9/11/2001—My Experience

I was just 16-years-old, a yeshiva student living the yeshiva life.

That year, 9/11 was a week before Rosh Hashana. I was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles to assist Chabad of Agoura Hills with their High Holidays programming.

My American Airlines flight to Los Angles, with a connection somewhere in flyover country, was scheduled for departure the evening of September 10. However, New York experienced a torrential thunder and lightening storm that evening, stranding our plane on the tarmac for many hours.

Of course, by the time we finally did take off, we had missed our connecting flight. So instead of taking that route, the airline announced that we’d be flying to Houston, where we would be accommodated at hotels overnight, and would then fly to Los Angles the next morning.

The next morning, a terribly hot, humid Houston morning, we boarded our flight for a 7:30 departure to Los Angeles.

About an hour into the flight — I remember, I was davening shachris — the pilot paused the movie with an announcement (quotes are imprecise of course, as this was so many years ago): “We just received news that there was some kind of incident at the World Trade Center. We’ll keep you posted with developments.”

Okay, an incident. We didn’t think about it. I continued davening shachris while the movie resumed. A short while later, the pilot spoke again: “Passengers, I have disturbing news: a plane just crashed into the other tower. And the incident I announced earlier — that was also a plane crash. This does not look accidental.”

This time the movie didn’t restart. Everyone started murmuring, very concerned and disappointed, but not particularly threatened or afraid. Until this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen: there have been several hijackings. We’ll keep you posted.” And then this: “Another hijacking just confirmed.” Then: “Another hijacking.” And then this: “A plane just crashed.” And then this: “It seems like 5 planes have been hijacked.” Then: “The number has increased to 10 planes.” (At that point, any plane that couldn’t be immediately reached was assumed hijacked. For some bizarre reason, our pilot thought it was smart to share that concern with us.)

No one said a word. All hands were clutching their armrests, knuckles white. Because the pilot kept updating us, and with each update the news got progressively worse, it seemed to us all that most likely every single plane in the sky at that moment was under attack and was doomed. I wasn’t the only passenger on that Houston —> L.A. flight who assumed that it was probably a few minutes until someone jumped up, screamed “allahu akbar” and killed us all.

Our pilot, God bless his heart, then confirmed we were going to die: “Ladies and gentlemen, we were just ordered to land. If we don’t land within the next 20(ish) minutes, we will be escorted by army jets. We will be deemed a potential threat and will be dealt with as such.” If Allah wouldn’t kill us, Uncle Sam would.

9/11

Within a few minutes, the pilot confirmed that we had received permission to land in El Paso, Texas. At that point, cell phones came out as people tried calling their loved ones. I couldn’t reach home. I tried again and again but nothing went through. The passengers who did manage to get through shared confusing and incomplete updates: Pentagon, Twin Towers, Pennsylvania, terror, horror, death, destruction, terrorism. Many passengers were crying.

We landed and joined a massive line of planes, all ordered out of the sky. We didn’t taxi to the hub, as the traffic was intense, with dozens of planes ahead of us. We just got off the plane right where it landed and hiked down the runway. When we got to the terminal, all the screens were channeled to the attack. Again and again we watched the planes — suddenly transformed into terrifying missiles — fly right through the towers. There was no resistance, no drama. It was all instant: one ball of fire and then another. And then the world changed forever.

Strangers were hugging and crying on each other’s shoulders. The airport shops set up ice boxes with free drinks for all the stranded, bewildered and terrified passengers.

Within a few minutes, we spotted Rabbi Greenberg, the Rebbe’s shliach to El Paso. He heard planes were landing, and, being the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s soldier that he is, he sped to the airport to see how he could help. Realizing the planes wouldn’t be heading back into the sky, he offered to take me and the friend I was with home and give us his guest room.

Within a few minutes, we spotted Rabbi Greenberg, the Rebbe’s shliach to El Paso. He heard planes were landing, and, being the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s soldier that he is, he sped to the airport to see how he could help. Realizing the planes wouldn’t be heading back into the sky, he offered to take me and the friend I was with home and give us his guest room.

That night the whole country was crazy. On this suburban, quiet El Paso block, there were no fewer than two bomb scares — one at the corner gas station and the other at the 7-11 across the street.

When it became clear that planes wouldn’t fly for a long time, we drove to the bus station, where we boarded a Mexican bus to Los Angeles. (Which was an experience worthy of another post. But not here and not now.)

On the West Coast, far as it was from Ground Zero, things felt different than they did on my previous visits. (At one point, I had to go to the shul late at night. When I pulled into the shul parking lot, a police car screeched in behind me. The officer jumped out with his gun drawn, and demanded ID. What happened? Nothing much. He was just making sure I wasn’t visiting to kill Jews.)

After the holidays, I flew back to New York. Already from the plane window the smoke was visible, still billowing out of the gravesite of thousands.

When I disembarked, I immediately smelled the smoke and sensed the terror. My older brother picked me up. The FDR was completely empty — besides for military Humvees and soldiers armed to the teeth with combat weapons, that is.

This was New York? Manhattan? It couldn’t be. As we headed further south on the FDR Drive, the smoke got darker and the smell stronger. I knew then that something had changed forever. An era of terror that continues to this day was drawn out of the sky and dragged into our world by passenger airplanes controlled by men with box cutters, mace and malice.

About the Author
David Poltorak is a New York attorney. He studied law at Georgetown University Law Center, following which he worked at the United States Senate for U.S. Senator Mike Lee. David is also an ordained Rabbi (Chabad).
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