Revisiting 9/11

Presque Isle Beach in Erie, Penn.

Presque Isle Beach in Erie, Penn.

This week, I travelled back to the place I was thirteen years ago when 9/11 happened. I didn’t have much of a choice – the travel was for a work conference – the same event I was attending on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a regional conference held in Erie, Penn. At least we are at a different hotel this time. Even so, the idea of going back there made me irrationally worried that a similar disaster would happen.

Back on 9/11, we were in the middle of our three-day conference when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center building. The organizers stopped the meeting. Some of us watched news reports in the hotel bar and lobby. Others went to their rooms. Several colleagues from New York made frantic calls to their loved ones back home.

I was in my room with my roommate watching TV when the second plane hit the second tower. After the horror subsided and our brains started functioning, we thought about the implications. Not having loved ones in New York, our worries revolved around “How are we going to fly home tomorrow?” Realizing that flying was going to be impossible, I got on the phone to see if we could rent a vehicle. They were already all reserved.

We had five people from Minnesota who needed to get home. I had young sons and a husband who needed me. Intermixed in the newscasts was the report of the Pentagon plane crash. Then came the news of the downed plane in Stonycreek Township, Penn., only 200 miles south of us. That made us much more nervous – the site was so near.

The moment I heard about the Pennsylvania plane crash, something clicked in my head, and I told my roommate that the passengers must have heard what had happened to the other planes. They weren’t going to let the hijackers crash their plane into some significant national site. Turns out, that’s indeed what happened.

Like everyone else, we ran through a lot of feelings in the next few days: incredible heaviness of heart, fear, and a sense of desperation mixed with the desire to help others and make it through. (I find myself shaking just writing this.)

We made it home the next day, with the help of some colleagues from Ohio who drove us to Cleveland, where a rental van was available. Then came the long haul home (15 hours? 17?)

During those first few days after 9/11, I felt like I was living in an apocalyptic Stephen King novel – no planes in the sky, gas at a premium, uncertainty running rampant among the populace. It’s not fun living in a Stephen King novel. Things eventually got back to “normal,” but of course, we and the rest of the country were changed. But here I was, thirteen years later, going back to Erie for a conference again.

It didn’t help that I watched the movie “Gravity,” the night before leaving for Erie this time. If I had known beforehand about the sense of desperation and peril that pervades that movie, I would not have watched it. A woman alone, trying to make it back “home,” hit too close to home. (Pun intended.)

Things went well at the conference, and I thought the new events were erasing the 9/11 strangeness until it came time to go back home. Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” it took me several tries and different modes of transportation to compete the feat, which put me right back into those 9/11 feelings. However, unlike Bullock, at least I had a breathable atmosphere.

The weirdness started after the conference when a group of us decided to spend several free hours at a nearby beach on Presque Isle. A friend and I separated from the rest of the group to hike to a bird observation platform. The hike through the woods was hot and muddy. Once reaching the platform, we decided to return to the others by walking on the beach. We soon discovered that Lake Erie beaches are not like the beaches we are used to in Minnesota, where you can often walk unimpeded. This beach was eroded in many spots. Fallen trees and brush blocked our path, which necessitated inland bushwhacking forays — sometimes following deer trails, sometimes left to our own devices. The bushes had thorns, and our progress was slow.

We began to worry that we wouldn’t make it back to the others by the appointed time to leave. Having no map, we weren’t exactly sure how far we had to go or where we were in relationship to any civilized outposts. We started second-guessing our decisions, but that subsided once we saw familiar landmarks. Bramble-scratched, we made it back to the group in time to head for our respective planes.

The group dropped me off at the Erie Airport and went their merry way to Cleveland to catch their plane. As I stood in the ticketing line and looked at the flight departure schedule, I noticed the word “CANCELLED” next to my flight. Not good.

The ticketing agent explained the flight had been cancelled due to bad weather. They couldn’t get me out that day or the next from Erie, but if I could make it to Cleveland, I could take a flight tomorrow. I called my colleagues who turned around and rescued me from being stranded in Erie. With four of us smooshed in the back seat, we made the 100-mile journey to Cleveland.

Dropped off at the Cleveland Airport, my next goal was to find a place to stay the night. Because my flight was cancelled due to weather, the airlines said they were not required to pay for my extra night’s stay, so I was on my own. Like Sandra Bullock, trying to reach the Chinese space station on the radio, I desperately called different numbers, trying to find a hotel. No luck. The city was booked for the night (if one can believe the five places I reached).

By this time, it was 7:30 p.m. I was tired and hungry, having only an apple to eat since breakfast. Unable to reach my home office for help with a reservation due to tornados knocking out the phone system, and with my cell phone battery dying, I made a reservation with a place about 40 miles away in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

After a $90 cab ride, I sank into a soft bed and ordered room service. I awoke at 4:15 a.m. to catch a cab back to Cleveland. My flight left with no problems, until we got to Minneapolis. Lightning strikes kept us from taxiing to the gateway for about 20 minutes – the very time my connecting flight home was supposed to leave. After sprint through the airport (okay, more like a computer-and-book-laden trot), I discovered my home flight was still at the gate, also delayed by the storm.

I made it home, and better yet, so did my baggage. Will I ever return to Erie again? Did Sandra Bullock’s character ever go into space again? I don’t think so.

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