Being an expatriate means a lot of traveling, a lot of planes, airports and intercontinental trips. Sometimes, something big happens while you’re traveling, turning what was an ordinary trip into something more adventurous, unexpected and in some cases, really hard. On 11th September 2001, I was stuck for nine days with my two children at Miami’s International Airport. Here’s how I went through it.
11th September 2012
August 2001. I am happily spending my holidays in Italy. One day my cellphone rings. It’s Aida, my Honduran friend, who is also spending a period in Italy to be with her daughter. She wants to know when I am going back to Honduras. She has a flight booked for mid-October, but she is terribly afraid of flying — she’d rather move up her return to Honduras and fly with someone she knows, someone who can hold her hand at take-off and landing. I tell her I’m leaving on September 10th but will spend one night in Miami and then fly on to Tegucigalpa the afternoon of 11th September 2001. Aida changes her ticket. She will be stuck with us for nine days at Miami’s International Airport.
We were all happy when we arrived in Miami. After a relaxing two-and-a half-month holiday in Italy, we rejoiced at the idea of going back to school rhythms and seeing all our friends in Honduras. Besides, since we would land in Miami when no connection to Tegucigalpa was available, the airline would pay for a night at the hotel airport — a restful pause in the long trip for me, and an exciting event for the children (5 and 9 at the time).
Early on the morning of 9/11, I headed to the counter of Taca, the Central American airline, to be on time for the check-in and to avoid unpleasant queues. I arrived at the exact moment when the employee was removing suitcases, tags, pens, brochures, etc. from the counter. Surprised, I asked him when check-in would open. He answered: “Not today, the airport is closed”. I tried to understand more, but the guy was in a hurry, and ran away. Confused, I headed to the Alitalia counter, the airline that had taken me from Milan to Miami. There, I began to understand a bit more. “Two aircrafts crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and a third one threw itself on the Pentagon”, recited the hostess as if she was informing us about a circus that just came to town. I understood she was in shock. I was also starting feeling a vague sense of panic. I went back to my room, where Sponge Bob was replaced on the TV by the now sadly known images.
The rest is routine in these situations: The phone call to the husband who was already in Honduras (why are husbands never there in these circumstances?), to my mother (by now resigned to her daughter’s never-ending adventures), to the airline (which knew less than me). I found myself at Miami airport with two children, four heavy suitcases, in one of the most tragic moments in the history of the United States, and without the faintest idea of how long I would remain there.
I started by confirming my room at the airport hotel (luckily I had my debit card with enough money on the bank account – expatriates of the world: Never travel without a debit card of a sufficiently filled bank account!!!). As soon as news of the catastrophe had spread, there had been an instant rush to get rooms at the hotel.
Then I paused to think of how to present the situation to the children. I quickly decided truth would be the best choice. I had no energy to invent situations of a lesser magnitude, and I needed to be able to watch the news any time, and to talk freely on the phone with whoever called me to update me on the situation. Third and perhaps most agonizing question: How to entertain and keep calm two children under ten in an international airport seized by panic?
The first two days went pretty smoothly
We explored every centimeter of the airport, from the gadgets and bookstore, to the bar, and even the toilets. When it was clear the place held no more secrets for us, that we had learnt by heart all the titles of the books and savored all the sweets of every shop at the airport, I understood I needed to invent something else. I opened the suitcase where I had hidden the kids’ Christmas presents: two beautiful new Lego boxes kept them busy on the carpet of the hotel room for several hours.
The hotel had a nice swimming pool on the roof. Unfortunately, though, Hurricane I-don’t-remember-its-name was hitting Florida, striking Miami with an icy and insistent rain that certainly did not encourage donning a bikini, even in the most desperate situation.
I did not want to leave the airport for two reasons: First, because I was afraid that something would happen while we were away (they would surely reopen the airport and I would miss the chance to be on the first available flight), and secondly, because an excursion to town would further weigh on our pocketbooks, already hit by the forced stay in an exclusive Miami hotel.
Anyway, our days immediately took on a routine that helped us feel safe and even allowed us to joke a bit about the situation, lightening it. In the morning, while the children were still sleeping, I would go down and check the faces of the people I met, asking if there was news. I bought croissants and fruit juice and went back to the room, where I turned on the TV to see the latest news. Then we played cards until mid-morning, when I started making my phone calls (to my husband, the airline, friends). Little tour in the airport and then lunch. Drawing and TV in the room, followed by an hour of freedom for me, when I went to the Internet point to write endless messages to my friends (Expatclic did not exist yet…). Another tour in the airport, followed by dinner, Peppatencia or Rubamazzo (Italian card games) and then bed. And the day after, the same all over again.
One night, at about eleven o’clock, when we had all just fallen asleep (we were still jet-lagged), the peremptory voice of the alarm filled the room: “Attention, please: Miami Airport Hotel. You must leave your room immediately. I repeat: Leave your room immediately. Keep calm. Don’t use the hotel lifts. Use the stairs. Keep calm”. CALM?????? In my life, I had already gone through several difficult moments, without my husband and alone with the children, but this was bigger than anything I had been through since I had packed my stuff and decided to leave my safe world in Milan.
I jumped onto my feet like a spring, and at that moment I was sure I had ten arms. With one, I shook the eldest and threw him off the bed, with the other one I grasped the youngest and put him on my hip, the third got hold of the passports, Tampax, a bar of chocolate and put them in a bag, while with my remaining arms I put on my shoes and helped the eldest stand up. In the corridor, chaos: People in their pajamas, night robes, half-dressed, sleepy, anguished, rushing towards the end of the corridor. Convinced that we were all about to explode, I arrived with the flow at the end of the corridor, where a peaceful and almost ironical guard (how can they always be so self-controlled?) told us to relax and go back to bed. Nothing had happened. Someone had smoked on the lift, thus triggering the alarm! No further comment needed.
Days went by with no news. The images of sorrow, mourning and rage filled the screen of our TV. The stares of people meeting in the airport all had the same expression. Someone started planning to leave by boat (!!!). The kids were resigned and strangely calm. One day, I organized a treasure hunt in the airport, and even the police, in a state of maximum alert, smiled seeing the blond heads searching for hints in the baskets and under the cold plastic chairs of the huge airport halls.
On the eighth day, we were really exhausted. I decided we would go out, no matter what it cost us. We took a taxi and went to the aquarium. Those moments of normality did us a lot of good. Going away from the painful images of destruction and death and from that silent and carpeted hotel to watch dolphins, Lola the whale splashing water on the public, and to play with the electric boats on the artificial lake of the aquarium was a balm for the heart. I realized that life went on, outside the airport. I thought that sooner or later it would resume normally for us, too.
Back that night, we got good news: My husband had talked to someone from the airline, who had assured him that the next day, flights would resume. Counting on the advantage of finding myself already on the spot, the morning after I sacrificed the ritual of breakfast to go to the counter at 6:30 a.m. with my very heavy suitcases. A queue formed immediately. In a matter of seconds, everywhere you looked you could see trolleys, suitcases, women, men, children, old people, everyone with a strained face and pushing to arrive before the others.
A Taca employee approached me and took the ticket from my hands. He studied it briefly and nodded, directing us to the check-in counter. I could have kissed him. Within three hours, the children and I were fastening our seat belts on board the plane that would take us home to Tegucigalpa. You could feel the relief on the plane, and a sort of childish excitement. But there was also tension and sadness. I am sure that only the smallest of children, at take-off, did not think of the people that only ten days before had found themselves on another airplane, in another town, and had fastened the seatbelts of what turned out to be the last flight of their lives.