Corrections or additions?
This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the October 3, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
Between the Lines
One of U.S. 1’s freelance writers, Joan Crespi, was on the way
home from Europe on September 11. She writes about how it felt to
be stranded in London.
We had flown in from Prague that morning. It was a sunny
day with blue sky and white, fluffy clouds — a perfect day for
flying. I bought chocolates on the flight from Prague to London but
wanted my change in U.S. dollars. The British Airways attendants had
only pounds. "I have no use for English currency," I said.
I wasn’t going to be staying in England.
My husband, a stroke victim, was tired after our Baltic tour and was
in a wheelchair for the long walk, up and down ramps and corridors,
from Heathrow’s Terminal 1 to Terminal 4. We boarded, saw luggage
being loaded, fastened our seatbelts and were readied for take-off
at 3 p.m. (10 a.m. Eastern time) when, over the PA system, the
British-accented voice announced, "We’re all very concerned about
events in New York this morning."
"What?" I demanded. "What events."
No one knew. Then a young man across the aisle, on a cell phone, told
us. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought at
first it was an accident. My husband, a retired sociologist, thought
it was a rumor. "How do you know?" I asked the young man.
His friend was watching the news and told him. Then the North Tower
collapsed, he said. Our flight was canceled.
Stunned and shaken. I got off the plane. As we waited at the baggage
carousel I told the stocky British woman pushing the wheelchair that
it was the work of Bin Laden. "Who’s he?" she asked.
After a long wait — our situation seemed so unimportant —
it began to get dark and I finally approached the desk. British
sent us to two hotels. Both full. But our situation seemed so
"We are the lucky ones," was my silent mantra. "We are
alive." I couldn’t imagine the anguish and chaos, the devastation
A third hotel finally took us in. British Airways had given us a
for our room, 189 pounds ($300). In our room we watched the horrific
pictures on TV: It looked like a special effects movie, but wasn’t.
Late that night after several tries (all circuits were busy) I reached
our daughter, Judy, in Pennsylvania to tell her we were safe but
in London. She could tell her brother Bob, a management consultant,
who was presently on a job near Princeton.
To my surprise he came on the phone: he couldn’t get home to New York
if he had wanted to, he said. Subways were closed. And tunnels.
I thought. It might be a massive attack. I worried aloud (it seemed
insignificant, trivial, on another level of things) that tomorrow
the newspapers would begin delivery, piling up in the driveway and
marking the house as unoccupied, and a sheaf of held mail, with some
expected checks, would be delivered. "Should I stay in the hotel
tomorrow, hoping to get a flight out, or go around London?" I
wondered into the phone.
"Go around London," Bob said decisively.
It felt wrong: Sightseeing here because of the anguish of others.
After dinner (we could eat only in the hotel, surrounded by highways
and grass) we found a message from Bob on the beds. "Airports
in the U.S. are closed for the foreseeable future. Don’t even try
to come home this week. I have taken care of the house."
Late that night, Wednesday, September 12, the room telephone rang.
The room was dark; my husband was already in bed. British Airways
would not pay for our room tonight, said a young woman. We had no
choice but to stay. Tomorrow I would have to see about moving. I
at the desk the next morning, and the hotel reduced the rate to 75
pounds ($120) a night for stranded passengers. But it was still
I must try to get home.
If we had to be stranded, it was good to be in an English-speaking
country, I thought. But it was cold and expensive in London, and
I wanted to get home before hostilities began. Probably they would
not begin until October, but Bush said it would be a long battle.
British Airways could confirm a flight only for September 20.
After I hung up I remembered to ask for a flight to Philadelphia,
in case that opened up before Newark, I telephoned again. The
took my booking and offered me condolences. "But I am one of the
lucky ones," I said. "I am alive. And I have lost no one."
"I offer you my condolences," he said again.
I understood. I was American. Into the phone I said "I wish I
could turn the clock back."
"I was just going to say that," he said.
"I am one of the lucky ones, I am alive." I must stop saying
that, I thought. It could be black magic.
On Thursday, September 13, two days after the world changed, I managed
to get on a list for a flight on Saturday, September 15. "But
call first to see if you’re on the flight," the BA agent said.
Thursday afternoon I traveled into central London and boarded a tour
bus at Green Park. (I didn’t want to stay back at the hotel, although
I wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing). It was pouring rain. Two long
lines of people huddled under umbrellas before a large white tent
in what the guide said was Grosvenor Square. "They’re signing
condolence books," said the guide.
Outside newsstand’ stand-up sandwich boards announced. "20,000
feared dead" and "100 Britons among the dead."
Flags everywhere — British, Swiss — were at half mast. I had
to remind myself that this was England and these were British flags
at half staff. They had lost a war to us, I remembered, but now, as
Tony Blair would say, "England has no better friend."
Daily The (London) Times carried the headlines "America at
"When War Came to America," "Good will prevail over
"There is worse to come."
There were special sections: "Mourning with America," with
a huge American flag on the cover. Coverage could not have been more
extensive if we had been home. Pages of full-page pictures. Half-page
pictures of firefighters.
On Friday "The Times" carried newspaper reaction from papers
around the world — France, Russia, India, Germany, Sydney, New
Zealand, Toronto, Jerusalem, New Zealand. It was no surprise that
"Al-Iraq" called the attack a "lesson for all tyrants
Friday, September 14, three days after the attack, was proclaimed,
by white paper posted in the hotel elevators and in the lobby, "a
European day of mourning." We watched on TV as Tony Blair spoke
to the special session of Parliament. "There can be no
for the attack, he said. The terrorists were enemies of the civilized
world, he said. He made this not just America’s war on terror. He
made it global. He invoked NATO: an attack on one is an attack on
all. Nearly all of Parliament supported him. "Hear, hear."
America was not alone.
If there had been such an office and such a vote, I would have voted
for Tony Blair for president of the world.
At 11 a.m. with Big Ben, on TV, tolling 11 times, we observed three
minutes of silence. Standing with us in the lobby before the TV
of Big Ben was a black man, apparently from Africa, part of a group
that had come in last night, and a Muslim woman, a white scarf
her hair. The TV carried pictures of the three minutes’ silence held
in London, Brussels, Paris, more. I read later that they played the
American national anthem. "The Star-Spangled Banner" in
cherished St. Paul’s.
No, I didn’t get on the flight on Saturday, September 15, and when
I telephoned Judy she had our grandson, Joey, sing the
song on our transatlantic connection. At how many pounds a minute?
First he sang it to grandma, then to grandpa. Then Judy reminded me
that income taxes, federal and state, were due Monday, September 17.
I didn’t care, I told her. It seemed so unimportant. I almost felt
guilty for being safe in England.
In the hotel lobby strangers were talking to each other, listening
in on others’ conversations, exchanging flight information. We all
wanted to get flights home. but I couldn’t go to the airport and
stand by with all our luggage for hours and chance getting on a
my husband was exhausted. I had worn the one warm thing I had packed
for five days. Again that seemed so unimportant, trivial.
On Saturday our tour operator, Saga, found us. On Sunday morning they
moved us to central London, to a bed and breakfast, a once elegant
hotel on the Strand, for which they paid. (Stranded on the Strand:
another time the idea might have amused.)
We found a couple from our former tour group in the lobby, and we
had dinner together at a restaurant near the hotel: afterwards the
young waitress ran up to us as we were leaving and wanted to hold
our hands. The three of us women held hands. "I’m so scared,"
"We all are," I said.
"I just want us to be safe," she said.
"We all do," I said.
"Pray," she urged. "It can’t hurt."
Retaliate. In the most effective manner, I thought grimly.
Although now we were housed in what London calls "Theatreland"
and musicals were all around us, I kept away. Not just because of
the expense and not because I had seen many of them in New York. I
had no stomach now for them. People at home were suffering unbearable
grief. I didn’t want to be entertained; I wanted to go home where
On Monday I called British Airways again. They could put us on a
to Philadelphia on Tuesday, September 18. I took it.
A porter in the hotel stopped me as I got off the elevator. Clearly
he wanted to talk. He was frightened; so was his mother back in the
Philippines, he said. "In the Philippines you are safe," he
said he told her. She was still frightened.
Tuesday we had to be at the airport four hours ahead of our 11:30
a.m. flight. Leave the hotel at 6:30 a.m. We spent the first hour
at the airport outside in a large white tent — the marquee
by fluorescent tubes along its peak and poorly heated by several
Red Rads in this cold, blustery, rain.
Inside the terminal, where we were permitted to move
after an hour, it was warm, and the long lines of passengers waiting
for check-in were orderly, security tight. Had we packed (in baggage
for the hold) knives, cuticle scissors, nail clippers, etc. a woman
was asking each passenger in line. I told her before she asked that
I had. "You look like a sensible person," she said and moved
on. I looked hard at those with dark skin also checking in, but they
were middle-aged men and stocky middle-aged women. Unlikely
Judy and her two children met us in Philadelphia. She had paid our
taxes, she told us. She had called our accountant in New Jersey and
had him fax over the federal and state forms. I was touched and
at her ingenuity. (A reversal, a loan from child to parent.)
At home I found that Bob had indeed looked after the house; he had
sorted all our mail, taken in our newspapers, and paid all our bills.
I was overwhelmed.
On Wednesday night, now a week after the terrorist attacks, I was
astonished at the outburst of patriotism, American flags everywhere,
flags large and small, free standing, and paper taped on. Flags were
on cars, buildings, front lawns, lamp posts. In the ensuing days,
there were more flags. People were wearing red, white, and blue lapel
ribbons. Patriotic songs came from radios, canned music sources on
the telephone. I thought, too, of how the tragedy showed (as if we
didn’t know), that what really mattered, what people said in their
last moments on cell phones to their families, was: "I love
The world is now divided into those who value human life and those
who don’t. Ease has gone; a fearful unease rules. We have come home
to a place where stories are everywhere. We have come home to a place
where anguish, grief, and pain hang in the air, are almost palpable,
will not settle like the World Trade Center dust, a place where
of friends, family members of those we see and deal with, are
as they will for life, those who never came home.
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