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“My Worst Day Ever” - a local resident shares her 9/11 experience

Posted on September 11, 2011

By Elissa Jones

Fastening my seatbelt, I settled back into the airplane seat.  I was looking forward to takeoff, so
that I could then go to sleep.  The previous night, my mind had continually raced through a series
of agitated, aimless thoughts, and I had gotten to O’hare on - shall we say - “autopilot.”  Sure, I’m
still a little scared of flying, even while finding it exciting.  ‘Intellectually, I know it’s safer than
driving.  We just hear more about plane crashes than car accidents,’ I reassured myself.  I looked
out the window. It was a sunny morning.  Too bad I wouldn’t see much of it.

Since the plane was only about 70% full, I even had two seats to myself.  If only that center
armrest would go all the way back, but it wouldn’t. Another passenger, a gregarious young guy,
told some other guys that he had just gotten off another flight that also had plenty of vacancies.

“Man, everyone in these back rows had a whole row to themselves.  We were stretched out along
all the seats, sleeping. We were zonked out!” he exclaimed.  He was eating Pringles.  At 8 a.m.

After the usual safety demonstration by the flight attendants, we taxied to the runway. ‘Whoo, this
is the part I like!’ I thought.  That acceleration - faster and faster and then the leap to the air like a
pole vaulter. The pilot said we were first in line.  Plus, we were about ten minutes ahead of the
8:15 departure time.

His voice was the same “professionally friendly” one that all the pilots use. “We’ll just wait here
until we’re cleared for takeoff,” he announced casually.  “Scheduled time to Seattle is 3 hours, 38
minutes.  Weather there is clear -  55 degrees.”

We sat there.  Five minutes passed.  The pilot came on the intercom again.

“Folks, I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a slight delay. It should just be a few more minutes.”

We sat for another 15 minutes, then he was back. “I’ve just been informed that there’s a problem
with the air traffic control radios.  As soon as they get it fixed, we’ll be on our way.”  People
fidgeted.

This turned into another 40 minutes. We had now been told we could get up from our seats.  The
blonde flight attendant cheerfully poured orange juice “before it gets warm.”  I stared into my cup,
feeling kind of apprehensive, hoping my sister didn’t just go to the airport, waiting for me with her
active, inquisitive little girl.

Now the pilot informed us it would be another hour. A collective sigh of exasperation went
through the cabin.  Maybe the pilot heard it, because he attempted to distract us by mentioning
that they would start the movie selections immediately. Oh, yeah: “Moulin Rouge” would take
our minds off how late we would be getting to Seattle.

Then, at about 9:30, I leaned forward as the blonde attendant was speaking to the two guys ahead
of me. 

“I had some messages on my phone voice mail.  My friends were calling me, asking me if I was
o.k., because planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon….” she said, her face
trying to mask her fear.

What??? I grabbed my Walkman, turned it on to t.v. sound, and there it was:  Terrorists.
Simultaneous hijackings. Buildings collapsing. Smoke and fires. People running like hell. Or
jumping out windows.  Peter Jennings saying, “Thousands injured or dead.”

I shut off the news, and turned on my Bruce Springsteen tape.  Setting it to the mournful “No
Surrender,”  I faced the window, so no one could see me crying.

The cabin mood became subdued. Cell phones rang and people talked, but it was very quiet. The
pilot, without using the word “crashed,” confirmed what we all knew, and told us we were going
to return to the gate and “deplane.” However, this would take another hour. Being first in line to
take off meant that we were now last in line to get off. An attendant put a deck of cards on my
snack tray.

They served breakfast (such as it was).  I didn’t feel inspired by the rubbery French toast, and got
up to walk around.  In the back where the flight attendants leaned or sat, I noticed a form, a
summary report, on the counter. Glancing at it, I read the notation: “Worst day ever.”

An Asian man was asking a male flight attendant about still getting to Seattle, pointing to a
printout from the Doubletree Hotel. 

“I’m going to a conference there.  I’m staying one night in Seattle, then going to San Francisco.
I’ve got to get a plane to Seoul from San Francisco….” he stated. 

The attendant shook his head and replied, “You’ll have to talk to Customer Service about
rescheduling when you get back inside. But there’s nothing going out now. We can’t even go to
the cockpit for information.  It’s locked.”

Unbelieving, the man appealed to the attendant. “But this is a very important meeting in Seoul…”

As if talking to a child, the attendant spoke methodically.  “Possibly 100,000 people died today.
This is a nationwide emergency.  They will understand why you didn’t make that meeting. Be glad
you’re on this plane, sitting on the runway, and not one of those planes.” He turned and walked
away.

The man and I stood silently for a minute, looking at the semicircle of planes on the ground.  I so
wanted to get off.  Then he asked me, “How long does it take to drive to San Francisco?”

I shrugged. “At least two days. Probably more. Plus, you’ll just be stuck there.”  Dejected, he
returned to his seat. As I did the same, I saw the talkative guy now quiet, wearing headphones.
He was playing solitaire, a can of Coke next to the Pringles canister.

Finally, the pilot came on the intercom. “Please return to your seats; we’re going to move back to
the gate now.  We should be deplaning shortly.”  The plane glided back to our starting point.

Everyone was swift in gathering their belongings.  The pilot, an older man, thanked us as we got
off, his face grim.

Wheeling my suitcase behind the exodus of passengers, I was thinking,  ‘3 1/2 hours on the
runway! I get on a plane once a year.  What’s the chances of me being on one on the day of this
incident?  I was going to take that Sunday flight, but I fooled around and it wasn’t available.’
Well, if I had taken it, I would now be stuck in Seattle, wondering when I’d get home.

Then I thought of the unknown number of victims, and people who had lost their loved ones. I’d
caught a lucky break.  A lucky break indeed.

Elissa Jones is a long term Rogers Park resident.

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