It is an appropriate time for all Americans to reflect on the horrific events of September 11, 2001, but I am reminded of that terrible week every time I visit Geneva, Switzerland. On Swiss television, I watched the twin towers burn and fall and I remained stranded in Switzerland until the nation’s air transport system resumed service.
Living very close to the Pentagon at that time, I feel most fortunate, in some ways, to have been so far away from the raging fires, the choking smoke, the chaos and the panic back home. Yet, stranded abroad, so far from home, while my country was under attack, I was enveloped by a powerful malaise of loneliness, isolation and helplessness. As an airline employee, it only heightened my pain and frustration to witness four commercial airplanes converted into weapons of death and destruction.
A routine trip to Geneva, to chair a meeting of representatives from some of the largest airlines in the world, quickly became anything but routine that day. Just after 3pm Geneva time (9am on the East Coast), we took a break from our meeting. When I spoke by phone with my assistant back in the office he informed me that a small, private airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
That sounded like an accident. I assumed there might have been bad weather or poor visibility in New York. As we continued talking, Scott received more details on the crash. The weather was clear. It wasn’t a small private jet; it was a United Airlines Boeing 737, I learned.
Then he told me a second airplane had crashed into the towers and there were additional unconfirmed reports that a third commercial jetliner had crashed into the Pentagon. Now we knew this was no accident. Yet, I just couldn’t imagine any American pilot allowing his airplane to crash into a building.
After the call I found a conference room where a group of Swiss office workers were watching a television broadcast on an enormous screen. There I saw the twin towers burning and watched the replay of each aircraft crashing into the buildings. Although the broadcast was in French, I could clearly see two jumbo airplanes, most likely Boeing 767s, with American and United Airlines liveries, crashing into each tower.
Stunned and sickened by what I had just witnessed, I returned to my meeting room where most of the airline delegates were still chatting or milling about the room, unaware of the unfolding events in the U.S. Regrettably, I addressed the group and conveyed what I’d just seen. It was particularly difficult to tell the meeting participants from American Airlines and United Airlines that their airplanes were involved in the attacks.
Much of the next few hours were a surreal blur for me, but we canceled the rest of our meeting and I remember watching both buildings collapse and viewing live footage of the Pentagon crash site. When we learned that a fourth airplane had crashed in Pennsylvania, we wondered how many hijacked airplanes might still be out there.
While most airline conference delegates immediately returned to their respective countries, all six U.S. airline representatives soon realized we weren’t going anywhere any time soon, when all commercial flights to, from or within the U.S., were grounded indefinitely.
With no other option, we returned to our hotel and waited. On that first day, we sometimes huddled together or sat alone in our hotel rooms, dumbfounded, watching the catastrophic events unfold on CNN, our only English speaking link to the outside world. For meals, we silently regrouped in the hotel restaurant, not knowing what to say. As representatives from six normally fiercely competitive airlines, we were often locked in heated debate during our Geneva meetings. Now we sought solace and comfort from each other, marooned in a foreign land, but united by a common tragedy.
Far away from our loved ones and isolated in a place where the locals surely couldn’t feel the depth of our pain, the usual competitive mood evaporated. Desperately seeking the company and camaraderie of our fellow Americans, we awaited further information from our government and instructions from our employers.
I felt the greatest sorrow for my colleagues from American and United Airlines, whose airplanes had been commandeered for the attacks and whose fellow employees had died along with their passengers and those on the ground. Though many travelers view airlines as nameless/faceless, price gouging, evil corporations, I can attest that many airline employees are caring, compassionate individuals, who felt the pain and sorrow shared by all Americans after September 11th.
Fatal accidents among U.S. commercial airlines are rare, but when they occur, a specially trained team of “crash bereavement counselors”, pre-selected from all departments across that airline, are immediately dispatched to the crash site. Each counselor is assigned to the family of a crash victim. They remain on site, connected to their assigned family, offering comfort, handling logistics, fulfilling requests and trying to help those left behind process their grief and get through their nightmare.
My colleague from American Airlines, stranded in Switzerland, was a bereavement counselor. It broke my heart to see her in tears as she tried in vain to find a way to get to New York or Washington to perform the job she was specially trained and designated to do, but it was a futile effort with the nation’s air transport system shut down.
Email was our only way to communicate with the outside world, as cell and land phone lines were quickly overloaded with calls following the attacks. When I finally spoke to my co-workers back home, someone suggested we enjoy some sightseeing on an all-expenses-paid European vacation, yet not one of us felt much like going anywhere outside the hotel. Other than visiting the hotel restaurant and fitness room, I sat in my room watching CNN, browsing the Internet or messaging friends, relatives and co-workers.
After four long days that felt like a month, air travel to the U.S. finally resumed, so we packed our bags and headed back to the airport. Machine gun toting police and soldiers patrolling the airport in a normally peaceful country, famed for neutrality, told me the world had drastically changed.
Airline employees usually fly for free on a standby basis. They only receive a boarding pass if they are not taking a seat away from a paying customer. This made getting home uncertain. With only one non-stop daily flight between Geneva and the U.S., we all split up and I decided to take my chances connecting at London’s Gatwick Airport.
When my flight landed in London, the scene was pure bedlam. The terminal was jammed with thousands of revenue paying passengers, also trying to get home. I immediately knew it didn’t look good for a standby passenger. I went from airline to airline, flight to flight, willing to fly to any city in North America. I finally found an open seat on the last Transatlantic flight out of Gatwick that day. It was an American Airlines flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, but I didn’t really care where I landed. It was a great sense of relief to finally step on American soil again.
After 28 hours in transit, I was completely exhausted and had totally forgotten all about September 11th when my Dallas flight finally touched down at Washington’s Dulles Airport. That entire Switzerland trip just seemed like a bad dream, but I was abruptly slapped back to reality when my taxi drove past the still smoldering wreckage at the Pentagon on the final leg of my journey home. The Pentagon was surrounded by military vehicles and police cars with lights flashing in the middle of the night.
At that point that I realized that all travel, if not life itself, had changed permanently in the space of one dreadful week. I now consider myself lucky to have been stranded abroad during such a horrific time, but I relive September 11th every time I return to Geneva.