This is a true story.
Fear of Flight: The 9/11 Connection
The first time I traveled on an airplane was in December 1990 when I moved from Phoenix, Arizona to Seattle, Washington as an infant. Since then, I have traveled countless times to places within the United States including Wisconsin, Hawaii, and North Carolina. In all but one flight, I traveled with my parents. I enjoyed knowing that I would be in a different place in less than six hours. I always ordered my ginger ale, sat back, and listened to my CD player in peace. It had become second nature to me, and I loved the quick possibilities flying had to offer. I had never felt a fear to fly. Even after terrorists deliberately crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 after an airplane hijacking, I was not afraid to fly, possibly because I had never been immersed in a situation of grave danger. I had never encountered a security threat, let alone when I was by myself. I was profoundly affected by this situation. Because I was in the midst of the highest security threat an airport can have in Atlanta, and I was in potential danger, I have a connection, built upon fear, with the terrorist attacks of September eleventh. I have learned that one does not necessarily have to be directly immersed in an event to be profoundly and utterly affected by it, as I was affected by September eleventh due to my experience with a security threat in Atlanta.
To begin with, I decided to visit a friend, Paulina, who I had met at a creative writing workshop at Duke University, one summer in South Carolina. I worked over the holiday season to finance the trip, and I was excited for it to begin. We spent an amazing two weeks discussing boys, our fears of college, and our sadness that we live across the country from each other. My vacation without my family was truly a success. However, flying back from a wonderful visit to South Carolina transpired into a night of horror. Fatigued one August night, I stepped off of the plane in Atlanta from my connecting flight in Charlotte. As I approached the departures kiosk I searched for Air Tran flight eleven departing to Seattle. I stared at the screen for what seemed like hours desperately trying to find my flight and avoiding the possibility of having missed it at eleven o’clock in the evening. My flight was not on the kiosk; at that moment, I knew I was stranded for the night. My heart sank and I began to cry, for I was alone in an airport two-thousand five hundred miles away from home, and I was merely sixteen, a child in the eyes of the law. I could not rent a hotel room alone; I began to wonder where I would stay for the night and if I would be safe. I was incredibly terrified to be alone, my hands and lips quivered like a child lost in the middle of a mall. I did not know that what I would encounter next would be much more traumatic that merely missing my flight and not having a place to stay for the night.
Then, my fear turned into utter panic and I began to sweat. An announcement abruptly came on to alert the passengers in the Atlanta airport of a security threat. The security threat color had been raised to red, the most dangerous level for security threats in an airport, and the suspicions from security personnel and passengers were high. When the announcement was repeated, I listened more intently. A man wearing a black coat of average height was in the terminal and had gotten past security stealthily and unchecked. I looked around in fear and desperation, not knowing what to do or who to trust. To add to my fears, I remembered that I was stranded for the night as well. Needless to say, my suspicions and fears were unusually high; I was without the comfort of my family and in the same terminal where a person with a weapon may very well be. I ran into the bathroom so fast I could barely feel my feet and cried hopelessly, wondering if my life would cease in the next several moments. This was the moment where I lost hope, having no idea how I would pick myself back up again.
After that, I finally forced myself to calm my nerves and stand in the Air Tran customer service line that stretched down the mile-long terminal; I had to keep my mind from wandering off into thoughts of what could happen if I was indeed, faced with danger that I could not overcome. I waited almost two hours in the customer service line, distracting myself with pleasant memories of my vacation in South Carolina. I also told myself I had to be brave. When I finally reached the front of the line, I was told that not a single flight was coming in or going out because of the security threat and a little weather problem known as ‘thunderstorms.’ The thunderstorm problem lurking in the humid Atlanta skies seemed so small compared to what truly was keeping us passengers imprisoned inside of the airport.
In relation to this recent security scare in Atlanta, one of the most frequented international passenger airports in the United States, I was reminded too much of September 11, 2001. I remember watching in horror as the World Trade Center fell down into the streets of New York City like a kite on a windy day. I listened to the news woman discuss that airplanes were hijacked, and lives were taken due to poor security measures and hateful terrorist antics. While in Atlanta with the high security threat lingering over my mind, I thought that this could be another September eleventh, and that fear took over me. I felt nauseous and alone and in the wake of grave danger; I truly believed that I could possibly be one of the next thousands of victims targeted by terrorists and killed. The security threat held at red and the mysterious man who somehow got past security unnoticed encouraged these thoughts. I prayed and prayed, hoping that day would not be repeated, not for me, not for anyone.
Luckily, within two hours security found the mysterious man who had gotten past them. Since the passengers did not receive specific information pertaining to this man, I began to wonder who he was. I wondered what his motive was to strike fear into the passengers of the Atlanta airport. I wondered what he looked like, sinister, or simply like a regular man on the street. Unfortunately, none of this information was ever disclosed, and I still continue to wonder. My heart fell back into place at this announcement. I smiled for the first time that hectic night. However, I have never felt at ease the same way I did when flying before this experience because it was so close to home, because it happened right in front of my own eyes, because it was an event in my life now and can never be taken out of my memories. The horror of my experience in Atlanta clung to me so tight I knew I would never recover. I did not want to get on another airplane after this incident. I wondered if there was a bomb on the airplane or someone would have a weapon and use it destructively to overtake the airplane. Even though security has become more efficient and strict, I still am uneasy.
I also realized after this experience how real September eleventh was, how terrified those victims on the United flight ninety-three must have been. I felt connected to them during my experience, for I truly came to understand the emotion of incredible fear, not knowing if you are going to get out of the situation alive. During this experience I learned how terrorism can affect anyone, anytime, anywhere. I was forced to understand the fact that terrorism is truly out there and very real. I learned that fear was greater than me, that you never know when it can and will sneak into your life.
The event of September 11, 2001 and the security threat I experienced in Atlanta greatly impacted and altered my actions. I am disappointed to say that I no longer enjoy air travel and I am in suspicion of anyone in a public place, especially an airport. My fears of a day like September 11, 2001 repeating itself have increased tremendously because of my night of a potentially perilous scare. My experience will stay with me for the rest of my life, forcing me to always be more cautious than the next person, as it did for many survivors of the horrible events of September eleventh. I am connected to those who survived the terrorist attacks of September eleventh because I was in the midst of a security threat in Atlanta. The September eleventh connection gave me firsthand knowledge of what true and utter fear is like. One absolutely does not have to be directly immersed in a large public event, such as September eleventh, to be greatly affected by it. I realized how real fear is, whether it is irrational or not. I highly doubt I will encounter an event as traumatizing as the one I experienced in Atlanta again in my lifetime, but that does not mean I am any less terrified to fly. Every time I step into an airport I know my hands will shake ferociously because that fear will never subside, because I am connected to the events of September eleventh, and because I am utterly afraid to fly.