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In Flight from Amsterdam on September 11th

"It looks like a wartime evacuation."

by Doug Lindsey

Diverted Aircraft in Halifax

Diverted Aircraft in Halifax*

We've had a lot of time to analyze our feelings in the wake of the attacks. After a couple of days post-cruise from R7, our Amsterdam to Philadelphia return flight was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia on 9-11. Our flight crew claimed we were diverting because of "weather," but wouldn't say ANYTHING else. We knew from "popping" ears that we'd been descending for at least 30 minutes before that and we knew the "weather" story was baloney and started to get scared. What could be so bad that they'd lie to try and hide it? A bomb or a hijacker on board? Literally minutes later we pop out of the clouds and land seconds after that.

As our jet taxies, we count almost FIFTY aircraft, including maybe fifteen Boeing 747s parked nose-to-nose on every available inch of concrete (Halifax is a VERY small airport.) Virtually every international carrier has a plane or two. Our Boeing 767 is one of the smaller aircraft. It looks like a wartime evacuation. I'm not sure how much of this registered on the other passengers, but it's obvious to Doug and Sherry that nothing over the North Atlantic is going into the USA. (We later learn that over 200 flights inbound to USA are diverted to Eastern Canada.) Sherry asks me what's going on. I tell her the only thing I can think of big enough to cause this is nuclear weapons; that we must have lost a city--or maybe several cities. The cabin crew is looking very grim and saying absolutely nothing. It's obvious they've been told to keep mum.

A guy next to us has what turns out later to be the only working cell phone on the plane (they shut off all the plane's airfones, probably as a security measure.) He calls home - it's about 1 pm Eastern Time - to tell them we're in Canada for some reason. They start telling him what the reason is (we can't hear it). He responds with disbelief. A flight attendant pesters him to shut off the phone, and eventually he complies. She whispers to him not to say anything. He nods his head, then puts his head down on the seat in front and starts to cry. Sherry and I start wondering if there will be an America to go home to.

...the city of Halifax scrambles to accommodate over 9,000 people in emergency shelters.


A few minutes later the pilot comes on, but his voice fails before he can tell us what's happened. The co-pilot picks up, and tells us about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Sherry and I feel relief that "only" that much damage has been done.

We're told we'll be put up in Halifax till everything is sorted out. We sit on the plane for 10 hours (this is after a 7 hour flight) while the city of Halifax scrambles to accommodate over 9,000 people in emergency shelters. We borrow the cell phone for a minute to call home and say we're safe. Our access to news is extremely limited, and we hear all sorts of rumors, false alarms and distortions. It's clear that nobody at home, including our government, is really sure what's going on.

Eventually we get off the plane and are escorted to the terminal. It looks like every cop, fireman, EMT, soldier, sailor and reservist in Nova Scotia has been mobilized. There is an army of people maintaining very tight security and shepherding passengers.

I make several calls home. We have 2 frequent fliers in the family that might have flown out of Boston or NYC that day, but it turns out everyone is on the ground and safe. After maybe an hour at the terminal, we're bussed about 30 minutes to our shelter, the "Park Exhibition Centre." Inside is a TV room filled with [donated] large-screen monitors tuned to CNN. Several welcome desks filled with Red Cross volunteers register us, inquire if we need anything special including medications, show us where temporary phone banks have been set up, and guide us to our beds. There are huge tables set up with beverages and hot food. It's obvious that every fast food joint in Halifax has been cranking all day to support this.

We're grateful
 to be safe...


Part of the Centre is a very large communal room where bedding for about 1,500 people has been set up. We find out later that volunteers have gone door-to-door in Halifax to get pillows, blankets and linens. At least one local mattress outlet has cleaned out its warehouse and delivered it here. The Salvation Army contributes what they have; at least 1,000 wool blankets. The hot food is welcome and the beds feel good.

We're grateful to be safe and amazed at the degree of mobilization and support that's materialized in a few hours on our behalf. Most of it is done by Halifax citizen-volunteers.

The next morning we wake up and go into the sports arena, which has been set up as a dining hall, with more big monitors tuned to CNN, FoxNews, etc. A hot breakfast is catered by the staff of Halifax's own World Trade Centre. There is unlimited hot & cold food & beverages during our stay. We spend most of the day reading newspapers and watching CNN, as the media assembles the story. We see the photos and footage of the destruction, the victims, the rescuers, and hear the stories of survivors and heroes alike. We listen to dozens of talking heads attempting to analyze and interpret.

By afternoon a trailer with field showers is setup. Internet access is available nearby. A "Stunt-Dog" show is performed in the parking lot. There's also a free shuttle van to the shopping centers so we can buy clothing and other "necessaries" (we never gain access to our luggage). Each night there's live music of all sorts. Just about everything imaginable shows up within a few hours of somebody thinking of it or requesting it.

There are maybe 10 planeloads of people at our facility (there are 17 other hosting facilities, most much smaller). Aircraft start leaving on the second day, but all of these are returning to Europe, or continuing to Canadian destinations.

Thousands of Halifax families offer to host travelers in their homes. We'll never know how many; the Red Cross stopped accepting offers after it reached 4,000 on the first day. So many Haligonians, as they call themselves, come into our shelter that they're almost a nuisance; to offer a place to stay, a restaurant meal, a private tour around town, anything they can think to help make our stay more pleasant. We witness hundreds of acts of individual kindness during our stay.

"The destruction may have taken place in NYC and Washington DC, but they attacked us too."


Lots of Canadians stop by to say hello; military, police, Mounties, catering staff. Many offer sympathy, but I think they mostly want to get a face-to-face "take" on how we Americans feel. Canadians with "Therapy Dogs" also stop by many times. The pilot of our plane stops by each day to say hello and see how everyone's doing. He's a bright, decent, caring fellow.

We hear the same things many times on Canadian TV, in the Canadian newspaper letters and editorials, and from dozens of individual Canadians. The message is worded many different ways, but it comes down to this: "The destruction may have taken place in NYC and Washington DC, but they attacked us too. You suffered the blow for us, but this is our fight. We'll help anyway we can. We'll fight back too."

Sherry and I wish that Halifax was part of the USA. The people, the sympathies, the attitudes are so typical of what we consider to be "American." Any country should be proud to have such a city.

On the first day, we take advantage of the shopping shuttle. On the second day, we use the field showers and take a 2-hour bus tour of Halifax. The sights are pleasant but not particularly remarkable. But everywhere we turn we meet open, generous, giving people. We realize that we too, can at least make a gesture.

On the second and third days, we set up a table in the dining area, with a sign that says "'THANK YOU HALIFAX' - Sign Up Here" and start off with our own thank you note. At least two planeloads of people are gone by the time we start, but in a day and a half, at least 500 people stop by. Their contributions range from a name and address, to full page 'Thank You' notes. We read through them. Most are quite touching. Some of our Canadian hosts cry when they read them.
Farewell Halifax from US Airways

Farewell YHZ from
 US Airways*

Our plane is called on the morning of the third day, and we leave a copy, at least 75 pages, with the volunteer staff.

We get to the terminal, and a few minutes later the flight crew shows up. Everyone starts clapping; they're not merely our ticket home, in three days they've become our friends. With many delays for heightened security, we reach Albany, NY late that night. It's never felt so good to be home.

********************************

We all take things for granted until they're gone, then you realize how important and irreplaceable some things are. For maybe an hour on that first day, I had only my imagination to guide me as to what terrible things must have just happened to America. Then, I had three days with little to do but read newspapers, watch CNN, and contemplate how much "America" means to me.

I love my home, my family, and my country. But "America" is more than 270,000,000 very diverse people, or 3 million square miles of real estate, or the largest economy and most powerful military the world has ever known.

"America" is a set of principles and ideals that have been built into the very core of our culture, our laws, lifestyles and thought patterns. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." All men [and women] are created equal. Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness. One Nation, Indivisible. Liberty and Justice for All. Government of [all] the people, by [all] the people, for [all] the people. "Unalienable" rights. Personal freedom. Human dignity. The Rights of Man. We The People.

There were dozens of nationalities present in The Park Exhibition Centre, and we have the signatures to prove it. USA, U.K., Canada, Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Australia, India, Pakistan, and on and on. About half of us call ourselves "Americans", but it becomes clear to me that EVERYBODY here, regardless of their stated nationality, religion or ethnicity, cherishes these same values. Several of them are quite free in their political opinions and criticism of the U.S. government, but everyone I talk to understands and supports the USA during this dark hour. For these three days at least, huddled together in a crisis, we are ALL "Americans."

I realize how important these values are to me, and how little allowance there can be in America for intolerance, hatred, racism, sexism, or bigotry. America has such powerful ideals, and we all have to work harder at living up to them. We must redouble our efforts to be a beacon of light and hope for the rest of the world.

I also want to say 'thank you' to US Airways for professionalism and caring. Over the years, you have become a world-class carrier, but your crew on Flight #43 went far beyond that. You may be having financial difficulties now, but whatever we can do to help you survive, we will. When we have the choice, we will gladly choose US Airways in the future.

We had never realized what good friends we have in Canada. We remain deeply grateful to the people of Halifax. You should be proud of what you did. The generosity you showed was incredible, and we will welcome any and all of you to Albany. We look forward to a return visit to your wonderful city in happier times.

And for America, the charitable contributions we have already made are just the beginning. Younger, fitter men than I will be carrying the weapons in this battle, but I will be behind them. Whatever support I can give, I will give. Whatever I can do, I will do. Whatever you need, I will do my personal best to help see that you have it. I will invest every nickel I can scrape up in our stock market, as proof of my belief in our economic system. I know I won't be disappointed, once fear recedes and rationality returns to our financial markets. And I will use those financial rewards to be more vigorous in defending and enjoying and using my freedoms, and in protecting the freedoms of others.

Finally, to Mr. Bin Laden: Truth has never hurt a cause that was just. You have succeeded in showing the world everything that is evil and sick and perverted about your way of life. In contrast, the world has seen little that was not noble, courageous, good and heroic in our response to disaster.

You have helped all of us in the civilized world (to which you so clearly do not belong) to understand what is so special about our values and our way of life.

I am not angry with you, any more than I would be angry with a cockroach. Nor do I seek vengeance against you. Vengeance is an unworthy motive that is beneath us as Americans. But just as cockroaches are vermin that require extermination, you and your kind are particularly dangerous vermin that MUST be exterminated. My personal determination will not waver; I will do everything in my personal power to help see the end of you and what you stand for.

But before you and your hatreds are buried in "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies," I hope you learn just how foolish you have been. Your attack has only succeeded in making our nation stronger. You can kill people and destroy airliners and buildings. But you cannot kill an idea whose time has come. Truth, justice, liberty, dignity, and equality are alive and well in America. And we will use them to root out and destroy all the twisted ideas that you stand for.

Copyright 2001 -- Doug Lindsey


*Halifax International Airport Staff Photographs, used with permission


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