On September 10th, 2001, I was in New York City visiting my b.f.f. who still lives in Brooklyn, and a cousin who was a student at Sarah Lawrence. Sometime in the afternoon I took a bus over to the Newark International Airport to board an Air Canada flight to Toronto, where I’d catch another flight to Vancouver, and finally onto Hong Kong. I was on my way back to China where I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1998-2000. On Sept. 10, 2001, I was 28 years old.
My flight out of Newark was delayed — something about a fire in the control tower? On the flight were lots of New York filmmakers on the way to a film festival. I spent that night in the Toronto airport, and boarded an early morning flight to Vancouver, on Sept. 11.
That flight never made it. We were grounded in Calgary, due to a “national emergency in the United States,” the pilot told us. The flight attendants had no more information for us. I racked my brain for the last time I had heard that term “national emergency.”
When we landed, someone a few rows behind me who was technologically advanced had a cell phone and used it to get word that there were hijackings…and a plane that was flown into a World Trade Center tower…
All day I wandered around the airport in Calgary, and alternately camped out at a payphone, calling friends and family all over the country and picking up tidbits of news. (If there was a t.v. to watch I didn’t know about it.) It was my cousin Johnny who spelled out the whole terrible truth of the hijacked planes flying into the towers, the emergency workers, the collapse. I couldn’t get in touch with my b.f.f. or my Sarah Lawrence cousin.
By afternoon I felt like a ghost. I was waiting for the go-ahead to board my flight continuing onto Vancouver, but instead the airport was emptying. The only people left were workers and a few other befuddled passengers sitting in a lounge. I went by the little airport chapel where I had taken part in a prayer service earlier in the day when someone made it crystal clear that not only would I not fly out that night, but that flights might be grounded for days.
So I inquired about lodging options.
A man pulled out a legal pad filled, row by row, with names and phone numbers of local people who had called in responding to an alert on t.v., to offer to house airport orphans stranded by the attacks in New York and Pennsylvania thousands of miles away. Pages of names, every row filled.
He called the first name on the list and within an hour I was driving home with the nicest family I had ever met, who housed me, fed me, and showed me all the China-related cultural and culinary offerings of their great city. For three days! The mom of the family even sewed up a torn pair of pants I had. She offered!
When I told my family about the experience my aunt said that no matter how horrific the people who planned the attacks, times like this remind us of just how deep is the good in everyone else.
On the 7th anniversary of the attacks I am back in New York — last night for the graduate admissions event for Idealist.org and today for the Service Nation Summit. I am so excited about today, about all the people I will meet, and the ideas and practices that will emerge. I feel honored to get to be here for this reason, and am sure I will cry tonight at Columbia University, listening to our future president speak to a crowd including 9/11 families and military service members. And I will be thinking about that family in Calgary who stepped up to help me, and their spirit of selfless neighborliness. At the core, that is what the spirit of national and international and community service strives to enable, ways for all of us to connect and give to our traditional and global neighbors.