11 September 2011

Where was I? What was I doing?

I often wonder why it seems important for people to ask "where were you when...." And, I hear this often. "Where were you when JFK was shot?" "What were you doing when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated?" "Where were you when Elvis died?" With all of the media coverage over the last few days leading up to "ten years later," I'm a bit underwhelmed. I understand that people want to "connect" by discussing their circumstances as these events took place, but for me, my whereabouts at the time are unimportant. Nearly 3,000 people virtually vanished that morning and countless other lives were changed forever that day. Yet, I'm still here. I pray to do something meaningful today in honor of those that may have changed the world but didn't have the chance.

With that said, this is my recollection of September 11, 2001:

Ten years ago I was settling into our cabin on the Golden Princess for a nap as the ship prepared to leave the port at Kusadasi for Istanbul. It was about 4:30 PM. We'd spent a great day touring Ephesus and Selçuk with our guide, Anu. She, Cameron and I formed a mutual bond almost immediately. Working the summer as a guide in her native Turkey, Anu had plans to rejoin her sister back in Atlanta in the fall.

After a scary cliff-side bus ride to the House of the Virgin Mary, where it's believed Mary lived out her life, Anu instructed us to quickly go inside the shrine before "the Japanese tourists cut in front of you" as we waited in line to enter. The apparent leader of that group spat, "were not Japanese, we're Korean." Her response? "Same difference." Wow. Once the "official" tour concluded she asked if she could show us around. She escorted us to one of her favorite restaurants where we met some of her friends and ate a late lunch. During conversation we mentioned that we wanted to buy a rug. She took us to a merchant she knew and that's where we bought the rug that's in our living room today.

Not long after closing my eyes, Cameron's mother, Carolyn, came knocking on our cabin door. It was clear that she was distressed. She said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remember saying, "it must be a movie." Alas, we sat on our beds and watched the entire event unfold on CNN until the channel was no longer available at sea. We switched to BBC and, as usual, the coverage turned out to be a much better alternative to the "hype" and continued instant replays found on our American "news" media.

The ship was eerily quiet that night. The only activity was the seemingly miles long line of passengers quietly queuing up to the Excursions desk to cancel their plans for Istanbul. There was a handful of folks that sat with us at a bar on the otherwise deserted pool deck. Among them were a couple of girls from the Bay Area, our German friends Georg and Barbara and a couple from Puerto Rico, Ian and Orlando, with whom we'd become acquainted. After nearly two weeks on board we'd gotten to know our bartender as well. She was a sweet, Romanian girl who at first was sympathetic to the events taking place in New York, but then she said, "now you know how the rest of us feel." I'm as nonplussed with comment today as I was then.

The next morning we cruised into Istanbul. As the ship approached it's berth we were stopped while Turkish military came aboard, all dressed in black, carrying AK-47 assault rifles. They patrolled the top deck of the ship while guard boats circled in the water the entire time we were in there. Through various announcements from the ship's captain and hearing the Call to Prayer dotted with the only intelligible word —"America"— we began to feel assured that we were safe in Turkey. Still, uncertainty permeated the air on the Golden Princess. The cruise line had their hands full. Not only did they have a ship full of people wrapping up their two week Mediterranean Cruise, they had another ship-load of folks waiting in port to board.

The second day, Princess asked us to turn in our personalized cards for on-board charges and gave us new ones without names. Confused, I didn't find out until later that they didn't charge for any expenses after the original disembarkation date. In addition, they contracted with charter buses to take hourly trips to the Grand Bazaar for those who had cancelled their excursions earlier who now warmed to the idea of getting off of the ship. I agreed to go with Cameron and his stepfather, Jim. Walking on the shady path to the marketplace, we were offered some tea. Everyone we encountered was welcoming and friendly. But I was still uncomfortable. We walked the stalls of the cavernous Bazaar and eventually stopped in a shop to buy some rings, but by this time I was so stressed that I only stayed long enough for one cycle of bus departures back to the ship. Once onboard, I slept for almost an entire day. Unfortunately, that was Cameron's and my ninth anniversary. Not so happy.

Some time later, we were ushered into the Princess Theatre for an evacuation presentation where too many among the audience were comparing bejeweled canvas shoes instead of paying attention to the presentation. During the Q & A portion of the program those shoe-sharing dingbats were asking questions that had already been covered. As you can imagine stress levels were fairly high and I remember saying something aloud that I later regretted about "turning up your Beltone."

Because air travel had been suspended our chartered jet was grounded in Atlanta. It seemed that once we were given evacuation plans they would change almost instantly. There was talk of sailing back to Athens or even Barcelona. Later, it looked like we might sail all the way to Fort Lauderdale. With each of the different announcement I left the ship for terminal and the lines at the telephone bank in an attempt to keep our families, our house/dog sitter, Lise, and our employers informed.

Every night, the captain would come on the PA and instruct us to put our luggage outside our cabins, telling us we'd leave the next day. Our bags came back to our cabins the next morning. Finally, on the fifth attempt, our plane had been allowed to leave the United States and was waiting for us at Atatürk International Airport. We got on the bus and made our way to a World Airways charter plane, which normally seats just over 200 passengers, that had been refitted to seat more than 400. With space being so tight, and many passengers' complete lack of regard for instructions, it was a miserable 10-hour flight. Inconsiderates were piling used food boxes in front of the emergency exits instead of waiting for the crew to collect them. Some clueless woman leaned up against a flight attendants' communications console while waiting in line for the lavatory and coincidentally managed to press the right combination of buttons with her butt to send a distress signal to the cockpit. One of the pilots came rushing back to the area yelling for everyone to take their seats.

After Cameron became acquainted with some of the crew he helped them get things back in order. We landed at LaGuardia late that night and boarded buses to a LaQuinta/Quality/Non-Descript hotel. It was chaos all around, on the grounds, in the lobby, and in the restaurant. We had a couple of drinks while we waited for something to eat, then went to bed in anticipation of our bus ride to JFK for another flight the next day.

It was a somber flight from New York with only a handful of passengers on board. Much like the morning of the attacks, it was a clear, sunny day giving us a clear view of the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center followed by a glimpse of hole in the Pentagon.

No comments: