Flying over the Atlantic the pilot makes an announcement, “I don’t know exactly how to tell you this…” That got my attention and heart racing. Then something to the effect that the twin towers in New York City have been attacked by terrorists and have fallen to the ground. Also, something about the Pentagon being bombed. The only thing I knew for sure is that we were at war now.
“The FAA has grounded all flights within, out of, and into the U.S., so we must turn around and return to London.” A little further into flight and we could have continued to Canada, but we just hadn’t traveled far enough. So about halfway into our flight we head back to Heathrow airport having no idea what was really going on and only hearing occasional reports. No one was able to get a connection out on the airline phones. Speculation of 50,000 dead, mass chaos, and more attacks to come. It was beyond comprehension.
Having just enjoyed a vacation to Italy and Paris, the stop at Heathrow on 9/11 was for the connection home to the United States. The previous two weeks were a great time, but I was ready to get home. Now that we were on our way back to London, there was no way to know what would happen in the moments and days that followed.
Upon arrival at Heathrow, about five hours after the announcement, it was absolutely crazy. Everyone was talking, but there were no video screens, televisions, or any way to view what had happened. No one could get a call in our out. All we could do was get our bags and after a couple of hours board an American Airlines shuttle to a hotel they were providing in Brighton, England. There were no rooms in London whatsoever and Brighton was the closest we could get booked which was 80 miles away on the southern UK coast.
After a two hour ride to Brighton it was around 3am before everyone got to their rooms. I immediately turned on a TV and for the first time saw the horrific images that up that point I could only imagine in my mind. It’s not what I expected and did not seem real. How could it be? How could anyone do this? But it was real and I could not get to bed until I got caught up on what had happened 12 hours before.
The next day we were unclear at what to do. Do we go to the airport? Do we try to land a hotel in London? Or do we stay put in Brighton? Since American Airlines was not providing another night stay at the hotel many of us decided to go to the airport and figure out some way to get on a flight home, but that was going to be impossible. My friend Shawna and I were at the airport with our bags for the entire day and decided to find a spot and sleep there for the night along with the thousands of other people that were filling every available floor space. There were no hotels to be found.
About the time Shawna and I decided on a sleep schedule in our luggage lined foxhole, a very nice couple approached us and asked if we had seen any families with children. They mentioned watching the news reports at a pub of all the people stranded at the airports with no place to go and they drove from their town to find a family to take in. We actually didn’t see any families near us (we would find out later that it was because other people had taken them in) and since they didn’t locate any as quickly as they had hoped and were parked illegally out front of the airport, they asked us if we would like to stay with them for the night so we could each have a bed to sleep in. We looked at one another and what would normally be an odd invitation, was just what we needed. We knew this was a gift from God.
P.J. and Katie loaded our bags and us into their Land Rover and we commenced a one hour journey southwest of London to the town of Headley in Hampshire. They lived in what was once an old bakery converted into a charming little home. Upon arrival they served us tea, food, and got our rooms prepared. Our heads were spinning from everything that had happened and for me it felt much like a story of fiction. This can’t really be happening, right?
The kindness of the English couple had provided us with a night of comfortable sleep, a shower, and rejuvenation. After another gracious act of cooking breakfast for us, P.J. took us to the train station so we could return to the airport and hopefully catch a flight back. There was no news on if the FAA had lifted the restriction on flights, but if they did we wanted to be in a position to get on any flight to the U.S. that we could.
On Thursday the 13th the airport was still chaotic and information was difficult to come by. Lugging the bags was getting seriously annoying, as was the constant waiting and wondering. When it became apparent nothing was going to happen on this day either, I gave a call to my friend Lex who worked for MCA Records in London. I asked her if she knew of any hotels that would be available since I was still having trouble finding anything. She came to the rescue and located an available hotel in London and said she was paying for two nights for us. The kindness we were shown by her, the couple in Headley, and all around the UK was overwhelming. True compassion and caring.
Having a hotel in London was a relief, as was being in a country that spoke the same language. It could have been so much more difficult than it was. As such, it was nice to be able to walk around London and try to enjoy being there. Any other occasion it would have felt like a continued vacation, but it didn’t feel like that at all. I wanted to be home, in the United States, with my people, family, and friends. I felt entirely disconnected from the events taking place at home in the States and I longed to be there to go through it with them.
On Friday we were told that flights may start going out again and that we could keep up with our status via a telephone service that was set up by the airline. It didn’t seem promising at all. Part of that day was spent shopping for clothes, since everything I had was completely filthy. We also found an internet cafe that allowed us to communicate with my family and friends via email. It was a calmer day, but Shawna and I were tumultuous inside. The ordeal was taking its toll emotionally.
On Saturday it was decided that instead of waiting and hoping that we would go to the airport and try our luck. It was time to get home. With persistence, a friendly agent, and fortunate flying experience we found one seat on a flight home. I told Shawna to go and I would keep trying for stand by on other flights now that there was some encouraging news. I didn’t make it on anything the rest of the day and night so I took the long trip back to the hotel wondering if I was going to have to take a boat to the United States.
Sunday morning I awoke early and returned to Heathrow and was determined to get a flight out that day or stay at the airport until I did. I went back to the familiar gate agent and asked her what she could do for me and repeated my story. She was surprised I had not gotten on a flight yet and with the click of a few keys I had a seat on a flight to Chicago that was boarding immediately.
With air traffic still out of whack, I arrived in Chicago too late to make a connection to Nashville, but I didn’t care. I was home. I wanted to kiss the ground and sing God Bless America.
Early on Monday morning the 17th I was on a flight for Nashville thinking about the six prior days I had experienced. Reflecting on how evil had inflicted a wound and impacted the lives of so many people, but more importantly how good people had responded in attempting to heal the wound. I was overcome with the generosity, hospitality, and selflessness of P.J., Katie, Lex, and numerous people in London, Brighton, and at Heathrow.
I know we all have our own unique stories and at the same time how we are all linked with the benevolence of people we have never met. I remember how I wished that spirit would continue and things would never be “normal” again, but unfortunately it had to return.
May our reflection to that day ten years ago bring some of that togetherness back again, if only for a little while and may we never forget.