The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 1

A post 9-11 adventure about air travel, written during the COVID-19 Lockdown.

In late 2001, I crossed the Atlantic alone with four small children and a five-month-old bump. We all survived. And that is my claim to fame.

Salt Lake City Airport

On 11 September 2001, while planes were flying into the World Trade Centre, I was vomiting.  The first I heard of what would become a global travel crisis was when my sister in Cape Town, called me in Draper, Utah, exclaiming, ‘What the hell is going on over there?!’

All I could think was: ‘How the hell does she know that I think I am pregnant?! Oh $@&* I think I am pregnant! But this marriage is all but over!’

The days and weeks were a blur of mourning with the mom at the elementary school who had a fireman-brother in New York who was missing, and watching her confidence that he would be found, crumble day by day, as hope died; of being touched by the patriotism of small town Americans, who instantly lined the streets with flags and even lemonade stalls of film and cartoon legend; of praying at mass in the school hall; of being glued to the television talking heads who speculated endlessly 24-7 about stranded aeroplanes and a coming war; of visiting the grocery store, on hyperalert to the perils of anthrax-poisoned fruit; of positive pregnancy tests and a failing marriage, while trying to keep my brood of youngsters busy (They were the only ones excited about their little sibling whose flutters began to be felt beneath my heart.); of the anxiety fuelled by rumours that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Park City would be bombed; of visiting a doctor only to hear that without medical insurance, my fifth caesarean would be performed by the on-call first year GP at the clinic in downtown Salt Lake City; of fear. And loneliness in a foreign country.

And then my sister-in-law saved us. She persuaded my father-in-law to fly the children and me home so I could receive proper medical care. I grabbed the opportunity, telling myself my husband would follow us as promised and that I could forgive him for all he’d done, if I just had some distance to deal with it. So, we booked our one-way trip, via New York and Istanbul on Air Turkey to Cape Town, a trip that would take nearly 29 hours of flying time, but took over three days including layovers.

And then On November 12, 2001, American Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from JFK Airport. The Airbus carved out a path of devastation into the neighbourhood of Belle Harbor, in Queens, New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members) were killed, along with 5 people on the ground. Initial reports suggested it was a further act of terror and once more, panic spread thought the country.

Crash Site of Flight 587, Queens, New York, 2001

And two days later we headed for the airport in Salt Lake City en route to JFK International Airport. I was terrified.

Packing for 5 passengers leaving a country permanently took some doing. We had to take enough that we could start a life again back home, but as little as possible so I could handle it over two layovers, as well as have enough carry-on luggage to keep four children occupied and clean, not mention the toddler’s nappies and food. We took 5 large suitcases, two on-board bags and each child had a backpack crammed with in-flight games, a favourite toy, toothbrushes and snacks.

The check-in bags were packed with the ingenuity of refugees escaping a war-torn land, with Lego stuffed into boots and every cranny filled with what I could cram in; and like migrants fleeing the country, we dressed in layers so we could take more clothes. The rest of our precious belongings, I left behind packaged and ready to be sent on by the children’s father. He never did.

The sadness overwhelmed me as we ascended the escalator at the airport, after check-in. The older children were filled with the energetic excitement that comes with travel, and had given their father a quick hug before bounding onto the moving stairs, but as I glanced back at the only man I had ever loved, after he’d whispered his  assurance that he’d follow soon, I Knew. As he receded beneath me I knew that so had our union.

It was only when he’d faded from view and as we plodded down one of those endless airport corridors, me like a pack horse, laden with the solidly-full two carry-ons and not-quite-two-year-old Shannon in my arms, that Sean plucked at my arm and asked tremulously, ‘We will see Dad again soon, hey Mommy,’ that the enormity of what we were doing struck. I reassured him and Michael who had begun to cry, while Caitlin clung tearfully to my hand.

That was when I realised it was time for the big girl panties to be pulled up and for me to take charge.

We reached the boarding gate eventually and when our flight was called we stepped forward with everyone else. Handing the flight attendant our tickets and passports, I noticed some consternation cross her face as she asked us to step aside for a ‘random’ security check. We waited behind patiently and were escorted to a cordoned off area where the ‘non-specific’ choice of passengers lined up: a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern business man and a Muslim couple, she in full purdah…and us – with our five one-way tickets, in a name that could have sounded Arabic, paid in cash from Cape Town city with a strong Muslim presence, via a Muslim country, on Air Turkey.

Random, my arse! We’d been racially profiled, a fact that was made even more obvious by the stewards’ embarrassment and grovelling apology that they ‘didn’t realise that they were children,’ as they undertook  a thorough search of every child’s backpack – poking teddy bears and even squeezing out toothpaste, before hastily returning the things to their now-dishevelled bags, as the tears brimmed over. What appalled me more was the patient stoicism of my fellow detainees – they’d expected it.

And then we took off for JFK and a future unknown.

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