I booked the trip several months in advance, September 4-11. A Tuesday to a Tuesday. Seemed random enough.
Laura and I were good friends going back to our high school days and shared a passion for travel. Our trip couldn't have gone any better. We partied every night (as early 20-somethings tend to do), saw all the sights, and truly fell in love with the city.
We were barely awake the morning of the eleventh when we had to catch a flight to NYC, ahead of our return journey to Detroit.
We are sound asleep on the plane, several hours into the flight, when all of a sudden all the emergency lights came on as the Captain took the mic. "Ladies and Gentleman...there has been a terrorist threat on the United States. We've been instructed to land immediately."
I get chills just typing it. I'll never forget those words as long as I live. At the time, we did not know what had taken place nor did we know what was about to happen.
Several hours later, we had arrived at our destination: St Johns, Newfoundland. I took a picture of all the planes that were parked along the runway. 19 of them to be exact.
The tiny airport in St. John's only handled a few international flights per week, so you can imagine the chaos when all of these jumbo jets were detoured there.
As soon as we landed, I turned on my cell phone and immediately called my parents. My Mom was in hysterics, and who could blame her. She was beyond relieved I was okay.
I then called FOX 2 in Detroit, where I was working as a sports reporter at the time. They immediately put me on the air and I began to tell them much of what I'm sharing with you now.
I got off the phone and only then did I begin to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. Remember, there were no smartphones back then. No video to click and play. I was trying to imagine planes flying into the World Trade Center, but needless to say, the reality was much worse.
We sat on the tarmac for fourteen and a half hours. Flight attendants took off the back door of the plane, so people could smoke and get some fresh air.
People were cracking open their bottles of wine they had bought in Spain, trying to make the most of the situation. Spirits were high at first, but once all the food ran out and the hours passed, patience began to run thin.
Around 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, security officials boarded our plane and instructed us that we could take only our airplane pillows and blankets, and women could also bring their purses. That's it. No luggage, due to security concerns.
We boarded a bus that took us to downtown St. John's, where the hockey arena served as the "command center". We were given fruit rations as we waited in line. It tasted at the time like the best thing I had ever eaten, considering it was our first food in about 12 hours.
At that point, we had to give all of our personal info to security onsite. Social security number, phone number, emergency contact info, etc.
When we finally walked into the arena itself, it was around 5:30 AM. CNN was playing on the Jumbotron and we finally saw the gruesome pictures of what had taken place nearly 24 hours earlier.
I remember thinking there was no way that happened in my country, that thousands of lives were lost over senseless terrorist acts. Needless to say, there wasn't a dry eye in the place.
We were then assigned where we were going to stay while we were stranded. Some stayed at area high schools, libraries, homes of locals.
Laura and I were assigned the convention center across the street, where we slept on the floor in a room full of about 50 people. The main room had to have had more than 300 people in it, so we felt lucky.
Our airplane pillow and blanket served us well until the Red Cross and Salvation Army delivered supplies later. I slept in the same clothes for three days, taking a daily shower in the arena across the street. An area hotel provided everyone three meals a day. All told, it wasn't that bad.
The worst part? The unknown. When would we get home? When would the airports reopen? We got daily updates, and I remember the first one that Wednesday morning when the appointed man in charge said "folks...I don't think anyone is getting out of here before the weekend."
People were furious. People were scared. People were praying. You learn a lot about your fellow man/woman when you're placed in a situation like that.
That being said, we tried to make the best of it. We went on tours, went to the movies, went to the mall to buy new clothes (finally!).
But most of the day we were glued to CNN in the main room, awaiting word on our future. It was such a weird feeling, seeing all of what was going on back home, and us being so far away. We were far removed from the situation, but it didn't make it any easier to comprehend.
Delay after delay, we wondered when we could finally go home. They had to round up all the people from each flight, bus them back to the airport, go through a roughly two-hour security check, then board the plane.
They did this one flight at a time, so you can imagine why it took so long. Out of the 19 flights stranded, we were number 16 for take-off.
Each day was spent talking amongst one another, telling ourselves that everything was going to be ok. I met people from around the world, from countries near and far. All of us...stranded together in this tiny Canadian town. It was surreal.
AT&T set up tables with phones that we could use for free, something I took advantage of daily to call home, and also to call into work. They put me on the news each night, even playing a game..."When is Ryan coming home?" It's funny to think back on now, but it sure didn't feel like it at the time.
I know you're wondering...how long were we there for? All told, we were stranded in St. Johns for 6 days.
I remember the feeling of finally hearing that we were going to the airport. The feeling of getting there and seeing all of my belongings scattered across the floor, as I experienced the most thorough security check of my life. The feeling of finally taking off, drained after a long six days, but knowing how much worse so many others had it. The feeling of arriving in Atlanta (yes, we still had a layover) and some 50 Delta employees giving us a standing ovation upon our arrival in the wee hours of the morning.
After a night in an airport hotel, it was finally back to Detroit.
There is so much more to the story, and like all of you, I'll never forget the events of September 11 and the days that followed. I can't thank our neighbors to the North enough for their kindness and hospitality during my unexpected stay there. The pictures only tell part of the story, and looking at them now brings back memories as if they happened yesterday, not 17 years ago.
Today we remember those who lost their lives that day, and I reflect on just how different the outcome to my story could have been. For those who weren't as fortunate, may they forever Rest In Peace. Never forget this day. I know I won't.
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