Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Ago

At the end of August 2001, I accepted my dream job...a charter sales rep position for Atlantic Aviation out of Teterboro, the private airport for New York City. Atlantic Aviation sits 12 miles from midtown Manhattan, just over the George Washington Bridge. I will never forget when my new boss showed me my faced the window and my view was the NYC skyline . I had worked in private aviation and charter for years at that point and had worked for a prominent "New York Area Operator" before, but at a smaller airport further from the city. Actually working in Teterboro was where the real action was the pinnacle of private aviation and I wanted more than anything to succeed there. I was so excited the day they offered me the position that I could hardly contain myself. This little Texan was going to charter jets around the world with NYC as my backdrop. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

I had various company indoc days and met with the Chief Pilot and Director of Maintenance on Monday, September 10, 2001. At the time, I was living with my good friend April while I looked for my own apartment. I don't remember what we did that night because in those last moments of innocence, we didn't know we would have the next day imprinted on our souls forever. I was scheduled to go to work on Tuesday, September 11th. I was training that whole week in preparation to take over my position officially on Monday. That Tuesday, I didn't have to be there until noon for a lunch meeting and then training through the evening. I was also still helping April (who ran the charter ops for Jer's company) and going in to work with her. I woke up that morning leisurely and I remember every single tiny moment that happened. It actually unsettles me to think about it because I can still see the creases in the bedspread around me (a vintage looking patchwork quilt full of pinks and blues), the bedside table full of make-up, the shaggy cat at my feet. I sat up in bed and, as usual, flipped the television set on. I was still under the covers a few minutes later and April was standing in the bathroom on my right hand side, blow drying her hair. I can see it perfectly in my minds eye. The news cut to a breaking story. Video was playing of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center. In that first moment, it was just grainy local footage of what looked like a small plane going in one of the windows. Keeping in mind that I worked in aviation, chartered airplanes and dealt with pilots on a daily basis, my very first thought was, "Oh my God...some idiot in a Cessna seriously just managed to crash himself into a building.". I called out that exact line to April, who couldn't hear me over the hairdryer. I waved my hand to get her attention and she switched the dryer off. I said, "You are not going to BELIEVE what this pilot just did! Get in here! There's not even any weather!! How the hell do you run into a building in the city!? ". She scooted into the room and sat down next to me on the bed, wearing a terry cloth robe and half a head of wet hair. We kept watching the news unfold and began debating on whether the guy had instrument ratings and what kind of plane he was flying. We shook our heads and talked about pilots with too much money who would fly solo when they clearly weren't ready. We wondered how many people were hurt around the windows and how they would possibly move the body of the aircraft out of the building. We were backed up on pillows together and April was calling her boss to see if he saw it when the second plane hit. Then it was all over. We stopped talking and just stared at the screen. Space and time stood still. I can see the walls of the entertainment center, the buttons on the TV, the white lace curtains to my left and the bright lights of the bathroom to my right. The whole moment is simply frozen inside me. We had no idea what was going on, but we knew New York City, we knew airplanes and we knew pilots. We knew that our universe was suddenly upside down. Without speaking, April went downstairs to call her mom from the home phone. I picked up my cell and called my dad. It was an hour earlier in Texas and he was alone in his office. He answered the phone with, "This is Daddy!" like he always does when he sees my number. I remember that I couldn't get the words out for a split second and then all I could manage was, "Daddy. Airplanes are flying into the WTC". He said, "WHAT?" and I repeated myself. He said, "Chalna, where are you??". "Not there" was my response...I assured him that I was safe at April's house and we got off the phone. I remember the terror building inside me like a fire. We had airplanes in the air, 3 or 4 crews out on trips at that moment. That meant that my friends were unaccounted for...flying in a sky that appeared to be dropping airplanes into buildings. Jeremy, who was my boyfriend at the time, was at recurrent training in Delaware with one of our other pilots. During training, they are locked away in classrooms and wouldn't know what was happening outside. I left him several voicemails. The rest of the morning is a nightmarish blur. It took hours to account for our crews that were in the air at the time. They were having to land in random places around the country after ATC ordered everyone out of the sky. I was sick to my stomach as we paced around April's office and watched the news unfold while we waited for our boys to land and check in. We reserved hotel rooms in their various cities, where they were stuck for 2 days, if I remember correctly. We cried a lot. I was overjoyed when Jer finally called...just to hear the sound of his voice was amazing that day. Over at my new office in NYC, a lot of people were already in the office when it happened. All the bridges into the city were shut down immediately and nobody in my office could get home. Everyone at the airport was basically stranded. Most of my co-workers were forced to spend the night on the office floor. Obviously, I couldn't make it in for my noon meeting and I remember being so glad that I wasn't there but guilty for feeling the relief. It feels like it was the longest day in my life. I imagine it will feel that way to me forever. I was paralyzed with fear and dread and it felt like something died inside me. It's so hard to put into words. It happened in my beautiful city and the vehicles for destruction were airplanes flown by whole world and everything important to me seemingly coming down around me. It was too close to home. My career, my best friends, the love of my life...all in aviation right there where it happened. I felt like I had to remind myself to breathe that day. NYC - where my dreams came true, where my career took off, where I spent my Saturday nights, where I got lost all the time and honked at every 5 minutes. Where I met clients for lunch and watched Rent over and over again. Where I learned that I could make something of myself. Where I ate real Chinese food and went to bars with unmarked doors. All of this weighed on me that day and I felt like the terrorists attacked me personally. Everyone in that area did. It gives me chills up and down right now as I type. That feeling took a long time to let go of.

I will never ever forget the moment when our pilots came home. I can't explain the fear in the beginning when we didn't know where they were and who was hijacking planes. Because of air traffic being completely shut down, we weren't able to see them immediately. April and I were waiting for them on the tarmac when the owner of our company and his co-pilot landed, another one right behind them with two more of our guys flying. It was dusk and the sun was going down. We ran out to the tarmac, not even waiting for them to shut down the engines, and flung ourselves at them. All of the people that worked at the FBO came out and the entire group of us stood out there by the plane, hugging and crying and holding on to each other. The strangest part was that we didn't say anything. Nobody in the whole crowd said a word. We just embraced each other and thanked God that everyone was accounted for. It was a moment that will live inside me for the rest of my life. It could have just as easily been one of them and we all knew it.

I went back to work, of course. Life had to go on. The first days were horrible. People that I worked with lost friends and loved ones. The smoke continued to billow skyward for weeks. I ended up switching my desk around so that I was not looking directly out my window all day long. My view, all day every day, was Ground Zero burning. It was a constant reminder that nothing was okay anymore. Absolutely every single thing about my job changed that day. There is a clear "before" and "after" in aviation, especially in New York. Every single morning, I could not drive into our parking lot without having my trunk searched by police. They checked every vehicle that entered our facility, 24 hours a day. If you left for lunch and came back, they checked you again. I even got to know the different police officers and would greet them by name. They used to make fun of my messy trunk and I actually starting keeping the car clean so that the search was quicker. In the beginning, we had armed Marines on patrol in my office 24/7. Fully uniformed Marines with giant machine guns that hung at their sides. They were everywhere. The sad part about that is that we loved it. Nothing about our jobs seemed safe anymore and it was so easy to get yourself in a panic. Our front doors led directly out onto the ramp, where the private jets board passengers. I found myself searching every face that walked by and wondering if the person was going to hijack our planes. It felt sort of like a traumatic stress were constantly wondering if you were safe. The fierce looking Marines on patrol made me feel better. We had all sorts of new rules. You couldn't go out onto the ramp without airport identification and the port authority had to do a background check before you could get it. If you left your badge at home, you were going back to get it. Passengers for trips had to be walked outside by someone with an ID, even if the airplane was in plain view right in front of the doors. Marines, and later police, would stop you as soon as you walked out the door. All passengers had to be checked against the brand new, and now infamous, no-fly list. The list was updated by the Department of Defense constantly and each and every passenger had to be checked against it before all flights. We had to include the information on all the trip sheets we made (those are the formal itinerary sheets that the pilots take) and label which revision of the list we had used. If another revision came out after we checked passengers, you had to go back and do it again. Private flights were very laid back before...the closest thing to a terminal was our sliding doors that led to the ramp. Your jet picked you up right there. Pilots would shake your hand as you entered and then just take off. Now they had to check ID's and passengers had pat downs and luggage checks. Everything was different. We quickly adapted to the police and military presence, but the smoke was impossible to get used to. The smoke rising daily from the skyline was the most scarring part for me. I can still see it perfectly.

There were good moments that came out of the destruction. The feelings of love and unity and patriotism were absolutely overwhelming in NYC during that time. As you walked down the street, you could feel an almost palpable gravity between you and the strangers that you passed. It was like we were one big family, tied together in this horrible tragedy. People hugged more. We kept our flags out. Folks would randomly run up to the Marines in our lobby and shake their hands and bring them notes of thanks. And forget it if you saw a fireman in those days. These were our angels that came to life in front of you. People would stop in the street and clap and salute. Sometimes it was hard not to cry when you saw them, even months later. Ground Zero was a whole other story. I had meetings that required I pass the area several times in those first months and it was horrific. My sisters came to stay with me during the following spring break from college and we took them down there. They got a great picture with two of the firemen that were working on the scene...still all those months later.

On the 6 month anniversary of the attacks, the city lit the Tribute in Light, which looked like twin beacons of light that shone where the buildings once stood. It stayed lit for several days and that is another sight that I will never forget. I remember standing on the ramp and staring in awe at the lights. It was so beautiful and so sad. I was 24 years old that day, a young professional just starting out...when life loomed in front of me with endless possibility and every day was an adventure. I grew up more in 2001 than any other year of my life. It sometimes feels like I went from being a girl to a woman in just that one single day. When you are young, you think that nothing can hurt you. I was invincible. After 9/11/01, I realized just how foolish that notion had been. Somehow I am waking up today and it is ten years later. I have a husband and a son and a beautiful life. I live in Texas. But today, my heart is back at Atlantic Aviation, 12 miles from Manhattan. I will never ever forget.

This paperweight sat on my desk at Atlantic and continued to sit on every desk I have had since then. It stays with me always.
Blog Template by Delicious Design Studio