Quick Thinking, Fear, and Quiet While Stranded in NYC

ALPA Pilots Remember

By First Officer Troy Holladay, Continental

I was a captain on the regional jet at the time, based in Cleveland. We had an early morning departure from Grand Rapids, Mich., to LaGuardia, N.Y. It was one of those mornings where there wasn’t a cloud or bump in the sky—perfect. It was day four of a four-day trip, and all we had to do was go to New York then back to Cleveland and were finished. We were en route hearing the normal radio chatter. Cleveland Center was trying to reach a United 93 flight as we were passing over Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not anything new, and it still happens every day I fly. Sometimes the controller gives the wrong frequency, or we hear it wrong—eh, they’ll find him.

We finished our corn flakes and muffin and started our “in range” (45 minutes out) stuff we needed to do. Sent a message to our operations giving them an ETA, getting weather for New York, setting the radios and such up for the approach, same routine stuff we do every day. The weather for N.Y. was nice, just a thin, low layer of clouds probably left over from the morning fog. After reading the weather, I looked out the window ahead to take a look. We were still 100 miles from N.Y., but on a clear sunny day it can be seen easily. I mentioned to my first officer to take a look at something that was very cool that you don’t see very often. There was the low overcast like a thin blanket covering the city. None of the buildings were visible except two. The entire coast was covered and the twin towers were standing tall and strong up through the fog. They were the only things we could see. Within the next 30 minutes, the clouds were gone, and it was one of the bluest skies I could remember.

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We landed and parked the plane at 8:35 a.m. I jumped out and headed downstairs to get the paperwork for the next flight to Cleveland. As I looked it over, I asked the Ops guy if there are any delays getting out of here—big mistake! He said all traffic had been stopped (before he finishes, I think: “Figures, not a cloud in the sky, and New York stops the traffic, I want to go home!”); an aircraft just hit the World Trade Center. (Again, I think: “Dumbass Cessna pilot, and on a perfectly clear day, too. Probably trying to impress his girlfriend and got too close.”) He turned on the TV downstairs, and as the first reports and video were coming in, I see right away that it was no Cessna. Like everyone else in the country, we had 100 emotions going through our minds—disbelief, denial, fear, sadness—just to name a few. It wasn’t until the second tower was hit that the s*** really started hitting the fan. We were told that the airport was being evacuated. The cops were even taking all the public trash cans outside, just in case.

As I’m walking with my crew and the Ops guy, he says that one of the towers is gone. Gone? What do you mean gone? As simple as he put it, I still didn’t know what he meant—how could it be gone? Next thing I know we are standing next to a rental car lot with another Continental mainline crew. I had managed to finally get a call out on my cell phone to my Dad telling him where I was and that I was OK. It took 15 minutes to get a connection—can’t imagine why? No one knew where I was, and they usually don’t, since I wasn't going to spend the night in New York and was coming home today. He told me to be careful and he would call Lori for me.

Since it didn’t seem like we would be leaving anytime soon, my next call was to Scheduling to see what they were going to do with us. They said that all traffic across the United States had been diverted and stopped; that was all they knew. I asked about a hotel, and the lady with a very sweet voice said, “I’m not trying to sound cruel, but there isn’t a hotel room within 150 miles of N.Y., and if you can find one, get it, and the company will pay you back.” I’m still not sure to this day why this popped in my head, but I asked her what the inbound flight number was for the crew who was staying overnight in LGA that night. She told me, and we hung up. Someone was looking after me that day.

As I was hanging up, I see the Continental captain starting to walk out in the middle of the road right in front of a van, causing it to stop. It was the hotel van where we stay here! It was empty, and the captain said, “I don’t care where you are going or what you are doing, you are taking all of us to the hotel!” I’ll never forget the look on the driver’s hardened N.Y. face as he knew there was no way he was getting out of this. It was beautiful and the first time I had smiled since seeing the towers from the air. The hotel was, to put it mildly, chaos. There must have been 100 people standing around, and every desk clerk had a phone in each ear. When I finally got a chance to talk to one, I proudly said that we were Continental Express Flight 2375 (the night flight), and we need our rooms.

After some keypunching, the clerk said, “That flight doesn’t come in until 10 p.m.!” Well, you are under contract, we are that flight, and we would like our rooms. Thanks goes out to the mainline captain for showing me how to get things done in N.Y.! And to whoever was looking out for me . . . The clerk said it would take a couple of hours until they were ready, I could wait. Turns out several crews were there, and in fact, an ATA 767 crew of 26 was given only three rooms to share. I decided to compromise and bunk with the first officer, letting the flight attendant have her own room. Later that night we all got rooms. I remember a guy who wanted to stay longer because his flight had been canceled and he had nowhere to go. The clerk apologized, saying there was nothing he could do; I still don’t know what he did.

We were in Queens, which is across the river from Manhattan. For the next four days, we were there with no place to go. My room had six channels, all of which had news coverage 24/7. I could only watch for so long. I opened my drapes to see the smoke from Ground Zero covering much of my view, there’s only so much of that you can take as well. One of the worst things was you didn’t know if there was going to be another attack. Did they put poison in the water? Will they put something in the air? If fear is what they wanted to accomplish, they did.

On normal nights at that hotel, there are planes landing and taking off all day and night, but you get used to it. Back then, about every hour or so, all you heard was a fighter jet screaming overhead just as I was about to fall asleep again. Then it was gone. We finally get the news after four days that the airport has reopened and we are going back to Cleveland. I made it home on the 15th, just in time for my son’s first birthday party. I was to start another trip on the 16th and did. I learned and grew up a lot in that week.

It put priorities where they needed to be and made me understand what is really important in life. This is a day I will never forget and hope our children will never have to live through.

I know that everyone has a story about where they were, and this is mine. I talked to other crews who got stuck in Cancun or San Juan, lucky bastards! I don’t think, looking back now, that I would have traded with them, though. It gave me a greater appreciation for what the people in New York went though and maybe a different outlook on friends, family, and life.

Thanks for putting up with this novel, it was more than I was planning on writing. I wanted to write it down before I forgot it, but I don’t think I or anyone will.

This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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