by Juanita Gutierrez '92
Am I really ready to head home? Am I really ready to go back? The end of a vacation is always filled with nostalgia and anxiety. I have been visiting my friend Anthinula in Rome and spending time with her friends – an eclectic group from various parts of her life. I close my gray suitcase and head down the stairs to hail a cab. My friend comes with me and we say our goodbyes. We both put on our best imitation of the British stiff upper lip. No cryingwe say, we will see each other very soon. I get into the taxi and from the back seat I wave good bye as the profile of my friend shrinks in the distance.
Once at the airport, it takes about an hour to go through security. I finally board the double decker plane that will take me back to New York as a carousel of images flash through my head: the seafood dinner with friends, drinking the most delicious cold prosecco on a small cobblestone street, eating homemade Thai food in a villa in Perugia, and gelato in Venice. The plane takes off and I take my notepad out to start preparing for the week ahead.
Three hours into our flight, the pilot comes on the speaker and makes an unusual announcement that will foreverbe etched in my mind: “Because of terrorist attacks in the U.S. all airports are closed, and we will be returning to Rome.”
I look around the aircraft and try to interpret the faces of the staff. They look concerned but not freaked out. I try to read the salmon colored newspaper, the Financial Times, but it is difficult. I read it in its entirety but cannot seem to recall what I have just read. Many thoughts leap through my head: Has our plane been highjacked? Has someone attacked a nuclear site in Southern California?
The pilot comes on the speaker again. “Dear passengers, we will be dumping surplus fuel in order to land safely. It is nothing to be concerned about. This is normal given the situation. We cannot land with so much fuel.”
As I am seated by the wing, I see the mirage the fuel makes 30,000 miles above the ground as the morning light pierces the flammable liquid.
We land. I am relieved to confirm we have not been hijacked and are actually at Fiumicino airport as the pilot promised. I immediately call my boyfriend and friends in New York City using my brick-size company mobile phone, but the calls will not go through. There are too many people trying to call into the city. I reach my parents in Los Angeles who are glad to know I am ok and tell me what has occurred.
Continental Airlines makes hotel arrangements for all its passengers and we are shuttled to the outskirts of Rome. We are at a mid-size hotel with two small elevators that only fit one person and their luggage.
People shove each other trying to get to the elevators and as the pushing continues a six-year-old boy almost gets hurt. An older man with black leather shoes and matching socks asks the crowd to be careful. “Let’s remember the U.S. President is currently in an undisclosed location and we don’t know if we will be able to return home anytime soon. We don’t know who is behind these attacks and whether there may be more.”
After a couple of hours, I reach my hotel room which is smaller than my New York bedroom. I turn the television on and there is no cable. I try my hardest to focus and make out what the anchors are saying in Italian. My Spanish helps me decipher some of the content, but it is still difficult. For the first time, I see the images of the twin towers collapsing in lower Manhattan. Those towers were our compass. When we emerged from the subway, you knew the direction to head based on their location.
I begin to cry uncontrollably. I was there two weeks prior. I had gotten out of the subway and looked-up at their immensity and their vulnerability. Are my friends ok? I don’t know. I finally reach my boyfriend and my boss. She is glad to hear from me. One more employee accounted for. The call is brief as she goes back to the task of locating employees.
I look out my hotel room window. My room faces the pool and the DJ is setting up for the evening’s activities. Some of my fellow passengers decide to go down to the pool and have a drink, but I cannot force myself to join them. I still don’t know the whereabouts of many of my friends.
I continue to watch the news when suddenly I pause to listen to the music coming from the pool deck. Am I hearing correctly? Are they really playing New York, New York by Frank Sinatra?
Yes, they are. I begin to cry again and call the front desk. I am upset. How insensitive. How can they be playing that song? They do nothing. I look out my window and see some of the hotel guests’ dancing. Then all of the sudden, it makes sense why we hear stories of music playing as the Titanic sank. A sudden calmness comes over me as I see couples of all ages dancing. I assume some of them are thinking: If this is our last day on earth, what a better way to end it -- here in Rome listening to an iconic song celebrating one of our favorite cities.
(I was one of the lucky ones. It took me two weeks to get back. My friends and boyfriend all survived the attacks, except for my friend’s father who was on the 90th floor of one of the towers. Another friend was ill for months and moved to Pasadena to recover from breathing the toxic particles. Another friend worked downtown and witnessed people jumping out of the towers while he ran for his life. We still can’t really talk about that day and the days that followed.)