September 11, 2001 was one of the very few days in history that all of us will remember exactly where we were. My day began much like any other back then….at around 3am. At the risk of revealing my identity on the internet, I will tell you that I was one of the Customer Service Managers on duty in Passenger Service for American Airlines at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on September 11, 2001. I was the morning shift CSM meaning that I was at work by 5am each day.
Our kick-off flights were mostly gone by around 8:30am. I was hanging loose in operations with our operations agent when our first inbound flight of the day called in range with a question. Had we heard anything about an incident in New York involving a United jet? And with that, was my first inkling of any kind of problem on 9/11. I immediately sat down at the computer and hit cnn.com where a picture of the first tower to be hit was posted along with a headline: “Aircraft Hits World Trade Center. Details to Follow.” (or something to that effect)
I immediately went upstairs to our conference room where I knew we had access to CNN TV. I arrived just in time to watch the 2nd airplane hit the other WTC tower. There are a few details of the next few minutes that I won’t post here except to say that someone in the room that day lost their spouse on one of the 4 flights that crashed that day, and they first discovered it while I and a few others were present in the conference room.
I went back downstairs to our operations office where I learned that American was grounding all of its flights. This was before the government grounded all flights. At that time I also learned that we (AA) had at least two flights involved in what I already knew to be terrorist attacks upon our country. I went out onto the concourse to see if I could do anything to assist with passengers who were returning to the gate, having not taken off. I was met by a female passenger. While I don’t remember every detail, I do remember her discussing the possibility of being rebooked to Delta when the airport announced a terminal wide evacuation. Almost simultaneously, she looked out the window and said “what’s that?” I looked left to see a plume of dark smoke just rising above the horizon. This would turn out to be smoke from American Airlines flight 77’s impact at the Pentagon.
On the way up to our conference room, I ran through the Admirals Club to ensure that the agents there knew about the evacuation. As luck would have it, the terminal wide announcement had not transmitted into the Club. Our Customers began collecting their belongings and I then proceeded to the conference room where our station manager and manager of services (my two bosses) were working on getting a handle on things.
At that point, all we knew was that terrorists had at least 4 aircraft, and at least 2 of them were ours, and 3 had crashed. There was still quite a bit of confusion as to what airplanes hit where at this point. As we were working through what to do with Customers and luggage, I decided to take one last stroll through the concourse to ensure that all of our Customers were out. While passing by one of the airport policemen, a radio call came in. I’m a little fuzzy on this, but the words were something to the effect of “there is an unidentified aircraft inbound, ETA 15 minutes. All personnel are to exit the building immediately” Only later did I find out that this was United 93.
Well, this put a spring in my step so to speak! I ran back up to the office and alerted everyone (there may have been 4 or 5 airline staff there at that point) to what I’d just heard. We collected cell phones, communication gear, etc. and headed out to join the evacuation. I split from the group I was with to ensure that our baggage service people were evacuated. From there, I somehow…and I wish I could remember how I managed to do this, wound up in the parking garage which was then promptly locked down. I found the lowest point that I could on one wall, climbed it, and popped out through the bushes onto the street!
I was able to rejoin 2 of my fellow employees and we proceeded through the sea of people across the bridge into Crystal City, Virginia which is immediately adjacent to National Airport. Fortunately, one of my colleagues’ parents happened to have a condo in Crystal City. As we walked there, one couldn’t help but think about the surreal weirdness of it all. By this time, F-16’s were darting back and forth across the sky. Aside from the jet noise, all that could be heard was the sound of footsteps, a few people crying and the sound of a traffic jam as people jumped in their cars to evacuate the city. Being only a mile or so from the Pentagon, the smoke and smell of burning jet fuel was wafting through the air. Cell phones were mostly useless as the networks were jammed with calls, but I was able to contact some family on a landline to let them know I was ok. Not until we arrived at the condo, did I have time to actually catch a minute or two of the news coverage of the day. Only then did the reality of what we faced begin to sink in.
After an hour or maybe two, after consultation with our manager who was at Dulles Airport assisting with the problems there (as we now knew that Flight 77 which took off from Dulles was the aircraft that struck the Pentagon), my colleagues and I decided to try and return to the airport. All 3 of us had the necessary “command post” credentials to enter the airport even if it is closed to the public. We walked back to the terminal and were allowed to enter.
Arriving at my desk, I found a few random e-mails, one of which was a request from company headquarters to verify the tail numbers on the aircraft that were parked at the airport and report back. With aircraft directed to land at the first available airport, we had airplanes scattered all over the country at unplanned airports. This wasn’t really a problem at National where landings were restricted before the rest of the country, but I still had to do it. I believe we had 8 airplanes on the ground. While checking the aircraft parked at the gates, I saw that a Delta belt loader was parked next to one of our 737s and someone was in the cockpit. Turns out that during the rapid evacuation, a number of airplanes were simply left with the auxiliary power units running. Delta was shutting down running APU’s for other airlines that had not gotten any personnel back onto the airport. Frankly, I thought that was a very decent thing to do. Probably broke a rule or two in somebody’s book, but at that point, who cares?!
After handling that, making sure some offices were locked and attending an airline rep meeting with the airport, I decided I’d done all that could be done. The last time I looked at a clock, it was 9:00am. It was now 6:30pm, and I’d been awake since 3am.
I know this was awfully long and rambling post. But that was pretty much my 9/11. I’ve definitely left out a few details, mainly surrounding security issues, and certainly people issues… yes, I knew or was at least acquainted with some folks that died that day. I wish I could say more, but I don’t know what to say. I can tell you that 5 years later, nearly ever second of that day seems as fresh as if it were yesterday. Our country changed forever, and I changed forever.
More about my thoughts on the effects of 9/11 on the airline business later….