By DEAN DECKER
It was to be my dream vacation. September 2001, a three-week trip to China – another world to me.
This trip was to combine two of my favorite activities, music and travel. A travel tour company had set up a tour for “community musicians”. We would meet for the first time at an airport in China. There we would get to know each other, rehearse for a few days, then travel to famous places in China and play concerts for local citizens. In one city we were scheduled to actually play a joint concert with a Chinese community band! Very cool!
We were scheduled to take a three-day boat cruise up the Yangtze River, visit the terra-cotta soldiers in Xi’an, and walk the Great Wall of China (at least a very small section of it).
At least that was the plan. And, not to keep you in suspense, the trip happened as planned, but it was the trip home that would become the experience of my lifetime.
The flight going home left Shanghai in the evening, flew all night across the Pacific Ocean, and would land in San Francisco in the early morning. We were on a very large and very comfortable jumbo jet from China Airlines.
I happened to live in San Francisco, so when dawn rose and the plane began to descend, I looked out the window, expecting to say, “it’s great to be home again”. However, as we lowered to several thousand feet above the ground, I was puzzled to see that the surrounding hills did not look right. They were not the same; they were not what I was expecting.
At this point, I noticed a very small plane off of our left wing at an uncomfortably close distance. Just then someone on the right side of the airplane also exclaimed at the same shocking view on their side.
Our airplane suddenly came alive with talking, people waking up, people asking “what’s happening!?”
Very calmly, the pilot’s voice came over the intercom and announced that we were being “escorted” by the Canadian Air Force, and would be landing in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The Chinese flight attendants suddenly became very quiet and would not answer any of our questions. As we continued to decrease in altitude toward the airport, I noticed a young twenty-something Chinese couple two rows ahead of me, conversing in both English and Chinese with the flight attendants. I quickly decided to make friends with them. As it turned out, they were Chinese-American, and lived in Seattle. My new-found friends kept asking the flight attendants what was going on, but no answer was given. Finally, one flight attendant leaned over and said quietly “it’s your worst nightmare”.
We landed at Vancouver Airport. Again, no communication. We did not approach any gate.
Among the 300 or so passengers on the airplane, only a very few had portable radios, and again I was fortunate to be very close to one of those people. Sitting at a window and holding the portable radio up against the window, a very faint and static voice came across the air. America was at war? A building in New York City had been bombed? This was real time, and it was the morning of September 11, 2001.
I listened to the events of this day over the small static radio, and came to understand that all airplanes in the entirety of North America were being grounded. We had been diverted out of the United States and were being “allowed” to land in Canada, of course under escort from the Canadian Air Force. Remember, we were on China Airlines.
All airplanes in North America being grounded? I was at the same time astounded and confused.
We spent the next eight hours in this jumbo jet airplane, stranded on the tarmac, and eventually the pilot said that there were 100 planes ahead of us, and the planes were being brought to a gate one at a time and everyone was being sent through security.
The flight attendants were polite but silent, giving us water, and after about five hours, some sandwiches. When it was our turn to go to the gate, we departed the plane, and all American citizens were sent one direction, while all other citizens of the world were corralled in a different area. This is when I really began to worry.
Each of our 300 passengers were screened through security, the Americans faster than the others, and we found ourselves out in the lobby of the airport not being allowed to leave and not being told how long we would be there. At least now there were television screens, and we relived the entire events of the morning of September 11 via the airport television monitors.
China Airlines was amazingly good and comforting to us as passengers. They explained that although almost every hotel in Vancouver was already full, they were, every few minutes, being notified of a room or two that would be available.
I was listening intently for any announcement of a hotel room being offered, when I overheard two ladies say that they had houses and would take three couples home with them. You cannot believe how fast I grabbed my friend and ran towards these two ladies!
Just as fast as the nightmare had begun, it was over and we were leaving the airport and being invited into two private vehicles to go to a real house! My friend and I, and amazingly the Chinese-American couple ended up in the same car, and went to the home of a university professor and his wife, who lived in an elegant old neighborhood very close to the University.
Large oriental rugs, soft plush furniture, beautiful old wood doorways in a beautiful old house — we were so comfortable, yet we were not allowed to return to our home country. I had never been to Vancouver, and I kind of wanted to explore a bit, but we were watching the television constantly, and every twenty minutes or so they announced that in the next few minutes they might announce when we could all return to the airport. Obviously we could not leave the house under this scenario.
This went on for three days! The Chinese-American couple kept calling the Chinese Embassy in Vancouver and was able to get more information than was being released on the television, which provided us some comfort in knowing what was going on.
After three relaxing yet at the same time nerve-racking days, the TV announcer said that we could return to the airport to get a flight home. The rest of the events went rather quickly and uneventfully, except for the four-hour long line at “new security” at the airport, where every bag and every pocket was opened and thoroughly searched. We boarded an airplane, the brand of which I don’t remember and didn’t really care, and I flew home to San Francisco.