On the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, The Florida Times-Union is republishing this article originally published on Sept. 12, 2002.
It is the day airline pilot Capt. Monty Stewart knew would come but never really prepared himself for.
It’s been one year since his AirTran Airways flight was grounded in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International. It’s been one year since he stepped off his plane only to be greeted by horror-struck faces glued to terminal televisions. And it’s been one long year since grumblings of airline security and fear of flying began to send passengers scurrying from airports.
It was supposed to be just another workday with the same security haggles, strict navigational guidelines and shoddy attitudes from passengers complaining of one inconvenience or another. It was supposed to be the routine flight to Washington’s Dulles International that Stewart had grown accustomed to over the year.
More: From the archives | Memory of attack inevitably will fade. How much depends on events to come.
More: From the archives | Year of living in post-9/11 world stirs questions, search for answers
But somewhere between waking up this morning and flashing his pilot identification at the flag-decorated ticket counter, Sept. 11, 2002, happened.
Maybe it was the overlay of sadness and mourning in America’s airports that said this day was different for Stewart and the thousands of passengers traveling by air. It could have been the return of red, white and blue paraphernalia to his passengers’ lapels, T-shirts and carry-ons. It might have been the deserted terminals as U.S. airlines trimmed domestic schedules by about 13 percent compared with the previous Wednesday.
“It’s kind of a numb day,” Stewart said. “I didn’t mind flying, but it’s a lot more emotional than I thought.”
His sentiment was echoed among passengers on flights from Jacksonville to New York, Washington and Boston airports, the origin or tragic conclusion of four civilian airplanes used as weapons of war one year ago. Some traveled yesterday on business or bereavement, others out of defiance or simply cheaper fares. Artists and journalists trekked to the airports just to be there, to record a moment.
Inextinguishable images of the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field were plastered yesterday across the terminal televisions at Jacksonville International Airport and other major airports between here and the Northeast Corridor. Bars and restaurants were virtually abandoned by all but the wait staff and a couple of regulars.
Even with flight cancellations, the planes coming in and out of Jacksonville yesterday were hardly filled to capacity. Charles Hart of Neptune Beach had plenty of elbow room on United Express flight 7728 out of Jacksonville, and that suited him just fine. It was a trip to visit family in London sprinkled with a bit of patriotism that brought Hart, 65, to the airport.
“It’s the best day of the year to fly. Instead of waving the flag, you’re literally flying the flag,” he said. “By flying today, you’re giving the terrorists the finger.”
Most who chose to brave the airways did so for the same reasons they would any other day, although this day, this trip was in some way more special. There were business dates and training seminars to keep, but there were also respects to be paid and memorial services to attend.
A Northern California man arrived in New York to participate in memorial services without a hotel reservation or a clear sense of how to get from LaGuardia Airport to ground zero. A radio talk show host from Knoxville, Tenn., came to unveil a banner decorated with 3,000 signatures before a fire house that received an engine donated by Knoxville residents. Mac-Truque, an artist from Jacksonville, traveled with Katherine Metz recording their journey from North Florida to ground zero on a digital camera.
Sure, some were resilient, scoffing at the idea America is any weaker a year after the attacks, but others, a bit more reluctant, subconsciously scoped out the stranger sharing the next bench or the guy in line at the ticket counter.
Karen Kunz, an Atlanta business analyst, sat by herself in front of a television screen at Hartsfield International as President Bush delivered an address from the Pentagon.
“A lot of people were shocked that I would fly today,” said Kunz, who was headed to Savannah. “I’m just not going to be scared. Or I am, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
At New York City airports flags flew at half staff and moments of silence were observed at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., one year to the minute since planes crashed into the two World Trade Center towers. On Delta flight 2290 to Atlanta, a pre-flight safety video was airing on the jet’s television screens as the fatal minutes came and went.
Over the aircraft’s intercom, airline attendants and pilots offered words of condolence for the day along with strict warnings about flying in and out of Washington and New York. Passengers were instructed to remain seated with seat belts fastened 30 minutes out of both cities. The precaution was in place for one day only.
“It’s a serious thing, going into Dulles,” said an airline attendant on a United Express flight out of Jacksonville. “Please stay in your seats.”
Atlantic Coast Airlines, a United Airlines subsidiary, thanked passengers for flying on Sept. 11 by distributing metal ribbons colored red, white and blue pinned to cards emblazoned, “Thank you for flying with us.”
Joe Knox, en route to a wedding in Wisconsin, was among those watching the commemoration ceremonies bar-side at LaGuardia.
“I knew a person [who died], but not closely,” he said as announcers recited victims’ names beginning with L, then M. Mostly he was struck by the absence of other travelers.
“It’s depressing,” Knox said. “I guess I knew it was going to be a little bit light, but not this empty.”
Travelers were generally outnumbered by security and service personnel at New York’s LaGuardia. Skycaps perched beside rows of empty baggage carts or sat on benches. Security guard gaggles attended to individual passengers and ticket agents wandered through empty check-in halls, chatting with friends.
Although most people opted out of flying yesterday, security was still intensified as the Transportation Security Administration said it deployed all of its available air marshals. The department directed all screeners and law enforcement patrols at airports to be on alert.
In Jacksonville, even the metal detectors were geared up to full alert.
“It’s especially sensitive today,” said one security guard as a man tried to get through. “It’ll probably pick up your shoes.”
Tacit reminders of last year’s events crept into every corner of the nation’s airports yesterday.
In Atlanta’s airport, news racks carried copies of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a special front: a photo of the twin towers screened behind a full-page list of victims’ names. The headline simply read, “Remember.” A 1/3-page recruitment ad in Sky, Delta’s in-flight magazine, promoted a Central Intelligence Agency’s training program. And as a flight from Atlanta to Boston passed over New York City, the captain announced a nice view of the Hudson River.
Although he made no mention of Manhattan, ground zero or Sept. 11, the passengers on his airplane knew it was there.
ABOUT THIS STORY
Times-Union staff writers Binyamin Appelbaum, Steve Patterson and Jim Schoettler flew from Jacksonville to New York, Boston and Washington, respectively, to report on the mood in the sky one year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.