[september 11, 2001- my story]
We'd only bring in Prague, Czech Republic for two days.
My sister and I had flown to Prague to visit our maternal grandfather, who was there visiting his sisters and recovering from glaucoma surgery. We were to go and "cheer him up" and visit some veteran hospitals he was considering moving in to from England. A goodwill mission. A little vacation. Just my sister and I.
After a day of jet lag recovery, we went into Prague alone to explore. We walked and walked and walked all day, saw old sites we remembered from before, and some new places to visit. We snapped photos of us smiling and happy in the sunshine on Petrin Hill, and drank Pepsi from high above the city.
On the way back to the flat, we were on the trolley bus, laughing and talking like "ugly Americans" do in foreign lands. A girl about my age turns to us and says "Are you American?"
We laugh and say yes, how did you know?
She asks if we had heard. Her tearstained face, her cell phone gripped in her hand - we should have known something was wrong. We didn't.
She told us a plane hit the World Trade Center.
I thought some yoyo in a Cessna had gotten off course. Really off course.
She told us another plane had hit the Pentagon. I remember asking if the two were related. She said yes, and that the first tower in New York had fallen, killing all the rescue personnel who were trying to save people.
We couldn't believe it.
She told us all the cell lines were down, and she was desperately trying to reach her family, and she didn't have many details. She was going to the friend's house whose father was an ambassador, to try her luck from there. We wished her luck and leapt off the trolley.
Sprinting to the apartment, all I remember asking was "Who the fuck did this to us? Who the fuck did this to us?"
We ran up the stairs and threw open the door. Grandpa wanted to know what all the shouting was about, but we grabbed the television and turned it to CNN.
It was real.
The smoke from the towers, the hole in the Pentagon, the plane in Pennsylvania. It was real.
I remember tears sliding down my face, and then seeing the footage of the second tower fall. Stunned. Terrified. Anguished.
I burst into tears. Michelle burst into tears. Shocked.
Michelle immediately began trying to make calls back to the US, but no luck. For hours we were cut off from our families, our friends, our country.
I've never felt so isolated, alone and scared in my life.
We finally got through, tearful and relieved to hear our parents, Michelle's husband, my best friend. They were as shocked as we at the news. They were stunned. Terrified. Anguished.
The next 6 days are truly a blur to me. I know we visited friends, I know we drove into the country, I know we saw more sights, but I honestly remember nothing more than snippets of those events. Visiting Josef and Leba, but only wanting to check email and cnn.com. Walking around Prague with our only mission to find a US flag pin and listen for other American voices in the streets. We even went to a spa town for a few days, where it rained incessantly.
A day or so after the attacks, I became frightfully ill. A horrible flu the likes of which I haven't seen since. Again, to this day, I don't know if I just caught a bug, or if my body simply shut down in fear and shock and sadness. Or maybe both. I spent those days in the spa town in bed, sick and alone (Michelle and Grandpa went out every so often so as not to become ill), save for CNN on the television.
We never turned off the TV. From the moment we got home on September 11 to the day we left, CNN was either on, muted, or no television was available. It was our constant companion, and our only link to our home. We saw every piece of footage, every analyst, every threat assessment and every commentary from thousands of miles away.
I wonder now if maybe we should have turned it off a bit more. Those images are scarred into me. I can't remember Karlovy Vary, but I can remember the footage of the doctor running into the ashes with a video camera, wondering if he would live. I can't remember the view from the apartment, but I can remember seeing Bush, with a bullhorn, bolstering the rescue workers.
On the day everyone in America was to visit a church on their lunch hour, we did the same. We went to my favorite church in all the world, St. Mikulus, and laid some flowers down. We cried again. But we wanted to find the American Embassy. We had to.
It was only a few blocks away, and clearly we weren't the only ones going there. I still cry now when I think of us coming up the hill and seeing flowers, and American flags, and Americans. Crying. But united. No one spoke. People laid down flowers, or lit candles, or signed the guestbook, but no one spoke. And I cried harder at seeing those Americans, those few people, so many thousands of miles away in a different country, than I did when I saw the footage. Because we finally weren't completely alone.
And they were as shocked and scared and lonely as we were. And desperate to get home.
We were originally scheduled to fly home on September 17. As that date approached, a new set of worries arose. Would we get home? When? Were our tickets still good? Were international flights being let in? Would Prague pass muster as an approved airport?
For hours and days, we called the airline, called friends, called home. We were told September 17 would be the first day international flights were being allowed back in. Show up, and you might make the flight.
We showed up, alright. At 6am, for a 3:45pm flight. We waited in line. We talked to other Americans. We waited some more. We held our breath through inspection, when they opened everything possible. We held out breath at the ticket counter. We held our breath going through security. But we didn't get stopped. Maybe we could get home this day after all.
After hours and hours of waiting, we finally boarded the plane, counting our lucky stars. The entire flight home was tense. Quiet. Worrisome. Everyone was watching everyone else. Thinking about what had happened. Worrying about getting home.
We landed in JFK in New York. Late. Really late.
Michelle and I had worked out elaborate schemes on the plane. If we could get within 12 hours of home, we would rent a car and drive. Maybe 15 hours. If we could get a connecting flight to somewhere near Maryland, we could stay there. I had friends in Boston, we could go there. We could try catching a train from somewhere.
Thankfully, we didn't have to go with any of those plans. Every flight in JFK was late. We ran through customs, we argued with ticket counters, but somehow, we got on a flight to Cincinnati. We barely had time to call the parents and tell them we were in New York, we were safe, and to meet us in a few hours.
That entire trip home was the longest of our lives, but we made it. We hiked through Cincinnati, and burst into tears and hugs as we found Don waiting for us. The ride home was nothing but talks of patriotism, and reactions in America, and seeing for the first time all the flags and billboards and signs with "We shall overcome" and "God Bless America".
It was so good to be home.
I stumbled in to work the next day to hugs and tears. Everyone telling about their own reaction. The reaction in town. The reaction on campus. For a long time, I felt disconnected. I had been so far away and had nothing but my sister and a television for support. I know for the rest of my life, September 11 will have profound meaning to me, but it will always differ from the people who were on American soil, with their families, with their flags and their pride ready. I'll never forget the outpouring of support and sympathy from the Czechs, and I'll never forget how good it was to be on American soil. I'll never forget how strong my sister was through the whole thing. I'll never forget how desperate we were to come home.
I'll never forget.
On the way to Prague, we flew into JFK. I've never been to New York, and as we flew into the city, Michelle leaned over to show me the skyline. "There's the World Trade Center, see?" She asked. And I could see them.
On September 17, we flew a similar flight pattern, only this time, all I saw was smoke. And the emptiness in the skyline. That fleeting memory of the only time I ever saw the Towers standing will always stay with me.
I'll never forget.