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Steve's Story

The following is the story that I sent out to family and friends after our detour:


We all have a story about "where we were" during the terrible events of September 11th. At a time when the most evil of acts was levied against innocent people, I experienced the other side of human nature as a passenger on an airplane. I was one of thousands who were detoured to Newfoundland.

On September 11, 2001, just as the terrorist attacks began in New York and Washington DC, I was on board United Airlines flight 929 (a Boeing 777), headed to the United States from London. I had spent the previous week in Oslo, Norway to attend the funeral of my brother-in-law, Henrik Backer. Henrik was a major part of my family. I was stunned to learn of his death and all five Cercone siblings from the US met in Oslo to be with our sister, Ann. We scheduled our return to the States on different days.

Brilliant me decided to spend one night in London to save money on the flight connection back to the US and I chose to fly out of Heathrow on September 11th. Timing is everything.

United 929 left London at 10:35am GMT. I sat on the right side of the plane in a window seat just behind the wing. I wanted to have a good view. We finished dinner and most people were reading, watching a movie or sleeping as we cruised at 39,000 feet. It was fairly clear outside and I could see the ocean below for hundreds of miles. I was thinking of my brother-in-law and the positive impact he had on my life. I was also looking forward to getting back to my home in Seattle.

After several hours I felt something very strange. I could feel the plane descending… big time. Something was up and I thought, "We are over a large ocean, and descending… Hmmmm… this is not a good sign." I decided to check our position courtesy of United Airlines. The video screen on the back of the seat in front of me not only offered a variety of movies, but also showed an automated map of our plane's position, speed and altitude. I immediately noticed that the altitude read "37,000… 35,000… 33,000… 29,000"… and changing rapidly.

Many people were asleep at this time, but soon woke up when we felt the plane shudder. The landing gear was being lowered. However, this was happening while we were still very high and traveling at about 500 mph. Not normal procedure unless the pilot needs to slow the plane down, which was exactly the case. The landing gear acts as a brake. Everyone sat to attention and soon realized that a descent over the Atlantic Ocean was not a part of their vacation plans. We were landing, and fast.

Just then the pilot of our plane, Captain Mike Ballard, came over the loudspeaker. In a very calm but serious tone he announced words to the effect: "Although we have a very healthy aircraft", we would be making an immediate landing on the Island of Newfoundland. Many people looked at their trusty video map and noticed this is just south of Greenland. The look on everyone’s’ face was, “uh…what the…?”

Then came the chilling words that we could not quite comprehend: "… Ah, folks…there has been…an incident…a major emergency in the United States…All of the US and Canadian borders are closed to approaching aircraft …and we have been ordered to land in Gander immediately". There was no detailed explanation at that point, as the pilot actually did not have all the details on exactly what had happened. He was only ordered to land and he was very busy putting this plan into action.

Our imagination ranged from A to Z. What had happened? Was this some kind of a drill or was it real? I became very concerned and thought of many things. Although no one wanted to say it, one of the terrifying thoughts that came to mind was a nuclear strike of some kind in one or more of our cities. When in history has the government ever closed the border to all air traffic? I can fully admit at this time that I was searching the horizon for flashes of light or a change of color in the sky. That was one of the things that ran through my mind at the time.

Eventually, the thought of a major terrorist attack of some type was what many of us decided must have happened. Without the TV to turn on, we just couldn’t figure out what. What no one could imagine was the thought of civilian airliners crashing into three of the most famous buildings in the world.

It soon became very obvious that something terrible had happened in the United States, but we still did not know what it was. One very fortunate thing for us was the man at the helm, Captain Ballard. He is a seasoned veteran and his experience was very obvious.

I then looked out of my window and we all saw something very sobering. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel were being dumped out of each wing. It sprayed long and large into the skies over the ocean as we made a circle. We were too heavy to land and dumping fuel is a standard emergency procedure for any large aircraft loaded down for a long journey. I looked over to the woman next to me and half-joked, "I hope they save some for the landing." She only half-smiled.

The flight attendants were rushing about with a slight alarm in their eyes, obviously experiencing something very new. I saw a few people appear to be silently praying and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to join in for a moment. While I thought our plane was in good shape, I was very concerned about the unknowns back in the US. We didn't know what to think to be honest. It was not a very pleasant feeling.

We went from an altitude of 39,000 feet to 0 feet in a pretty short amount of time. Later on I heard a rumor that armed fighter jets had possibly followed us in.

We landed in Gander, Newfoundland. To most of us from the States, Gander happens to be in the middle of nowhere. Several big planes were already there and we stacked up behind them in a line. As we sat there on the runway, we could see other international planes coming in. Aircraft with tail markings from all over the world started dropping from the skies in a long, almost military-like airborne procession. It was an awesome sight. Many people from the surrounding communities were driving by and stopping on the side of the road to see this spectacle as we sat on our airplane.

In all, 38 large civilian airliners and some additional US and Canadian military planes were stranded on the tarmac of Gander with no extensive ground support like a large airport. I saw only saw a few trucks with stairways attached. The entire scene was amazing. Thousands of people were now surprise guests of Newfoundland. We then began the long wait for clearance to get off the aircraft. I was very obvious this was not going to be an easy process but the first thing we all wanted to know was what the hell happened in the US.

Captain Ballard clued us in as to what happened in the US and then he piped us into the BBC radio channel on our headsets. We finally heard the news of what had happened. Unbelievable. I will never forget the British announcer’s voice as he told over and over, the details of the attacks.

There were many shaking heads and people commenting in disbelief. Several in our group knew people in the World Trade Center. Ironically, one of the many video choices offered on our personal video screens during the flight was a Discovery special on the construction of the World Trade Center towers, with footage shown from the terrorist attack in 1993.

Being that we were in an airplane headed in the direction of the US we were especially stunned by what we heard on the radio. And… many were nervous about possible terrorists on our own plane. Who knew?

We strolled about the plane to stretch our legs and I spent a lot of time in the large galley area at the back of the aircraft. A woman from Seattle standing near me got through on her cell phone. None of us could believe that the cell phones actually worked in that location. When I tried my own cell phone it would not work at all. She was nice enough to let me make a short call home. Others were able to get through on the GTE satellite phones on the plane after many tries.

Joanie was back at our house in Maple Valley, Washington watching the morning news. What she learned was not making her feel very good. Four large airplanes had just crashed within the hour and two of them were United Airlines planes. She knew that I was on a United flight approaching the US at that very moment. When I finally got through to her I could tell she was very relieved to hear my voice. I guess that would be an understatement.

" I'm OK...I'm in…let’s see…ah…Newfoundland…yes…Gander, Newfoundland". After speaking with other passengers, they told about emotional family members who cried through the phone when they heard their voices. That common story was echoed all day long.

The Canadian military and Customs treated each plane as a suspect because we were approaching the United States at the exact time of the attack. We wound up being on that plane for a total of 26 hours from start to finish. It would take them quite a while to sort through almost 7000 visitors one at a time. It was a very long wait.

During the first day the AC malfunctioned (it was 84 degrees outside) so they opened all of the doors. We joked about the temptation to jump and make a run for it but it was a long way down to the tarmac…and we didn’t want to get shot. One good thing for us was that we were on a big plane. The “Triple-7”, as they call it, is very large aircraft with two aisles and room to stroll. Another good thing was that the plane was only about 75 percent full. Most of the time our wait was extremely boring but we were just fortunate to be on the ground and not one of the planes into an American skyscraper.

During the night I looked out of my window and noticed several police vehicles with emergency lights racing towards one of the airliners across from us. It was the AerLingus plane from Ireland. After about ten minutes I saw them leading someone down the stairs and into the vehicles. They sped away and there was no further activity until the sun came up. Some of us thought that they had possibly located a terrorist suspect. While the rumor went around the next few days that there was a drunken brawl on-board, it actually turned out to be just one passenger who was acting strangly. The RCMP came on board and took temporary custody of the man. (But he did get off the plane before we did)

Continued on the next page...

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