Remembering that awful day in September 2001
Like any of you who were old enough to be cognizant of the events of September 11, 2001, I can remember with crystal clarity where I was and what I was doing when I learned of the events of the day.
I was in a pub in Heathrow Airport in London.
My friend Bob Craig and I were on a five-hour layover, returning from Poland. We had just attended the two-day wedding celebration of our friends, Chris and Agnes Schleyer.
There was a lot of vodka at the wedding. We were hung over.
As we were sitting at our table, attempting the “hair of the dog” hangover remedy, we glanced at the television hanging over the bar and saw that one of the Twin Towers was on fire. At first, we thought they were showing a movie, but we couldn’t place it.
Then we saw that the television was tuned to the BBC.
At first, everyone in the pub thought it was an accident—that maybe a little Cessna or something had gone horribly off course.
Then we watched the second plane hit.
And we knew.
The pub became silent. Everyone was transfixed. None of us could stop watching the screen. Outside of the pub, pedestrian traffic had come to a standstill. People were crowding around every television they could find.
The first tower fell, and we all screamed.
All around us, people were crying. Others were in shock.
We all waited for the inevitable, which came when the second tower fell.
As fate would have it, Bob and I were sitting at a table next to a team of BBC foreign correspondents who were supposed to be catching a flight to Cairo. When the authorities at Heathrow Airport demanded that all televisions be turned off because the horror was too much to bear, the team made a phone call to their headquarters and the TVs were back on in five minutes.
Through them and their conversations, we learned of the plane over Pennsylvania, which the BBC initially reported had been shot down. We learned of the Pentagon, supposedly the most impenetrable fortress on Earth, and we were terrified at the ease with which it was attacked.
I rushed to a payphone. Incredibly, I was able to make a collect call to my mom, who answered the phone in tears and happily accepted the charges. I assured her that Bob and I were OK, but she raised a concern I hadn’t considered: What if this was just the beginning? What other flights might be hijacked? I told her I would call again when I knew more, but I doubted I’d be flying that day.
Not long after, the U.S. closed its airspace, and Bob and I were stranded. We didn’t know how long. A day? A week? Longer? We found a desk and rescheduled our flight for that coming Friday, hoping that would be plenty of time.
In the midst of it, I had a panic attack. My first. We were stranded with virtually no money. We had nowhere to go. Our country had been attacked. I was separated from my family and my home by an ocean I had no way to cross.
Bob talked me down from it and helped me gather my wits. He gave me perspective. He showed me his credit card; I was broke, but he had money. I had never before felt so lost and small. Bob talked me through it, and he has my eternal gratitude.
We managed to find lodging at a YMCA in Surbiton, where we stayed for the next several days. Others weren’t so lucky; there was a girl on the flight from Poland with us who had bright pink hair, and a few days later I saw that same girl on the BBC. She, and thousands others, never left the airport.
Our flight on Friday never happened. I will never forget the remarkably polite voice on the other end of the line when I called to confirm the reservation: “Oh, terribly sorry. All flights to the U.S. have been canceled. Would you like to schedule something for next week?”
I started to flip out again, but Bob once more talked me down.
On Saturday, we made it home. We waited in an on-call line and managed to catch a last-minute flight to JFK. My sister Debbie picked us up, and as we drove home we could clearly see the devastation.
The hole in the sky.
The dust cloud that hung like a pall over the city.
We made it home, where my mother was weeping with joy. My father hugged me, and told me that, from then on out, I wasn’t allowed to travel any further than Elwood. (Indeed, it was to be another 10 years before I felt safe enough to travel outside of the U.S. again.)
Twenty years ago, we made it home—though home was never the same.
I don’t know if it ever can be.
Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at email@example.com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.