots, fire extinguishers, anything we could use to defend ourselves and our plane.
We landed safely in Tampa, where police met the plane to help unload panicked passengers. Our little crew of 6 sat on the empty plane, holding hands and watching in shock as reports came in of other planes going down and crashing. We tried to call friends, to find out if our co-workers were okay or on the planes that went down, but couldn't get through the overcrowded lines. As a New York based airline, we all feared the worst.
We were contacted by flight control and told we were going to be grounded in Tampa indefinitely. They rushed us out (again with police) and sent us to a hotel, where we gathered in a room and watched as more horrible news came in- the towers collapsed, thousands were feared dead, rumors flew that more planes had gone down.
We later found out family had been trying to reach us, but cell phones were useless. All we could do was sit in shocked silence and wait for news.
We ended up being grounded in Tampa for over 10 days, after which we flew an empty plane back to New York. We saw the still smoldering ground-zero site as we came in for a landing. We sat in the quiet airport as we received our briefing on what was happening and what the future of our company and jobs were.
In the days that followed, I went into the city, attended vigils for the victims (including my fellow flight attendants). I cried and waved as first responders and firefighters drove by to help in the recovery effort. I looked for the faces of friends in the thousands of missing persons fliers that were posted around the city. I continued to fly nearly empty planes, the whole time fearing that it could happen again.
To me, 9-11 was a horrible, personal experience. It could have easily have been my plane that was used as a weapon. That is why it sadden and disgusts me as I watch politicians use it as a bumper sticker "call to action" or as a reason to chip away at personal religious freedoms and rights. Even more disgusting is seeing it used to attack Muslim Americans, who were also attacked and killed that day, or play into the fears and anger of people personally affected by the attacks in New York City and around the country.
I still get chills when I think about that day and the friends I lost. But this year there is a new and fresh emotion: Anger. From the ridiculous hate-based "controversy" over building the Park 51 Islamic Center in lower Manhattan to elevating the insane ramblings of a fringe pastor in Gainesville, Florida who wants to burn the Koran, it seems that politicians and fear-mongers from all sides are taking what was a dark day for our country and cheapening it for their own gains.