Caught in Mid-Air on 9/11


The two of us. Pre-digital camera. Pre-parenthood. (Just barely) pre-9/11.

I still have the airfare ticket stub marked September 11, 2001.   Ten years ago, we didn’t use e-tickets.

Also, there were no smartphones.  This partially explains why it isn’t the images of destruction that have stuck with me (images we didn’t get a good look at for nearly a week).  It’s the voice of our pilot.

We had just begun our flight from Shannon airport in the west of Ireland home to Chicago, when a deadly-serious voice sounded over the speakers: “Something terrible has happened,” it said.  “The FAA has closed all airspace, and we will not be continuing this flight.”

Our plane was grounded in Dublin, a city we hadn’t planned to visit during this, our first, trip to Ireland.  Jonathan and I didn’t say anything while we sat on that plane waiting to disembark and collect our luggage packed with dirty laundry.  We only looked at each other.  Later, we discovered that the image in our minds had been the same: mushroom cloud.

Somehow the actual story was harder to believe.  An Irishman with a working cellphone began hearing stories, and they spread quickly from row to row.  Attacks?  On New York City?  Washington D.C.?  We shook our heads, said we didn’t believe it.

A few hours later, the airport employee helping me find accommodations in Dublin said it was like something out of a disaster movie.  That’s when I understood.

Jonathan left me with the luggage and went searching for a television.  He found one at the airport pub.  Walking back in my direction, he looked stunned. 

I could only pray, “Lord, have mercy.”

For a week, we wandered around the city, feeling as if we might never get home.  We guarded our torn ticket stubs as if they were a king’s ransom.  We saw confused looks every time we handed them over to another ticketing agent.  It was hard for them to understand that when the towers fell we’d been caught in mid-air.

Some small, rational part of our brains kept repeating that if only we knew when we’d be going home we could enjoy this unexpected vacation in Dublin.  But we were counting pennies, dodging raindrops, and washing a suitcase full of clothes at the laundromat.  It didn’t feel like vacation.

While on vacation we had spent our carefully saved dollars on bed and breakfasts that served Irish porridge with just-picked blackberries.  In Dublin, we had a small lumpy bed and were served canned beans on toast.  Want to make an American feel wretchedly homesick?  Just serve her instant coffee and canned beans on toast.

The world had shifted on its axis, we understood that unimaginable evil could rear its head at any time and in any place, but we couldn’t comfort ourselves with the well-loved and familiar.  The flags at half-staff were Irish ones.

After several days in Dublin, we were promised a flight home, but we would need to get back to Shannon airport.  We said goodbye to the lumpy bed and took an all-day bus that brought us back across the country, to the place where we had started.

When international airspace reopened, we were there, again, at Shannon airport.  They had no record of our names, and we had only our tattered ticket stubs.

We spent one night in the home of a family preparing for their daughter’s wedding.  Two stranded German tourists were across the hall from us.  The wife said not to worry, we were no bother at all, and she cooked us a big fried breakfast.  The husband drove us back to the airport for another try.

At the airport again, we sat on the floor and listened as Aer Lingus employees filled up a plane to Chicago with names called out one by one.  When there was exactly one seat left, they called my name.  I said that I wouldn’t get on any plane without my husband.

We were wondering whether we could interrupt the wedding weekend with one more night’s stay, when a woman in an official green uniform came running up and shouting, “Does anyone want to go to Baltimore?”  We raised our hands.  Then, following our guide, we ran. 

We also prayed, “God let the doors still be open.” 

We weren’t headed home, but it was close enough.

We remembered a friend who lived near D.C.  Jonathan, miraculously, remembered his phone number.  He picked us up, drove us to his own home, gave us a beautiful, not-at-all lumpy bed.

We managed to find a tiny, out-of-the-way rental car business with one car still on its lot.  We took it.  Twelve hours later, and one week after 9/11, we slept in our own bed.

“God is our refuge and strength,

an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way

and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam

and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

The holy place where the most High dwells.”

(Psalm 46: 1-4)

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