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My 9-11 — A brush with history

Posted by Samantha on Sep 16th, 2011 and filed under Top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

former site of the Twin Towers

This month the world marks the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. In this memoir, Political Science associate professor Charles Burton recounts his experience in those chaotic days.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was driven plenty early to Logan Airport in Boston to catch a U.S. Airways flight back to Toronto. My first lecture of the new Brock University term was scheduled for 7 p.m. that evening.

Charles Burton

Charles Burton

I never made that class, or any of the others that week.

The airport was bustling that September morning, the “secure” area crowded with well-wishers as I pushed my way to gate. Sept. 11, 2001 was the last day anyone would simply walk through to the boarding gate at an American airport with no boarding pass or ID check. Family and friends waved goodbye as passengers walked down the ramp onto the airplane. It was all very cheerful.

My airplane taxied out to the runway and we were all set to go, but then we stopped dead and the plane sat on the tarmac for a good long time. Eventually we circled back to the gate and, after sitting in the plane by the gate for a while, we were told the flight was cancelled due to “flight control issues.” We were to return to the ticket counter and process another boarding card for a flight at 2:20 p.m.

Standing in line at the ticket counter, I could see TV screens in a bar near the departure lounge. Just as I reached the ticket agent, I saw video of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center in a ball of fire.

“My God, did you see that?!” I said. “Thousands of people must work in that building!”

The agent simply said, “I wouldn’t know. I am just working here, Sir.”

At the time I thought it must have been some sort of horrendous accident, perhaps connected to the “flight control issues.”

Not long after, I settled in with my book to wait four hours until I would board a second time. An announcement was made that my flight was further delayed until 6:10 p.m., and we should line up for new boarding passes yet again.

I realized I would not be making the 7 p.m. class. I tried to phone Brock to ask my department admin assistant to have a “class cancelled” note put on the door of the lecture hall, but the mobile phone network was overloaded and I could not call out.

While we were lined up again for a third boarding pass, it was announced that the airport was being evacuated immediately, and we were directed to luggage carousels where we could recover checked-in bags. I had quite a lot of luggage. There was no possibility of a taxi. Cell phones were still not working. So I humped my bags to the subway and returned to Cambridge.

By this time I realized that something momentous had happened. I heaved my bags across Harvard Yard. The day was sunny and cool. Students full of anticipation for the new term were clearly unaware that anything was amiss as they played Frisbee and chattered to one another. I was wondering if, at that very moment, famous sites all over the USA were being destroyed by hijacked airplanes and bombs being set off.

I returned to the large house on Francis Avenue where I had been lodging. Nobody was home but the front door was unlocked. I sat down on the sofa to catch my breath, turned on the TV and saw footage of the first tower collapsing, and then the second tower collapsing, and then news of the other two planes.

I called Brock from the landline in the house to cancel the class. Not long after, Don Newman of CBC Newsworld interviewed me live by telephone. After learning that two of the planes had originated at Logan Airport, I began having flashbacks of my morning there. Which of the people that I had seen rushing to their flights had died in the planes that had been crashed? Had the hijackers themselves brushed by me as I drank my Starbucks after checking in? The airport had seemed so bustling and normal, I had felt so relaxed and blissfully unaware of anything amiss.

Over and over, my memory kept playing the faces of the people I had been with.

I tried calling the Red Cross to find out about donating blood but could not get through. I walked out to a blood donor clinic. I saw lines at gas stations and people in shops buying up water and food to hoard, but it was not really a situation of general panic. The Red Cross had more blood than they could manage so I was turned away and walked home.

The next day it seemed that anybody who owned an American flag had it displayed. Red, white and blue everywhere. I called US Airways to try and re-book my flight home, but the border was closed and, anyway, no flights were going out anywhere from Boston. It was a beautiful bright cool fall day in Cambridge. I settled into a chair in the back garden and read a manuscript on Chinese student movements that I had been asked to review for publication.

The next few days were strangely contented ones. I unexpectedly had no program, and spent most of my time sitting outside reading in the sunny coolness of the Massachusetts fall. (I determined to my regret that I would have to recommend that the manuscript be rejected by the publisher.)

Eventually I realized that Logan Airport might be closed for some time. I asked my host to drive me to the bus station the next day.

I arrived at the Greyhound Terminal a couple of hours before the bus to Buffalo was to depart, and joined a long and unruly lineup. The place was a state of relative bedlam. By the time the bus arrived only about half of us were able to board. People were angry and upset, and there were even minor scuffles over people cutting into line. The bus schedule was in disarray.

We lurched off while I was still making my way to an empty seat, the bus barreling along with as little delay as possible at intervening stops. Passengers were not allowed to get out for a smoke or a snack. We were told sternly that anyone who disembarked would not be let on again.

As a veteran of long-distance bus travel, I had an ample supply of sandwiches and a thermos of sweet milky coffee in my rucksack. But most of my fellow passengers were evidently first-time Greyhound riders. I got the impression a number of them were expecting a steward with wheeled cart to come down the aisle handing out bags of nuts and taking drink orders.

As the trip went on, passengers got more and more grumpy. After some seven hours of continuous travel with no food, a minor insurrection occurred and the bus driver, protesting vociferously and resentfully over the unscheduled stop, was made to turn into a McDonald’s near Rochester, N.Y. The sweaty and chubby passengers piled out to buy a hamburger. I stayed on the bus, afraid the nonplussed driver might suddenly take off for Buffalo without them. But he didn’t.

That night I managed to buy a ticket for a bus to Toronto that made a stop in St. Catharines. It left 90 minutes ahead of schedule, which suited me fine. U.S. Customs, in bullet-proof vests and carrying automatic rifles, came on to the bus before we crossed the Peace Bridge and started to very roughly interrogate a Middle Eastern woman sitting in the back row. I considered asking them to let her be, but was too spooked to speak up and just sat still, eyes forward.

At the border, the Canadian immigration people looked panicked and exhausted. The confused and fragmentary questioning of me went on for about 10 long minutes. I was asked three times if I had anything to declare; three times I told them I had some children’s toys, and that was about it.

The final leg of the trip up the QEW, in the dark late night, was peaceful and quiet.

I felt I had been away for a long time. I felt happy to be finally home again.

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