Eleven years ago, I sat at La Guardia Airport on a bright, sunny morning waiting for my flight to Tampa. A trip to New York Fashion Week was interrupted when my precious godson, Andrew, had been lost to leukemia. At 9 a.m. I had no idea that I would not reach his funeral, would not have a chance to mourn his life, because thousands of other lives were about to be lost and the city would come to an eerie standstill.
There was no television at my departure gate, so I was surprised when airline representatives asked all passengers to walk to the ticket counters. (They feared more high-jackings of planes parked at the terminal.) Another announcement came a short while later: LaGuardia Airport was being evacuated.
An elderly man from my flight approached me and asked if he might use my cell phone to call his daughter. Strangely, my phone had stopped working… I had no idea how long it would be before the phone would work again. As we spoke, a burly security guard walked up and demanded we leave the airport immediately. I remember staring at her blankly and asking, “Where shall we go?”
Her expression softened for a second and she suggested a Holiday Inn across the street. Roads leading to the airport had been closed, so lines of taxi cabs and town cars were useless – drivers stood and chatted in the once-busy departure lanes leading to the airport entrance.
A line of travelers dragged their carry-on bags across a 6-lane highway that was devoid of noise or traffic. The scene was surreal – like being in some strange sci-fi movie without a script. Yet the deathly quiet outside was in marked contrast to the chaos inside the hotel lobby. No more rooms were available, but the manager grabbed a microphone and graciously assured crowds lining the walls, floors and furniture that everyone would be given a pillow and a blanket for the night.
I settled on a couch in the bar and stared at the people around me: pale faces, wide eyes. If they spoke at all, it was in hushed, funeral-parlor tones, and most were weeping. Three Asian women sat cross-legged on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. While I’d heard mutterings that a plane struck the World Trade Center, it wasn‘t until I turned my attention to a big-screen TV that I saw the full horror unfold, over and over again. Network anchors struggled for information while film of the attack played continuously until I, too, was tearful and afraid.
I thought of my children – one in Nashville and one in Kalamazoo – and decided those cities would be safe. I thought of my brother-in-law (who had an office at the Pentagon) but couldn’t remember office or home phone numbers… I completely understand PTSD.
Several times I ventured from my seat to a pay phone by the hotel elevators. Quarters and dimes spilled from the coin return: a testament to countless, futile attempts to contact the world outside New York City. By late afternoon I finally reached my husband’s office in Michigan. His secretary was afraid to transfer the call and risk disconnecting me, so she ran to find him. It helped to hear his voice, to let him know that I was fine. But it didn’t solve the problem of escaping from a city under siege, with all its transportation systems shut down.