notes + observations + star addresses
A Flight Attendant's Perspective
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER ATTACKS
Some of the things I learned at flight-attendant training:
How to extinguish a fire.
How to do the Heimlich manoeuvre.
How to inflate a dinghy.
How to prepare passengers for an emergency landing.
The module regarding hijackings was notably light. We watched a video, and briefly discussed the possibility. But what they didn’t teach us, or rather, what nobody could ever learn, was how to deal with the terror in terrorism.
Sept. 11: My boyfriend called me at home. I was still in bed, heavy with jet lag. “Turn on the news,” he said. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” It was a chilling vision to watch the Boeing 767 — a plane that I’ve boarded more often than I drive a car — crash head-on into one of the two iconic towers where our crew used to spend its layovers. This single image played over and over again, and I sat in awe in front of my television trying each time to believe it. That day the phone was in a constant panic as loved ones called to make sure I was safe.
Flight attendants’ lives are not divided by borders. A typical day might start with a breakfast in San Francisco or Frankfurt and end with dinner in Montreal. We are virtually citizens of the world. In airports and hotels and local hangouts internationally, we greet and converse with colleagues from other airlines not as strangers but as friends; we are bound by an unusual affinity of profession.
I sat in awe in front of my television trying each time to believe it.
On Sept. 11, it didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t my airline or my home that was attacked. It didn’t matter that I’m not American. It didn’t matter that (fortunately) nobody I loved was hurt. I still felt violated. I still feel the terror.
When I went back to work for the first time, I thought that I was stable and distant enough from the incidents to not have it affect my duties. How naïve. I arrived at the crew center to check-in and was immediately intercepted by someone instructing me to remove all sharp objects from my suitcase: my tweezers, nail file, razor, my corkscrew (wine was to be served in small bottles). I was notified that I was obliged to carry the most recent flight manifest listing all crew names at all times, to be made available upon request by officials; my I.D. had to be clearly visible on my person. I was told that my bag would also be screened. At security, lines were horrendously long as passengers and flight crew alike were inspected and searched one by one. Nobody complained.
On board, the captain briefed us that the flight-deck door would now be permanently closed and locked. My work environment had a new dreary face: travelers camping out in boarding lounges, crowds glued to televisions at every airport bar. It was a daunting reality to broadcast the latest updates on terrorism while serving beverages at 35,000 feet; I wasn’t sure how my smile was coming out.
My work environment had a new dreary face
I now serve meals with plastic cutlery instead of metal forks and knives and find myself comforting nervous fliers more than normal. Delays caused by added security precautions linger unquestioned. Passengers are oddly compliant. Instead of ‘air rage’ (prevalent up until Sept. 11), more than once a customer has reached out to me and asked, “How are you?” Rest assured, I am not scared of flying. If anything, airports are more secure than ever, although I am worried that the Sept. 11 events are just the beginning, that the repercussions of such a gruesome act have yet to be seen.
Recently, I met an Arab-Canadian colleague who was leaving for Tel Aviv. Nervous about the possibility of hostility from passengers, she said she would refuse to do any announcements in Arabic and had removed the pin from her lapel designating her as an Arabic-speaker.
Another flight attendant that I spoke to said her family actually hoped the sliding economy would force her to be laid-off: They no longer want her to fly. My mother had similar sentiments; a plane could crash anywhere in the world and I could depend on her voice of concern over the telephone. She made me promise to call more often.
For me, the most trying are the stories whispered in galleys behind closed curtains: our own crew members in Manhattan unable to fly home; a Toronto-based flight attendant whose husband was coincidentally at a business meeting at the World Trade Center and has yet to be found.
Will history document terrorismas the turning point of this generation?
There is a support center set up for flight attendants and we are all wearing black ribbons on our uniforms in remembrance and in solidarity. The hostility or conflict once palpable between Air Canada and Canadian employees has been put on the back burner. Our neighbours in the United States have been attacked on a horrific scale. As a result, airline travel worldwide has become a potential danger instead of a luxury.
I somehow always believed that hijackings were a wave of the past, a threat pertinent in the late seventies and early eighties. I never thought they would surface so horribly in our new millennium.
Will history document terrorism as the turning point of this generation? It won’t be surprising if our training centers soon implement more in-depth security discussions with flight attendants. I expect the annual review of hijacker profiles, communication strategies, and safety procedures will be modified entirely.
But can any training adequately prepare one for the terror? Can anyone truly ever know:
How to identify a terrorist?
How to react to a knife at your throat?
How to stop a hijacker with a death wish?
My heart goes out achingly to those flight attendants brought to untimely, unjust deaths. My sympathies go out to their loved ones who stayed at home and watched their loved ones fly off to work and, ultimately, to heaven.
Originally published on Sept. 25, 2001 in the Montreal Gazette, followed by the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, and Winnipeg Free Press. I was a student in university at this time; this was my first nationally published article. Eventually, I quit flying and became a full-time writer.