9/11/2001 Retrospect: Another Day, and Another Day, and Another Day in Paradise

Tim’s story of 9/11 made me recall my days around that time as well. Given that we are all remembering that day, I would like to tell of my experience of the time around 9/11, a not so ordinary tale. And mine was very different from Tim’s, because I did not know of the disaster until LONG after it happened, and then it effected my wife and I in a number of strange ways for many days

My wife and I were in Maui, Hawaii on vacation the week leading up to 9/11/2001. We were scheduled to fly out the afternoon of the 11th on a United flight back to San Francisco. Being on vacation, we did not turn on the TV set or listen to the radio the whole time we were there. It was Hawaii after all, and we did things outside.

After waking up late on the morning of the 11th and eating breakfast by the ocean, we were finally outside and on the beach by 10 AM Hawaii time for a morning walk. Something was not quite right that morning, but I could not put my finger on it. There were definitely less people on the beach than usual. I also did notice a strange calm and quiet in the air. The condo we rented in Kehei, Maui (or is it Kihei?) was right on the beech, quite a ways away from the big hotels (on purpose), but was in the path of planes landing or taking off at Maui airport. And I did, mostly subconsciously, noticed a lack of planes while we walked, and also a lack of tourist helicopters and small planes too. It was strange, but nothing that alarmed me, I chalked it up to the time of day and nothing else. After all, I was very relaxed after 10 days in Hawaii, who cares if the planed took a break?

We finally went inside, cleaned up the condo and ourselves, packed our bags, and headed out the door for the airport, now about 1 PM. As we were taking our luggage to the car, someone stopped us and asked us where we were going?

“To the airport, we have a 4 PM flight to SF today. We are going home,” we answered.

“I think not,” was the solemn answer, nothing more. After a strange silence on both parts, we asked him what he meant by this.

“Maybe you should take your bags back into the condo and turn on the TV. I do not think you will be leaving for a while,” he commented as he walked away. I recall the strange pit in my stomach as he told me this, and the quiet in the air came crashing back to me. Something is seriously wrong here!

“Have you noticed that nothing has been flying all morning?” I said to my wife. “No jets, no helicopters, no small planes, nothing! It is also very quiet on the beach today too.” I suspected that maybe we were in for a very bad tropical storm like the one that leveled several large hotels in years past. My mind was racing, but I had no clue what to expect.

We went back to the condo and turned on the TV. The replays of the planes hitting the building over and over were all that they were showing. I believe we stared at the screen in shock for a good 30 minutes before either of us moved. I finally grabbed the phone and called United. Busy! I tried every 5 minutes for the next few hours, busy! That has never happened!

Connecting my computer and going to United’s web site, it simply said, “All flights canceled.” We continued to try and call United for some time, and finally got into the holding cue. Well, now we wait. And wait we did, well over an hour for a real person to take the call.

This is when it hits you: Unlike being in some other part of the mainland US where a bus, car, truck or train could eventually get you home, we were stuck on a very small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with NO way home. The island suddenly became very small! This is also when you mind starts to worry about the strangest things like, what will we do for food since it is mostly all flown in? The island got even smaller.

Finally I got through to United. Did I mention that my wife and I flew to Hawaii on free “mileage award” tickets? The woman at United said that everything today and tomorrow was canceled, but there were two “award seats” left on Thursday’s flight, and booked us. We were also instructed to call back Thursday morning. “Excuse me. What do you mean “award seats?” She reminded us that we flew in on an award ticket, so we had to fly out on the same ticket in an available aware seat, and with all the flight shuffling going on, we were told we might not be able to get an “award seat” out of Maui for at least two to three weeks!!! Suffice it to say, I panicked, and lost it at the same time! After 30 minutes of arguing, we were told we could purchase tickets, which at last minute prices were well over $2000 per ticket per person one way!!! Now I really lost it. Many supervisors later, and after being reminded by everyone I talked to that United lost people today and I should be more understanding, I was told that “ they would make this work for us and please call back Thursday morning” and then they hung up. If you thought I was stressed before, imagine how I felt now. But wait, more issues to solve

We then called the Condo manager to tell him we would not be leaving as planned. We were told, “yes, you will!” When I asked why, he told me that another party was “flying in today to rent it for 2 weeks.” Hello? When I reminded him that no planes would be arriving for some time, he finally agreed to let us stay if we paid full price. We discovered later that day that most hotels were offering ? price on all rooms for stuck people. We called back and asked for half price on the condo and the man just laughed! A real patriot that person, but, we at least had our room secured. As for the car, the rental people cut us a deal to keep it as long as necessary, since they did not need it anyway. That was cool.

The next day, Wednesday, we were so in shock we could hardly tear ourselves away from the TV. Besides grocery shopping, we did very little. We decided to go see a movie that evening to get our minds off the horror on TV, and Rat Race was playing near-by. We hoped something funny would occupy our minds, but alas we were one of only 6 people in the theatre that evening, a sad reminder of the recent events. And the restaurant we went to after that was empty too, and that was very strange for Hawaii!

Thursday morning, we called United. Sorry, all flights were still grounded, so we were again canceled. They booked us again on a Friday afternoon flight; “call tomorrow morning”, they told us.

OK, now by this point, many of you are saying, “Oh, poor babies, stuck in Hawaii, how sad for you!” in that sappy, sarcastic way one might expect from someone not stuck in Hawaii. Well, it was actually a sad place to be. First off, we, like many others, were at or near the end of our holiday time, and had spent all the money we budgeted for this trip already. Staying more days just meant spending more money we did not account for, and Hawaii is not cheap. Those who arrived recently started budgeting money early, not knowing how long they would have to stay. Many shops closed early or completely, as very few tourists “stuck” on the island were buying anything they did not really need, again not knowing how long they would be here. We also were running out of prescription medications, as we only brought enough for 12 days. I am asthmatic, and that was NOT an option for me (I now carry an extra 2 weeks when I travel!) And even though there was a drug store of the same chain where we buy our meds, Hawaii does not allow refills from another state, and will not accept a phone prescription from out of state either. The pharmacists suggested we have our doctor FedEx us a new prescription, then fell silent when he realized that FedEx would not work right now. Lucky for us, we found a way to make this work after many calls to doctors and supervisors, but this too just added to the stress, and as you can imagine, was also very expensive since our insurance did not cover “extra” medication as it had not been 30 days since we refilled last time. (Did I mention that I HATE insurance companies?) And lastly, as I said, there was no way off the island without a plane. One cruise ship, leaving in about 3 months was an alternative, but at nearly $10,000 a personOK, there was no way off the island without a plane! At this time, we felt very stuck, in a rather expensive place, with no way at all to go home. Believe me, it was not such a paradise when you know you cannot leave, and the island seems rather small when there is no place else to go. I fully understand “island fever” and how it can happen. So much for 10 days relaxing in Hawaii removing all our stress! We had stress!

Thursday we decided to turn off the TV and try and enjoy the island, since we were stuck here. We went to the hotel next door, which looked like a ghost town, and rented sea kayaks. “How many people are out today?” I asked. “You are the ONLY people to do this today”, the person told us. For our 1-hour rental, we were given 4 hours. That was at least fun, even if we were alone in the water! Hawaii had basically shut down. Stores were closed, tourist attractions shut, and people were basically depressed, staying in their rooms or at home watching the TV. This was not a fun place to be stuck at this time, but we made the best of it.

Friday morning we were once again told we were canceled, and booked now on a Sunday afternoon, the first available flight now. Oh well, we have two more days now; lets try and have fun. So, we took the car and spent them touring places on the island we had never seen before, and did all we could do to keep our minds busy and off the issues. It was not easy. I called my office and they laughed at me being “stuck” in Hawaii, and of course gave me a bad time about it. Turns out my boss was stuck in Japan, so I felt lucky all of a sudden! They were cool about it, and gave me “paid time off”, so that helped greatly with the stress level.

Come Sunday morning, I call United again. Our flight is confirmed, and we should be able to fly as planes are going to be allowed to fly out of Hawaii today. But the woman on the phone is asking us to NOT take the flight. Seems they can only get us to LA and not SF, and we would arrive in LA to late in the day for a flight to the Bay Area. And, it seems, LA airport has a 4-hour check in procedure that they were trying to help us avoid. In addition, United could not find us a room or car in LA, and we would not be allowed to stay in the airport, so they said this was a bad thing for us! So now we have to decide, stay in Hawaii and hope to catch a later plane soon, or at least get to the west coast and worry about what to do when we get there. Could this get any more stressful?

About 10 minutes later we received a call back from United (that surprised me as well! and were offered a Sunday night flight, arriving LA Monday morning at 6 AM, plenty of time to find “a flight” to the SF Bay Area they said. We took it. Check in at the airport was a two to three hour ordeal, and we were told we were getting on one of the first 5 commercial planes to fly that day, the first day that flights started leaving Hawaii! Ok, now the stress is back! Strangely enough though, the ordeal was getting through the ticket line, not security. Seems Hawaii ALWAYS x-rays all luggage anyway to stop people from taking fruit out of the state, so looking for “other” things in the baggage was trivial for them. Hawaii also has two screening areas you must pass through, so their security was considered very good for the time.

Well, to make a long story longer, the flight from Maui to LA was flawless, but packed, not an empty seat on the plane. We were thanked over and over by pilot and crew for trusting United to fly us safely home, and heard many times how they had lost crew and friends as well. Many, like us, were happy to finally be heading home almost week after being “stranded” in Hawaii. I slept, something I never seem to be able to do on planes.

We arrived in LA around 6 AM to an almost empty airport, which was strange. First or second flying day after 9/11, I would expect the place to be packed. We walked the “few blocks” to our scheduled connecting flight, a United Shuttle to San Francisco, and there was nobody waiting. Strange again. After 30 minutes, we boarded with maybe 10 to 15 others. Even more strange. The flight left almost immediately with all of about 20 people on board, and again they thanked us over and over for trusting them and flying United. With so many people stuck all over the country, I was amazed that this flight had only 12 people on it. Obviously people did not trust flying, and it was obvious here. Yet, it was a fast, uneventful flight, and we were finally home. What amazed me most about the plane trip was that flying on one of the first day possible days after the disaster was easier than flying today! That I do not get that.

Long and short of it, we were happy to finally be home and “safe”, almost a week late, but home at last. But every September 11th, I not only recall the terrible tragedy that occurred, but I recall being stuck on a small island in the Pacific for a week, and realize just how much worse things could have been had the disaster been more wide spread. As a country, we were lucky it was not worse.

It was a sad day; one we will all remember as our parents’ generation remembers Pearl Harbor. I often wonder if the world will ever return to “normal”, what ever that may be now, or have we just seen the tip of the iceberg? My wife and I talk about going back to Hawaii again later this year, first time since the event. And yes, it does cause us both to stop and think about the last trip, and wonder just how much extra “stuff” we will both pack this time!

 

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