Memories from September 11, 2001 – Sleepwalking at San Diego Airport

Feature_9-11_awtc_webThis week, to recall and honor the memories of all those that perished on 9/11, I want to share memories, salvaged from my own notes and emails that were written eight years ago. Come with me back in time now, and I will tell you what I remember.

The weekend had flown by, literally. Later it would seem like a blur, an idyllic series of events in the calm before a great storm. Just that weekend I had flown several times to visit friends in Seattle on Friday and on Sunday to San Jose, where I enjoyed a music and wine festival. It was an Indian Summer golden day, which is etched forever in memory.

By Monday, a bad cold was working overtime to try and ruin a weeklong trip to Austin that would begin the next day. It would lose out to a much more sinister force. I returned to San Diego on Monday, repacked my bag, slept poorly, and got up very early on Tuesday morning to make a 6:30 a.m. flight to Dallas, which would connect to my destination.

Tuesday was September 11, 2001. I was seated aboard an American Airlines flight at San Diego International Airport, bone weary but happy. Looking out from my exit row seat, I could see that the 6:00 a.m. departure from gate 29 had not moved. I began to fret about missing my connecting flight in Dallas, when a crew member announced that there was a 2-hour air traffic control hold across the United States. I had never heard of such a thing. The weather was aviation-wise near perfect all across the continent. A flight attendant was nearby. As if in a dream, I heard myself asking, “Are we on hold because of the President’s plane, Air Force One?”

Feature_9-11_WTC_remnant_highres_webShe looked at me in my battered cowboy hat, the one that I always wear for good luck whenever I travel. She hesitated, as if trying to judge if I were a “good” cowboy or a desperado. Finally, in a soft voice she said, “No, the President is safe.”

Any icy chill shot down my spine. I took a gulp of air, and just raised my eyebrows. I think that made her decide to share a terrible secret. “Do you know,” she began, “that a plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York?”

“A light plane?”, I whispered. But I already sensed the answer. “No, it was one of our planes, like this one.” She asked where I was from, and I pointed out the window.

“You’re lucky, because we’re not going to go anywhere today.”

Feature_9-11_aa063-flag-posters_webIt was true. An American Airlines Boeing 767 had plowed into the north side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, soon to be followed by a United Airlines flight which crashed into the South Tower, an event seen live on television. Two other commercial flights, American 77, and United 93, were to also meet tragic ends that morning. Leaving my grounded aircraft, I reemerged into a surreal scene in the San Diego Airport’s Terminal 2. All of the overhead lights were off, contrasting with flickering TV monitors, tuned to CNN, and showing in endless repetition, those two planes crashing into the World Trade Center again and again. People stood there in silence, jaws agape, staring like ghosts at those unfathomable scenes. I saw a flight attendant weeping as she walked past me. There were no sounds. It was as if someone had pulled a plug on our ears, or we had become actors in a silent movie.

I left the airport, eventually found a taxi, and rode home with troubled thoughts. Once there, with the TV muted, I crawled into bed. Before falling asleep I promised myself that I would visit the crater at Ground Zero in New York City. I simply didn’t know what else to do.

Joel Siegfried from San Diego, USAAbout the Author
Joel Siegfried writes feature articles for serveral web sites, among others and Aerlines Magazine, as their San Diego Airport Examiner. This story is one of several he has written recalling the events of September 11. To contact Joel Siegfried, please email to

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