“New Jersey license? Do you know what’s going on in New York City?” asked the hotel’s car rental agent in her Dutch accent. My wife and I were at the Avila Beach Hotel in Curacao, renting a car in the morning to go exploring the island when the agent conveyed her sketchy details on a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We filled out the paperwork, she gave us the keys to a rental car and we headed straight back to our room to watch CNN.
We couldn’t believe what we were seeing when the television warmed up and the picture appeared. As the smoke was billowing out of one of the towers, my wife, Patti, asked me, “Where’s the other tower?” I told her it was the camera angle and it was lined up perfectly to obscure the tower behind it. Then the tower we saw in flames collapsed and there was no other tower behind it.
“Oh God,” we shrieked in unison. Working in Manhattan, we watched those towers being built. It seemed like it took an eternity to complete. Rounding the Lincoln Tunnel viaduct on the Decamp bus from New Jersey, we glanced at the structures every weekday morning for years. I worked on lower Fifth Avenue and my wife worked on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, so it was the constant anchor you needed when you popped out of a subway stairwell and needed to get your bearings.
Glued to the television, we learned the attack was probably perpetrated by terrorists. At first, I thought it was an air traffic controller misguiding the planes. As if he had misplaced a comma or a zero in the altitude figure instructions. Then we heard about the Pentagon attack and the crash in Pennsylvania. We couldn’t stop watching television when an envelope was pushed under our door. It was a notice on letterhead from the Consulate General of the United States of America.
Date/Time stamp: Sep. 11, 2001, 10:52A
Please give this as wide dissemination as possible.
The Consulate General is urging Americans to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness to reduce their vulnerability. Americans should maintain a low profile, be on alert, vary routes and treat mail from unfamiliar sources with suspicion.
As an attempt to lighten the mood, I said to Patti, “Hey they forgot to wish us a nice vacation.”
We realized we were on vacation, had a car for the day and decided to go exploring the island hoping to be distracted, regardless of the official warning. It didn’t work. When we weren’t quietly stunned, it was all we talked about.
As the days passed, the hotel was backing up with American tourists who couldn’t get out because of the flight ban in the U.S. But the European tourists kept coming in from their airports. I’m still not sure how we were all accommodated. At meals, the Americans sought each other out, started sitting together, trading stories about trying to reach the airlines with fingers crossed, hoping to get out that day. Every day it was the same answer. “Nope, not today.”
Our flight, on the Saturday morning after 9/11, was the first flight out. The airport was chaos. These Caribbean airports are usually chaotic but with the extra inspections and luggage searches taking place, this was a madhouse of too many sweaty people raising their voices.
Our plane took off from Curacao late but we were on our way. There was silence all the way to Miami until our wheels touched ground and the full plane applauded, while some cried. We all wanted to be out of paradise and in our mother country that was so brutally attacked. Our flight from Miami to Newark was unremarkable but we didn’t mind, we had enough remarkable events to last us a long time.