I never forget just how lucky I was that day that my plane landed! It all seemed so surreal. Even though I was shocked and grief stricken for the victims, I still had to deal with the challenges of my immediate situation which was “how do I get out of Kansas?” Clicking my heals 3 times surely wasn’t going to get me home.
On 9-11-2001 I was in the air that morning en route from Baltimore to Las Vegas for the International Baking Expo. that takes place there once every four years. It was back in the day when I had a Corp. America job that I actually loved and was in the air a lot for business so I guess you could say I was a very seasoned traveler.
I knew something wasn’t right as soon as we started to descend because we were still two hours from our destination. Just as after I turned to the couple sitting in my row and said “something isn’t right because we’re descending and we’re two hours out from Vegas”, the pilot announced “For National Security reasons all aircraft have been ordered to land at the nearest airport and we’re landing in Kansas City”.
Everything got so quiet on that plane you could hear a pin drop and the flight attendants looked ashen! No one had to tell me that this was BIG. After a few more minutes the pilot came on again and said “something happened in New York and the East Coast”. Well that sure narrows it down doesn’t it? Now I’m not the type to panic and I continue to be the eternal optimist but let’s face it, this was something HUGE and it had NEVER happened before.
Then there was one last announcement from the pilot “this aircraft is not in any immediate danger”.
I didn’t realize it at the time, not knowing what had happened, but later I realized that they still didn’t know where all the terrorists where and they needed to be careful about what information to give out. Also, I’m sure they didn’t want people to panic.
This vague information left us all to wonder what horrible things might have happened. I noticed a couple of people trying to use the phones onboard with no luck. I tried not to imagine the worst but it was impossible for some thoughts to not cross your mind given the information so far. The thought that the whole east coast could have been nuked and I might have lost all of my family and friends! When we finally landed (you’d be surprised how long 45 minutes can be), they had us stand up and sit back down three times until they finally let us de-board. The last thing the pilot said was “you’ll see what happened on the TV’s in the airport”.
When we left the plane they handed us each a plastic boarding pass (yes it was back when Southwest used to use the plastic boarding pass with numbers). When I got inside the airport and saw what had happened I knew that no one was flying anywhere any time soon! So, I still have that plastic boarding pass and guess what? I’m number 12 so I’ll be in the first boarding group if they ever board that plane to Vegas!!
So there I was, stuck in the middle of the country all by myself without a soul I knew. The worst feeling was that I had one child on the west coast and the other on the east coast and I was nowhere near either of them! The natural instinct is to want to be with your family in times of a crisis like that. And I think we all wondered “what next?”
Everyone was trying to get calls out on their cell phones so every time I tried to all I would get was that weird German Police sound, dew dew dew dew. Very few calls would go through because the circuits were overloaded and the towers were down in NY.
I tried to call out but there were hundreds of stranded people in the airport and everyone was doing the same thing! I tried every rental car phone in the airport and when I could get to one, the answer was always the same, none left! We were the last plane to land so there were no cars and no rooms to be had.
Finally I was able to get through to the National Emerald Isle number and I asked the gal about getting a rental car in Kansas City. Her response was “I have two left in the whole state of Kansas”! I said “which one is closest to the Kansas City airport?” and she replied “I don’t know”. I asked her if she had a map and she said she did. I said “could you get it out and look at it?”. It turned out that the closest one was in Manhattan, KS 2 ½ hrs. away by car. Believe it or not I had actually been there before, about 15 yrs. prior for a course at the American Institute of Baking! They call that town “The Little Apple” as I remember.
Ok, now that I had a car reserved here’s the next challenge, how would I get to it?
Keep in mind that the whole time I was working on each challenge ahead I was still trying desperately to get through to my sister and her family who lived right across the George Washington Bridge in the metro area. The only number I could call was their apartment since the towers were down their cell phones weren’t working.
Finally, this woman working in the airport approached me to help. I told her about the car and she said I would have to take a bus to get there. She then said in order to get the bus I’d have to take one of the shuttles. So, I proceeded to take the shuttle that would take me to the bus that would take now 4 hrs. to get to the car that was going to take me 2 days to drive to Vegas! Phew!
Well, when your options are that limited you just have to do what my son says and “soldier through”.
Out to the curb I went and hopped on the shuttle. (It wasn’t even the right one I later found out from a colleague that was from there and was already stranded in Vegas. But on a day like that there is no “right” one) There were only three and a half people on the shuttle besides me, a young woman with her 16 month old baby boy and a middle aged gent across from us and another gent in the front.
The young lady started asking me where I was headed and the next thing I know she’s volunteering the gent across from us to take me too. Turned out that she and the baby were dropped at the airport and never took off so he said he would take them home which was really close to where my rental car was. Her name was Aletha and the baby’s was Colton. Aletha had tears in her eyes as she told me that her husband was in the service and had just been shipped to Kauiwait the day before.
The generous gent, now about to drive 2 ½ complete strangers 2 ½ hours away from his home in KS had also not flown out so we were all shuttled to his super-cab pick-up truck in the parking lot. When he was loading the luggage I apologized that I couldn’t help him because I had had rotator cuff surgery not too long before and he said that his wife had that surgery also. Then we got in the truck and realized we didn’t even know one another’s names. So he said “I’m Larry” and I said “I’m Sally”. He said, “that’s my wife’s name”!
When we arrived at Larry’s home and his wife opened the door I said “Honey, we’re home”! She chuckled. They were the most wonderful, gracious couple. They offered to take us where we needed to go that day and even offered to let us stay the night with them and they would take us the next day if we wanted. Then the phone rang and I could hear Larry in the kitchen saying, “that’s right, I picked up TWO women AND a baby!” They were so kind and generous.
We left on our journey to pick up my rental car and take Aletha and her baby home. Larry and his lovely wife Sally wouldn’t take any money for gas or their trouble, I tried! I told Larry and Sally about the movie “Pay it Forward”. They hadn’t heard of the movie so I described the concept of “paying it forward”.
During the 2 ½ hr. ride I continued to try and reach my sister and her family and several people that kept calling me finally got through. Every time someone got through to me they asked me which way I was going to go when I got the car. I didn’t know until I was able to get my brother in-law on the phone and he assured me that my sister and my three nephews were fine! Phew! You see my daughter was turning 21 on the following Tuesday and she was in Santa Barbara alone so I had taken a vacation right after my Vegas trip to be with her for her birthday.
I got through to my boss and told him I was on my way. He said “really?, how are you getting here?”. I said “I’m driving” and he said “that’s a really long drive” and I said “it’s an even longer walk”. He said “good point I’ll see you when you get here”.
When we arrived at the rental car location they waited to make sure I was all set. When I came back out Larry said “Now you be careful driving by yourself across the country now and pass it on” I said I absolutely would!! To this day I regret that I never got their full contact information so that I could send something to them. So if anyone knows a Larry and Sally in Kansas City please let me know so I can thank them properly for their unbelievable kindness!
So I’m going west 2 days drive to Vegas. I immediately began my trek across this enormous country we live in. I want to tell you there is a whole lotta nothin’ out there!
Every time I saw a sign that said “Speed checked by aircraft”, I thought, “not today”.
The most amazing thing happened during that two day drive, every single sign, I’m talking two days of driving worth of signs, said “God Bless America”!!!
I stayed in a small motel that night in Colorado. It was 29 degrees when I went to bed. By the next afternoon it was 105 degrees in Arizona! Unbelievable!
My family and friends were calling me for three days! Many of the roads were closed in the metro area so my sister and brother-in-law were not able to get home to their youngest son who was home alone. He turned 14 that day. So, every time I could get through I called and kept talking to him and singing happy birthday to him and telling him not to leave the house and just wait for his mom and dad to get home. They finally got through about 1 am.
There were no flights and no rental cars to be had in Vegas. Many people were stranded there for days. When the valet parked my rental car I said “Don’t you give that car to anybody else!”. Amazingly enough the valet said that 3 people from that hotel had actually purchased cars that morning so they could leave town. The convention center had been shut down because of a bomb threat that day (it was Wednesday). So I stayed the night and worked the show the next day then kept my rental car and drove to LA where I had my vacation rental car reserved. I had a flight booked from Vegas to LA but I could see that that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. After driving for 2 days what’s another 6 hrs. anyway?
Amazingly enough, good ole Southwest Airlines was one of the first to start flying again. My boyfriend at the time was supposed to meet me in LA on Friday to start our vacation. Southwest delivered him to LA just one day late and the flight arrived early!
We were able to be there for Jenna’s 21st birthday! Never try to keep a mom from being there for her kids! Jenna will turn 30 this September 18th! My how the time flies. Make sure to make the most of every single moment because time has a way of really sneaking up on you!
There are still lots of really good people out there and so many proved it on that fateful day. Strangers were not strangers. They became new friends.
To this day I wish I had gotten Larry and Sally’s contact information so I could thank them properly for being so kind and going way out of their way to help a couple of stranded people on September 11, 2001.
So, if anyone knows how to find Larry and Sally in Kansas City please let me know.