By Robert Zywiec
The same thing happens every time I fly. I fall asleep before take-off, wake up once the plane reaches cruising altitude, and fall back asleep before landing. If my flight takes off at midnight, this happens. When my departure time is 6 AM, this happens. When I am on an afternoon flight, this happens. When I was flying on September 11th, 2001, this happened. There were no ominous warning signs or differences in my routine to indicate this flight and day were going to be different from previous ones. What began as a normal Tuesday morning ended up being anything but routine.
“What began as a normal Tuesday morning ended up being anything but routine.”
As time goes by it becomes harder and harder for me to remember the details and chronology of that day. This is due in part to the fact that, for me, the events of that day took place in all four U.S. time zones. My flight took off from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 7:30 AM (Central Time). I was heading to Los Angeles where I was going to meet my sister. We were then going to drive to San Diego and spend a few days with our mom. At the time I was working on my grandfather’s farm. The middle of September is the only time in a busy farmer’s schedule that allows for travel. My typical workday ran from 6 AM until 8 PM, except on Thursdays and Saturdays when I worked as a bouncer at a local bar. I had been working seven days a week without a day off since March. Needless to say, I was looking forward to a relaxing trip and doing absolutely nothing for a few days. Anticipating this, I boarded the plane and fell asleep.
Like always, I woke up half an hour after take-off. I was rewarded for being awake with a complimentary glass of orange juice. I think I sleep through take-offs and landings but suddenly awake for the rest of the flight because something in my subconscious tells me I can fly the plane. I am not so crazy to think I could take-off or land, but I could certainly control the plane once it is airborne and pointed in the right direction. Unfortunately, going to the cockpit and seeing if the pilots would let me drive the plane is never an option. Anyway, I had to find another way to distract myself from the anxiety I felt during the flight. I began to count the tiny purple and maroon stitches of the fabric that made up the headrest in front of me. I was not counting in the traditional 1,2,3…sense; rather, I would count the number of stitches across the top and then down the side of the headrest. By multiplying these two numbers I arrived at the number of stitches per headrest. I multiplied that number by the number of seats in the plane, which was calculated by multiplying the number of rows by the number of seats per row. However, I now realize my system was flawed. I did not account for the missing seats in the exit rows or the additional seats in the cockpit. As I was futilely trying to arrive at the number of stitches in all the headrests in all the aircraft of the entire Northwest Airlines fleet, my plane and its millions of stitches began to conspicuously descend, two hours ahead of schedule.
Our flight attendant was a liar. She announced we were making an unscheduled landing in Denver. This was true. She lied to us later. The landing was typical except for the fact that I was awake for it. I am confident I would have been asleep if we would have landed at LAX at our scheduled time. It was 10:30 in New York City, 9:30 in Minnesota, and 8:30 in the Mountain Time Zone we now occupied. As we landed I saw a line of planes that looked like the 405 on a Friday afternoon. (When you are outside of California everyone looks at you sideways when you refer to freeways with “the” in front of the number.) After we were on the ground and off of the runway, we sat at the tail end of the traffic jam for twenty minutes. Finally the flight attendant informed us over the intercom that all planes had been grounded due to an FAA order. She told us that was all they knew at this time. This is when she lied to us. She did give us the okay to use our cell phones. Like most of the people on the plane I took out my phone, flipped it open and turned it on.
There were five voicemail messages on my phone. I now knew there was trouble. In the years prior to and after that day, I have not received five messages in any given month, let alone in one day. The first message was from my aunt in Minnesota. “Oh my God. Bobby, call me when you get to LA. Oh my God.” This perplexed me. The second message was mostly inaudible through the crying. It was from my mom. “I can’t believe this. Call me when you get to wherever you get to and let me know you’re safe.” Just then my phone began to vibrate and the caller ID showed it was my mom calling. I answered it and she relayed what had happened. She told me that two planes packed with explosives had crashed into the World Trade Center and that another two hit the Pentagon and the White House or the Capitol. She was concerned the hijackers might be on more planes. Being a mom, she was concerned they might be on mine. I assured her I was safe and on the ground in Denver.
Everyone else on the plane was learning what happened in New York and D.C. from their phone conversations. As each person heard the news and began to internalize it, their faces unmistakably changed. The knowledge of what happened snaked through the plane as the informed enlightened the uninformed. I could hear the other passengers talking on their phones and to each other. They whispered words like “hijack” and “collapse.” We all seemed to be whispering in a subconscious effort to deny the reality of what happened. The flight attendant got back on the intercom. “I am sure you have all heard about what happened. Please bear with us for a moment while we figure out what the next step is.” When she relayed this to us, I wondered why 15 minutes ago she did not have any information about events that were hours old. The airline probably did not want a flight attendant to tell an airplane full of passengers that other planes had been hijacked and used as missiles. But, her motive was not my most pressing concern, I had three more messages on my phone.
My friend Franny is not what I would call “worldly.” He is a good friend but not the person you look to in a crisis. The third message was from him. “Hey, something happened with a plane or something and they’re sending us home from the refinery — Hey you’re on plane. Call me later.” Franny is a guy you call to help you move. My friend Hos is a guy you call to help you move a dead body. The fourth message was from him. “Nice timing jackass. Call me when you get to LA.” The last message was from my sister. She is a cut-to-the chase kind of person. “Dude, you’re so screwed. Call me when you land.” These three messages were much less cryptic than the first two now that I knew what events had precipitated our side trip to Denver. My focus was now on how I was going to get to LA or back to Minnesota.
It took another hour for a gate to open for us. When we got off the plane an airline representative directed us to the ticket counter to re-book our flights. It turns out she was a liar too. As I approached the ticket counter I heard an announcement informing us that the Denver airport was now closed and everyone needed to evacuate. I was going to be spending the night in Denver. The airport has a hotel board with direct lines connecting to area hotels. I found a hotel with a room on the sixth or seventh try. I reserved it with my credit card and asked if they had a shuttle from the airport. It was a good thing that they did have a shuttle because along with my sleeping routine I have a habit of traveling with about 12 dollars. Before the flight I spent 4 dollars on a Mountain Dew and a pack of gum, so I now had 8 dollars and change in my pocket. I made my way to the passenger pick up area, which was remarkably calm considering the amount of people and the circumstances. I waited for the shuttle bus and chewed my Doublemint.
45 minutes passed before the Quality Inn van appeared from beyond the horizon. I jumped off the curb and flagged it down with both arms waving above my head. I did not use my usual cool two finger wave that I use to hail cabs in Union Square or North Beach. There was nothing cool about this. It was very effective though. The van stopped and the 85-pound Asian woman driving asked “how many?” “Just me,” I said. She pointed to the seats in the back packed with passengers but said I could sit in the front or wait for the next shuttle. I told her she could strap me to the roof of the van if she wanted. I got in the front seat and we made the 45-minute expedition to the Quality Inn. If you are ever lucky enough to visit the Denver airport, you will learn that the airport feels closer to Nebraska than it does to Denver.
It always feels good to flop down on a hotel room bed after a long trip. This was no exception. I had seen footage of the towers collapsing and the flaming hole in the Pentagon on the TV in the lobby. When I turned on the TV in my room and watched the second plane crash into the tower over and over again, I felt the need to talk about what I was seeing. But it was just me in a dirty little hotel room in East Denver. I called my sister and asked her to spring into action, thus launching “Operation Rocky Mountain Escape.” She called Northwest to see when planes were going to be flying again. I began calling rental car agencies and Amtrak and Greyhound looking for any kind of ticket out of town. There was neither a car to be rented nor a ticket to be purchased. My sister usually gets results but she came up empty this time. No one at Northwest had any information for her.
I was frustrated with our lack of results and began to seriously consider making a sign that read “LA or SD” and heading to the truck stop behind the hotel. But, before attempting to hitchhike halfway across the country, I called Hos and asked him to move a body-mine out of Colorado. After some negotiation and pleading, Hos left Minnesota and headed west. Three years earlier, while on a school trip through Europe, Hos and I shared a bed in Paris that was so small it only had one pillow. Not a special long French pillow, just a regular sized pillow. While spending a night spooning in a tiny bed in the city of lights, he and I formed a brotherly bond that we still share today. Knowing that Hos was on his way, I fell asleep.
I started to feel like things were back under control. I had transport home arranged and I was secure in my hotel room. My phone rang at 4 AM and woke me up. It was my Dad calling to check on me. I told him I was heading home and he reminded me to deadbolt my door. Yeah, yeah I thought. But I humored the old man and flipped the latch over the pin to secure the door. The instant my finger came off the latch the door swung open the three inches permitted by the lock. I was in shock. The door slammed shut and I looked out the peephole. I saw what I maintain to be a prostitute and her John walking down the hallway. It is possible the young girl dressed in fishnet stockings, a hot pink mini-skirt, and clear high heels, on the arm of a 50 year-old man wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and an old baseball cap could have been a regular law-abiding couple, but I sincerely doubt it. I knew they were up to no good and I also knew I needed to go home.
It was comforting to be in the company of a friend, even if we were driving through unfamiliar places. I hope eastern Colorado and Nebraska never become familiar to me. As Hos and I drove across the Great Plains, the flat farmland that I had been soaring 30,000 feet above the day before, I recounted my story for him. We discussed the fact that when you fly you give up control. When a flight goes awry you lose even more control. As we headed for home, I found myself counting the mile marker posts trying to gauge how far we had gone and how far we still had to go. I almost felt as uneasy driving home as I felt flying to LA the day before. It seems like things can spin out of control at any time. There is no way for me to prevent crazy things from happening, but I realize that friends and family can help you weather the storm. Being stranded in Denver and the events that followed have pushed me towards accepting the serendipity or inevitability of the world. But I still think I could fly a plane.
About the Author:
Robert Zywiec was born in Minnesota, but grew up in many different places including Michigan and Orange County. He is a senior at USC, majoring in history. After graduation, he is looking forward to a change of scenery and a career possibly in marketing or advertising.