History is about people. It is the avalanche of moments and experiences and decisions. History does not charge or race in times of crisis. History is everything. It is the world moving unstoppable to the future a moment, an hour, a day, and epoch at a time. Only perception and emotion defines the importance of that unending march. It is the emotion and the impact events have upon individual souls that brings humanity to the cold analysis of our shared past. It was those moments and individual faces that defined the true impact of September 11, at least for me. One particular face stands out from all others.
I went upstairs into the terminal, into the chaos and stunned silence after the announcement that flights nationwide had come to a complete stop.. There was a crowd around the customer service desk at the gate. Folks were struggling to get their minds around the incredible concept that nothing was moving anywhere in the United States. One young woman pressed through to the counter. She had long straight hair, her crisp blue eyes were distraught, bordering on panicked.
“Nothing is moving anywhere?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, sympathetic.
“For how long?”
“Indefinitely, they’re telling us.”
“I have to get to Hartford(Connecticut) by tomorrow for my father’s funeral.”
“The best advice I can give you is to get down stairs as fast as you can and rent a car before they’re all…”
She cut me off, her eyes threatening tears. “All I have is this ticket and ten Dollars. I don’t have a credit card.”
She looked at me for the longest time before turning and disappearing into the crowd.
Steadily the terminal emptied. I was wandering, soaking up conversations and moments. A middle-aged business woman rushed up to me and, with a look of utter terror in her eyes said that she’d heard another hijacked plane was headed for the terminal.
“Haven’t heard that,” I told her, though at that moment most anything seemed possible.
“Then why is everyone leaving the airport?” her voice rose almost to hysteria.
“Because there is no reason to be here any more,” I replied, feeling fully the implication inherent in the words.
By noon the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, then the busiest airport in the world, was a ghost town. The silence was unnerving. The lights had been turned off and all the vendors had gone home, the shadows and darkness adding a gloom to this wholly unnatural scene. I was walking through the terminal with a buddy when a Mexican woman appeared with a small child. She spoke no English, but with my simple understanding of Spanish, she revealed she had no money and no means of feeding her child. Her return flight to Mexico was obviously cancelled. In a scene no doubt repeated thousands of times throughout the nation and world, she was trapped.
She sort of followed us through the terminal for a while until we found a manager who held some vouchers for a local hotel, offering to take the woman there, as she obviously could not afford a taxi, if she could have found one. We gave her what money we had, hoping that the flights would begin before the vouchers and that meager bit of cash ran out.
I left work early that day. There was no reason to remain. The airline had hired a lot of good people that summer. A number fit in quickly, proving themselves as reliable and hardworking. It had been a dream job. Despite the dangers, the pay was excellent, with great benefits, the travel benefit notwithstanding. One of the new guys I found in the employee parking lot. He was looking back across the empty runway at the silent terminal with a hopeless and far away look.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
He sighed and shook his head, forcing an ironic grin. “Lost my job today. Now I’m just waiting until they make it official.”
By October he was gone, with hundreds of others. It is these faces that define September 11th to me.