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The Long Road Home

September 08, 2002|Catharine Hamm, Craig Nakano and Rosemary McClure

They were on airplanes heading home from Europe. They were visiting Machu Picchu in Peru. They were sunning in Maui, honeymooning in Istanbul.

Readers of The Times' Travel section were scattered to the corners of the globe on Sept. 11, and in letters, faxes and e-mails, more than 400 of them shared their tales of how that day affected their plans--and their lives.

All spoke of the horror of learning the news--from tour guides or shop owners, from strangers who did not speak English but used an improvised sign language to depict planes crashing into the World Trade Center. The news came by cell phone, e-mail, radio and TV and spread "like wind gusting across a wheat field," Peggy Stout of Los Angeles wrote of the crowded square in Florence, Italy, where she first realized something was wrong.

For many, then came the pull toward home. Those in the air were grounded. Those on the ground wanted to be in the air to return to loved ones. Thwarted, many rented or bought a car, boarded a train or took a bus for the long journey home. Travelers abroad, who were stuck until air traffic began moving again, and those who took to the highways and the rails sounded a common theme: the kindness of strangers who offered them maps, room, board and, perhaps most important, solace and comfort.

"The events of 9/11 may have been directed at Americans, but the sadness and emptiness that followed were felt around the world," wrote Shyrl Roberts of Irvine, who was in Bali in heavily Muslim Indonesia at the time of the attacks.

When they finally made it home, grateful to strangers and thankful to feel the embrace of loved ones, they found a renewed appreciation for their country and for the freedom to travel. Courtney Romine of Garden Grove and friends were in Rome on Sept. 11. The trip strengthened her resolve to see the world. "We are determined," she wrote, "not to be afraid to live."

Flight Interrupted

I was attending a conference and was scheduled to return to Los Angeles on the morning of Sept. 11 on United Flight 114 out of Reagan Washington National Airport, connecting through Chicago.

At 9:17 a.m., while taxiing to the runway for takeoff, I listened to the air traffic controller on the plane's audio entertainment system. The conversation went something like this:

Tower: Attention all aircraft bound for the New York area, there is a hold on all New York-bound planes. That airspace is now closed.

United: Do you know what the problem is?

Tower: No sir, I have not heard.

Another pilot: My wife just called me on my cell phone to tell me that an airplane has hit the World Trade Center.

Tower: Roger, all right, all westbound airplanes, you are the lucky ones today. Westbound traffic is still cleared for takeoff.

Hearing this, I assumed that a small private plane had struck the World Trade Center. No one seemed overly concerned, and we took off about 9:20. The plane lifted off and I looked out at Washington, D.C. I had a great view of the Pentagon.

I settled in for the ride and didn't give the crash much more thought. Then the seat-belt light came on, even though there was no turbulence.

The captain addressed passengers. Again, to the best of my recollection:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. I am instructing all of you to stay in your seats with your seat belt fastened. You are not to get up for any reason. You are not to access your luggage in the overhead bin. You are not to move from your seat for any reason. This is not a request."

We started to descend. Then the captain again:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the FAA has just ordered a grounding of all aircraft operating in the United States. There has been a coordinated terrorist attack using commercial airplanes, and we will be landing shortly. Please stay in your seats and follow the instructions of the crew."

We descended quickly, and I tuned back into the air traffic control radio. We were instructed to line up for landing in Cincinnati.

Later that day, after numerous calls and persistent begging, I got a rental car and headed back to Los Angeles. I listened to National Public Radio most of the trip. Almost every area along the way seemed to have an NPR station, so I had familiar correspondents to keep me up to date.

Driving back, I was struck by the number of flags already being displayed from overpasses and buildings. They were everywhere. It was also apparent that I was surrounded by rental cars driving west.

The drive was therapeutic. I realized that though there are many variations in culture between New York City and Los Angeles, everyone was hurting for our friends on the East Coast.

WES SCRUGGS

Thousand Oaks

Fates Unknown

We were vacationing in London and boarded a sightseeing bus during a day trip in Cambridge. Only two other passengers were on the top deck: one woman and her friend, who was sobbing. "Did you hear what happened in the United States today?" the woman asked. We had not.

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