It was September 11, 2001. Four of us were in Playa del Carmen, in Mexico, celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday when the terrorists attacked. I’ll never forget walking out of our room to have breakfast on the beach. I was alone. All the waiters were huddled around a tiny, rusty TV set perched on a stool. When one of them saw me approaching he turned and said in his broken English, “American? Something bad in your country.” He motioned for me to come and listen.
After processing the enormity of the news, I went back to our rooms and shared it with the others in our party. Together we decided to pack up and leave Playa Carmen early. We booked seats on a bus to Cancún, figuring it would be smarter to be near a US Embassy and an airport.
For the next five days we tried every possible way to get home. I was desperate to get to my children. Feeling as if they’d been kidnapped, I frantically schemed ways I could get to them. Yet each avenue I took was fruitless, leaving me feeling totally helpless. Jim assured me they were okay but I continued to beg, even bargain with God to get me home so I could see them, hold them and protect them from this nightmare that would scar them for life.
All the ATMs shut down, our credit cards no longer worked, phone lines to the US embassy were flooded, and calls back home were rare. Each morning we packed up, traveled to the airport and sat on the floor for hours like refugees, alongside hundreds of people, hoping a plane would fly out of Mexico and be allowed to land in the US. All the rental cars were taken, no more bus seats were available, we tried everything. My husband even contacted a friend, a private pilot who flew internationally. Even that was a dead end. American airspace was locked down tight.
After five days, and with no hope of getting a seat on an American-bound flight, we bought seats on a small Mexican plane to Monterrey, the closest Mexican town to our border. If we could get close, we thought, we’d get bikes or even walk home if we had to. While in the air my friend tried to console the young and frightened honeymooning couple who had run through all their extra money. Not exactly sure how we’d do it, but she assured them we would take care of them.
As we deplaned and walked into the Monterrey airport, unsure of what next, we heard a gate agent yelling at us, “We have a small plane leaving for Houston in 10 minutes. They have a few open seats. Run. Run as fast as you can.”
To this day I have no idea if that plane was a private one or commercial – we were never asked to pay a dime. All I remember is how deadly silent the flight was. No one said a word, not a single word.
We arrived in Houston in middle of the night. Our little group followed a uniformed woman who led us silently through the dark, empty, cavernous halls of the concourse. The stillness still haunts me. We were then herded onto a small bus that took us to local hotels designated for those stranded. Each of us was given a piece of paper with a room number and instructions for the next day’s shuttle and flight instructions. They dropped me off at a Days Inn where I was greeted with a key and a bottle of water. I never saw my friends again, nor the sweet young couple.
The next morning I floated through the steps as if I was in a totally different level of consciousness. I sat in total silence throughout my 2-hour flight to Atlanta. We landed then I walked through the morgue-like halls of the Atlanta airport. Like a robot, I gathered my luggage then boarded the empty subway that would take me to the stop closest to my home. Once there I gave my address to a cab driver and as he drove through the streets of my neighborhood, I remember seeing hundreds of tiny little flags stuck in my neighbors’ lawns. I closed my eyes and said a tiny prayer. I was finally home, thank God, home on American soil.
(To this day I have no idea who paid for our flights into Houston, nor the hotel rooms and the meals they provided us. I was never asked for a dime.)
For this reason I feel drawn to Ground Zero. My son and I visited the site just three months after the bombing. The outpouring from around the nation and world made a huge impact on both of us. Banners, flowers, teddy bears, letters, poems, even a singed courier’s bike . . . memorials of all types lined the area.
What followed 9/11 is one of the greatest example of the human spirit, possibly the greatest in our lifetime. To quote Rudolph W. Giuliani: “The attacks of September 11th were intended to break our spirit. Instead we have emerged stronger and more unified. We feel renewed devotion to the principles of political, economic and religious freedom, the rule of law and respect for human life. We are more determined than ever to live our lives in freedom.”
—————————— continued from September 2011 walk:
My childhood friend, Debbie, was in town for the weekend. Being her first time in NY, she had only one request – that we visit Ground Zero.
Unfortunately we are just a few months short of the opening of the 9/11 Memorial, slated to open on the tenth anniversary of the attacks. We visited the temporary memorial center at 120 Liberty Street near Ground Zero and another memorial at St. Paul’s Chapel. I urge you to visit St. Paul’s and if you have time, the temporary memorial.
St. Paul’s Chapel
209 Broadway at Fulton Street, in Lower Manhattan near Wall Street
“For more than a year after the World Trade Center attacks, the chapel’s fence served as a shrine for visitors seeking solace. People from around the world left tokens of grief and support, or signed one of the large drop cloths that hung from the fence. After having served as a 24-hour refuge where rescue and recovery workers could eat, pray, rest, and receive counseling, the chapel, which amazingly suffered no damage, reopened to the public in fall 2002. The powerful ongoing exhibit, titled Unwavering Spirit: Hope & Healing at Ground Zero, honors the efforts of rescue workers in the months after September 11 with photos, drawings, banners, and other items sent to them or as memorials. Open since 1766, St. Paul’s is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan.”
Tribute WTC Visitor Center
Located at 120 Liberty Street, the former Liberty Deli site, across from Ground Zero
“In the aftermath of 9/11, the deli became a station where meals were served to rescuers often by celebrities who came to volunteer and give the tired workers a boost. Later, the deli became a distribution point for equipment like gloves, socks, respirators, eye drops and tools.
“Daily walking tours are conducted along the World Trade Center site and are led by people whose lives were profoundly changed by September 11th. Each tour is unique and connects those who want to hear stories with those who want to share them.”