The Kindness of Strangers

The story of Charles Strohmer’s experience the morning of 9/11 and the days immediately following.

The Kindness of Strangers

Heaven on earth – at an Air Force base

by Charles Strohmer

Three hours out of London and flying uneventfully through florescent blue sky six miles above the Atlantic, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in laptops or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), so far the only bother could now be heard in hushed buzz of passengers asking why all the video screens had suddenly gone blank. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess said over the intercom. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at the boundless brightness. I turned away. Twenty more minutes passed. Still no movies. People fidgeted. The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious — wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down.

It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? What would they close all the airports for that? A nuclear bomb, then? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

Nothing made any sense to me. Why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to know. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? What had happened? And where? Who had been effected? Was I even going to get home?

Someone must know. Ahh. Coming down the aisle toward me was a hostess whom I had spoken with earlier and had made a connection. I was traveling alone and there were no passengers near me. I decided to take advantage of that privacy. Our eyes met but I deliberately remained seated, hoping she would stop when I sought inconspicuously to flag her down. She stopped and crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand. Well, it was something. A kindness. The first of many to come during the next four days.

Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the asphalt service road filled with on-lookers in cars, vans, and pickups; like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Well, more than that. It wasn’t just the striking sight of landing these huge commercial jets that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny day. They knew what had happened. We still did not.

Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We now asked a thousand questions of the crew, but they only knew Captain Williams knew. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions. The details available to us upon landing were still very sketchy and rumors still ran wild in the media about “more possible attacks.” There was a rumor about “a plane crashing in Pennsylvania.”

It would be nearly 24 hours after the attack before our imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

Two long, perfectly executed lines of 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s were now parked side-by-side on the tarmac. None would be flying anything for the foreseeable future except their carriers’ logos on their tails. Ten thousand stranded passengers — a small town, and all the problems that come with it. The scene had been repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights had been ordered back to their departure cities. Across America, that the extreme sudden workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers went without incident is astonishing. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. An impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history. The FAA had safely landed 5,000 civilian planes across the US in two hours, a truly impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Now free to mill about the entire plane – a gracious gesture itself – I found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door to listen to the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax, a source of constant news about the attacks, ninety percent of it still rumor. But there were stories in this cockpit, and I decided to chat up the pilots when they were free. “Why did you make the kind of announcement over the Atlantic?” I asked Captain Williams. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” He didn’t hedge. While the videos were off (there had been no computer hiccup), he and his co-pilot had discussed what language to use. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he told me. “Personally, we’ve never been in this kind of a situation, but colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking’, so we talked for a long time about the right words to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

We had now been on the ground a couple hours and flight attendants had been arriving at the cockpit with reports from the cabin. Snacks and water were running low, it was getting stuffy, a couple infants needed baby formula, some passengers wanted a smoke, others needed fresh air. Still squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience quickly process each problem as it arose come to wise decisions. The Halifax ground crew was notified about snacks, bottled water, and infant formula. The rear starboard door would be opened for smokers. “But for those of you who need to smoke,” Captain Williams announced, “please take turns and don’t crowd the area. And try to keep the smoke from filtering into the cabin.” The want of fresh air was solved when the front starboard door was opened to admit supplies. “Let’s leave that door open for a while after the ground crew leaves,” Williams told a hostess. Such gestures, especially access to the pilots, made a world of difference in our social microcosm. They defused building tensions and made the confines bearable. I later learned that crews on some of the other carriers had not been as wise.

There was still the matter of reaching my wife. I gave up my post near the cockpit and looked for someone who might lend me a phone. But it was still pointless. Those with phones were wearing down their fingerprints punching numbers robotically every few minutes gambling against a busy signal. Very few won, those hours. But there were countless other stories, and near my seat I began talking with a friendly couple who, apparently, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia Matthews, from Memphis. A Christian minister, he explained that he had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. As I began to explain that I’d been traveling in England on a speaking trip, we heard the mike suddenly cue – everyone had become acute to that sound. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for another day,” he said.

The Matthews and I were digesting this development when Robert’s trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat  the odds. Voilà! A connection. Passengers around us were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, she took my wife’s number and promised to get hold of her with news that I was okay and where I was. An hour later she got through to us on the plane to say she had been able to reach my wife.

Blessedly, our flight was half full, which made the seventeen hours we spent on board more tolerable. Well past midnight I copped three empty seats side-by-side at the very rear and tried to sleep. Around 3am, we were quickly deplaned on to the runway, shuttled to the terminal, hustled through customs, and immediately driven ten miles in yellow school buses to Shearwater, a Canadian Air Force Base, where we wo0uld be “guests” of Canada. It was a word used by the animated politician who met the group I was with at the school bus outside the terminal. He didn’t seem like he wished he were home in a warm bed. He gave a warm Canadian welcome to “our good neighbors from the south” and promised with many promises that we would be well-looked-after. We were. But questions about how long we’d be your guests were met with we’re taking it a day at a time.

Legends in their own time, forty-two winged ghost towns now waited on the tarmac, the topic of talk radio, press coverage, and conversations in every Halifax-Dartmouth home. The Shearwater encampment numbered about 750 stranded passengers – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air, and one partying Air Tours group from Scotland filled with vacationers to Florida. The remaining ten thousand had been housed across the area in schools and homes and in what remained of hotel rooms not occupied by tourists. The families that had queued in their cars and vans along the access road were not there just to gawk. Our time as guests of Canada would become the subject of the PBS documentary “Stranded Yanks,” which aired during the one-year anniversary of 9/11.


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