"We've just heard news from the States; apparently something dreadful has happened." And indeed it had.
We walked across the little park with the gazebo, an oasis in front of the engineering building at City University London. It was, and still is, all the campus there is at this university that is more scattered than sprawling, buildings hither and yon in this area on the east side of London. I was here to participate in the biannual International Conference on Compressors and Their Systems; Shirley, as she had been at previous conferences, was with me. As we mounted the stairs in front of the classroom building to greet the conference chairman and his wife, we were met with the pronouncement of dreadful goings on back home.
A tour and dinner were on the agenda for this evening, starting with a boat trip on the Thames and a visit to the London Eye before gathering at the headquarters building of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) at One Birdcage Walk. The architect for the London Eye project was to give an informal accounting of his experiences during its design and construction before we gathered for a light meal.
We did in fact take the boat tour; a few of our British hosts were making calls on their cell phones, but details of what had happened across the Atlantic were hard to come by. The London Eye had closed out of security concerns. The skies over downtown London, normally busy with planes approaching Heathrow from the east, were quiet. Our guest speaker sent his regrets, but informed us he had friends in New York City and was trying desperately to reach them.
It was only when we retired to the reception area of the IMechE offices that we saw in the horrific detail made possible by modern video technology the terror that was visited upon the people of New York and Washington; the tragic story of heroism aboard United Airlines flight 93 would unfold later.
Later, Shirley and I got in touch with our daughters to discover that they had thought we were planning to be flying home on this day. We were mutually relieved to be able to confirm that all were well.
I called American Airlines about our September 13th flight. Not surprisingly, there was little information to be had. The next day I was told it would probably be Tuesday, Sept. 18, before we would be able to return home. The agents I talked to were noticeably and understandably upset. The agent I spoke to on Thursday broke down in tears. I talked to her a bit, told her I honestly could not fully appreciate the pressure under which she was working, and thanked her for just being there for those of us trying to get back home. It was this call that convinced me to accept the Tuesday departure. I did not call again. It just seemed unfair to the agents who were struggling so mightily with the task of getting everyone back while trying to deal with their loss as well. Also, I knew from the news that many of the stranded were far worse off than we were, having as we did a hotel to sleep in and no shortage of places to eat.
The people of London treated us kindly. Our hotel offered us the reduced rate arranged for conference guests for the duration of our stay. The Turkish family who ran the tiny café across the street where we had most of our breakfasts provided coffee at no extra charge. A more upscale fish restaurant offered free appetizers. One young man stopped us on the street and said, “Hey Yank. We’re behind you all the way. Hope you get the b------s that did it!”
We discovered a small restaurant in Embankment Park, a short walk from the tube stop through a flower-bedecked green space. Sitting outside under a glorious tree that sheltered the entire patio area, one could escape, briefly, the unthinkable awfulness of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. And, at the same time, reflect on the fact that you know you would never forget it.
Wouldn't it be nice if no one ever had to the hear the words, "Something dreadful has happened in..." again?