Return from Barcelona, Sep. 12-15, 2001

After three days of turmoil, I returned home on the afternoon of the 15th, just the second international flight to land at Logan after the closure.

I've written down some of what went on for me, mainly to process it for myself, but maybe others might be in interested in parts of it as well. While I would in no way equate my experiences to those who directly experienced the tragedy, or who lost people in it, they were difficult and painful enough, and I think I've gained some perspective on things.

I left for Barcelona, Spain on the evening of the 6th, to attend the Workshop on Binary Translation, and other tutorials connected to the PACT 2001 conference. I had attended the WBT last year in Philadelphia, made some good contacts, and have been on the Program Committee for the Workshop these two years, reviewing and helping to select papers. I spent the weekend on those activities, enjoying the company of the other workshop participants and seeing a little of the town, which is truly marvelous.

On Tuesday the 11th I took the day off to visit my 87-year-old grandmother on my mother's side, who is French, and spends the summers in a very modest little seaside town in Southwestern France. I hadn't seen her for three years, since she visited us in the States. The next day I was scheduled to come home, but instead I planned to get a flight to California to meet up with a colleague and visit various partners.

As I was winding up my visit to my grandmother, a neighbor called across the patio fence to say that there had been a major terrorist attack in New York. We hurried back in to look at the TV, and spent the next hour in shock, barely able to believe it. My priority turned instantly to contacting and getting back to my family. Of course phone service was all jammed up, but I finally got through with one cell-phone message. I returned to Barcelona to try and organize my return trip. As I drove back the almost 300 km, I had the French news-radio on in the car, with more appalling details. I felt sick at heart, thinking first of the people on the planes, and then of those in the target buildings.

The PACT conference banquet had been planned for the evening of the 11th, and so I arrived back to meet with 150 or so colleagues equally in shock. Festive aspects such as a band were cancelled, but the organizers decided to go ahead with the banquet in order to give people an opportunity to be together. The organizers, mainly from the University of Barcelona, showed the deepest sympathy to America as a whole, and to conference participants who might be stuck, generously offering to find accomodations in residence halls or people's homes, especially for students who would have trouble affording to stay in the hotels.

Initially, it was unclear what the air-travel lock-down meant, and how long it would last. I spent a lot of time on the web and with the airlines, but there was no clear information. I had a logistical problem in that I needed to know quite early in the morning in order to get to a gateway city in time for an afternoon flight back to the States. And of course I spent quite a bit of time watching TV to try and learn more about the incidents, and any follow-on actions.

On the 12th, in the absence of firm knowledge, I decided to check out of the hotel and go to the airport with my luggage, in case things opened up. Of course they didn't. I was tempted to take the connecting flight to Zurich and wait there, but the agents said they wouldn't let me on without the further flight confirmed. I did get a booking for the next day, and found another hotel. (The conference rate at the Hilton had expired, and their regular rate was just outrageous. In retrospect they really should have offered a "consolation" rate, especially for students, etc. Perhaps they did later. The tourist information booth at the hotel proved to be most helpful, finding much more reasonable rates at good hotels downtown.)

By this time it was becoming more clear that it would take a while for things to return to normal, and that Logan was particularly problematic. At least on the morning of the 13th I got sufficiently clear and early indication that nothing was moving so that I could stay put, and I got another booking for the 14th.

But I was getting more concerned, since my backup booking, in case the flight on the 14th was also cancelled, was not until the 22nd, more than a week later. Transatlantic flights typically run pretty full anyway, and the spillover from the cancellations was completely blocking stuff out.

On the 14th things were more ambiguous. Some stuff was moving in the States, and the airline couldn't give me a clear indication about my flight, so again I checked out and went to the airport. This was probably the low point: not only were international flights not allowed in, but Logan was looking like it might be closed indefinitely. And I had gotten a great deal on Swissair via Orbitz, and the FAA was clearly giving preference to American carriers coming in. (Not that I fault them for that.)

Again, I strongly considered taking the connecting flight to Brussels or Zurich, and waiting things out there, since I'd be on-site and able to respond quicker to things opening up. But the agents at Barcelona discouraged that, saying that it was very difficult to get accomodations in those cities, and that I was much better off staying in Barcelona. So I found yet another hotel and returned to town.

As it turned out, only domestic travel was really starting on the 14th, and only one or two international flights made it in, other than those that had been diverted. Swissair was actually one of the first foreign carriers to get certified, by the evening of the 14th, but by then my ticket had gotten transferred to Sabena (majority-owned by Swissair). Sabena was not certified yet, Swissair was completely booked up, and Logan showed no signs of opening.

The situation was beginning to feel rather Kafka-esque: one person with whom I exchanged some email hoped that air travel wouldn't be locked down so long that one might want to explore ship travel! Another wondered if the military might need to ferry people back at some point.

Meanwhile, I made it clear that I was willing to come into any plausible airport: New York (which closed briefly again), Philadelphia, Montreal, even Dulles (near which my parents-in-law live, and from which I could drive or take the train back). But that didn't help at all; everything was booked solid. (And I heard later that buses, trains, and rental cars were all extremely tight just then.)

At least the Swissair gate agent at the airport was more helpful: he got me a Sabena booking on the 15th, and a backup Swissair booking on the 20th. I thought the latter was probably worst case, since by then things would probably be more normal. I was racking my brains for contigency plans, like calling Vista for a one-way ticket on any American carrier to any of the above cities.

Early on the morning of the 15th, I saw that Logan was re-opening later that day (5am East Coast time, or 11am Europe time; good enough for me). Sabena was still not certified, though. (I confirmed with the very helpful site.) A couple of hours later, I saw on the web that Sabena was certified, I called Swissair to confirm, and they said get to the airport as quickly as possible, since tight security was going to delay things.

(I didn't find Sabena to be as helpful; Swissair had an "800" Spanish number, and seemed generally more on top of things and easier to get to. They also had a much more informative web-site, though never quite up-to-date enough to replace the need to call them at least daily, often spending long periods on hold.)

So on the 15th I again dashed to check out of my hotel and get to the airport. More mixed news there: yes, the critical Brussels-to-Boston flight looked like it was going ahead. But they wouldn't check me in to that flight, and wouldn't check my luggage through to Boston. They said things were extremely tight in Brussels, with lots of stranded people from the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th taking any available seats. But I elected to press on to Brussels this time, since I had a reservation on a flight that was confirmed, for the first time.

I had visions of having to hang around Brussels airport for days, and of trying to argue the airline into covering accomodation and possible transer to Zurich for the flight on the 20th. After all, the situation had changed: now they would be bumping me from an operating flight on which I held a reservation, rather than cancelling flights due to causes beyond their control. I was practicing in my mind to day things like, "Swissair has done this and that", rather than, "You have done this or that", to avoid raising the kind of personal antagonisms I've observed in similar situations.

Brussels was largely anti-climactic. As soon as we landed from Barcelona I rushed over to the transfer desk, and got a seat assignment without much trouble. This was the main point of relief. After a mild anxiety over delayed luggage and a close connection, things worked out fine. There was extra security, but it didn't really take much longer. To my surprise, the airport did not look more-than-usually busy, and the flight itself was half-empty. Apparently they had tons of no-shows. Given that first class looked absolutely empty, I suspect that European business people and vacationers had simply abandoned confirmed seats to the US, and perhaps American travelers had also decided to wait things out. Or maybe people simply hadn't gotten the news in time; I do attribute my early return to aggressively keeping on top of the situation hour-by-hour, with the help of the web. (While I had my laptop and used the Barcelona POP of our ISP, internet cafes are widely available across the world, and are very popular.)

I exchanged stories with a few fellow-travellers, and they reported much the same: wild uncertainty for days and dire warnings from the airline agents on the day.

Security was tighter, but it didn't really get in the way. Of course security has always been tighter in Europe. There were armed border gaurds looking over the shoulders of the X-ray monitor operators, and conducting hand-luggage searches. We had an extra round of searching in Brussels. I saw some woman's pointed sewing scissors being examined sceptically. Logan also had a sharply increased police presence, with dog teams patrolling the baggage claims area, and multiple police cruisers monitoring the pickup/dropoff zones.

But all this was at a time of minimal traffic; it could get to be a real problem with a more normal level. I suspect traffic would be impacted for quite a while, though. Logan was nearly empty on the 15th, with only one aircraft moving on the runways when we came down. There were practically no people lined up for outgoing flights in the International terminal, which is usually a mob scene in the evening. (Of course there were few planes available to take them out, so most outgoing international flights were still cancelled, I suspect.) I did not see any military ships or planes on the way in, though my family says they did see some in previous days.

For me the worse part was being away from my family, and wanting desperately to rejoin them. In the first couple of days, the main fear was of possible further attacks, and concern for their actual safety. And then I grew increasingly worried about having no idea when or how I could get back, especially as things seemed to get less certain and to recede in time as the days passed. I feared that the longer it took to get back, the more likely something would happen to de-rail things again, such as a cycle of retaliation. (Of course in the larger scheme of things continued to be a sharp concern.)

I tried to talk to my wife and children a couple of times a day, and it hurt me not to be there to support them and help them process this. Though Isabel and Benjamin were only 8 and 5, it's clear that they sensed the magnitude of events, and they've had a great many questions and concerns. And having their Daddy away can't have helped. Especially in the last couple of days, I will admit that it would bring tears to my eyes simply to hear their voices on the phone while I was seemingly stranded an ocean away.

One emotionally-important date was the 15th, Isabel's actual 8th birthday, and it is a great relief to actually have gotten back on the day.

Being overseas during something like this had its points of interest. Many of the PACT conference participants, with whom I spent some time earlier on, were foreigners, more than would be at a US-based conference. And apart from their personal reactions, there was the European press and TV to observe. Solidarity with the United States really was universal, and a feeling that this was indeed an attack on the Western world in general, or even on humanity in the philosophical sense as a whole.

And I was very impressed at the measured reaction of the American authorities and people as a whole: focusing initially on helping victims, and carefully investigating the facts, without hysteria or calls for reflex and ultimately hurtful actions. I was in great sympathy with the goal of taking effective and targeted action, drastic and forceful if need be. But of course it would be extremely difficult to figure out what that should be.

One immediate feeling upon watching the initial reports was that we could be re-entering a time like the 70s, with appalling events like the 1972 Munich Olympics kidnap and massacre of Israeli athletes, and years when people were very concerned about flying anywhere around or over the Middle East, due to the fear of hijacks. (I remember it well since we lived abroad as children.)

I wondered if the date of the attack were significant, and would offer clues. I recalled the Black September group of the above events. Other such events have occurred in September, such as the 6 Sep, 1970 multiple hijack and then blowing up of the airliners on the 12th. (This was an eerily similar episode: four aircraft hijacked by the PLFP - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - and one of the hijacks failed when the terrorists were overpowered on the plane.) And the 1972 Olympics attack took place on 5 Sep, 1972.

On balance the date may not be that significant: I believe Black September refers to the time when the Palestinians were kicked out of Jordan for threatening the rule of King Hussein. And there are indications that the attacks were originally planned for a few weeks earlier.

Looking up that history brought home some thoughts: that the world-wide revulsion against these actions did not help the Palestinian people, presumably the intended "beneficiaries", in any way, and merely earned those activists the enmity of the world. (And ultimately caused the "establishment" such as Arafat to dissociate themselves from these groups, and violent action in general, at least publicly.)

Two weeks after the attack, my colleague Andy and I went down to see the WTC site early in the morning, while in New York for a conference. Very impressive, in a morbid and brooding way. It was rather inspiring to see the level of effort and organization, and the wide range of groups involved, from local police, sanitation, etc., to FEMA and the Army and National Guard troops (not obviously armed). We rode down on the subway with a trio of US Army Corps of Engineers Search & Rescue people. One could not approach closer than about 5 blocks, or the far side of Broadway.

The rubble pile was several stories high in spots, and still smouldering. From other vantage points, one could see the remains of the external wall, chunks taken out of neighboring buildings, and some still un-washed dusty façades. There were cranes and bulldozers everywhere. (And in fact that last tall piece of external wall came down later that day, to be saved to incorporate in some future memorial.)

Security was pretty tight, with police lines all around, and only residents and local businesses allowed in, with all pedestrians and vehicles being checked. But Wall Street was obviously back in business, with the subways full.

And another week later, Swissair collapsed and Sabena went into bankrupcy. Like many other airlines, they were in trouble before the attacks, but certainly the world-wide drop in air traffic, especially in trans-atlantic flights, did nothing to help them.