When the terrorists attacked, one of our own was among the thousands of Americans who were overseas at the time. SmarterTravel.com’s Editor-in-Chief Ed Passarella and his wife, Andrea, were in the second week of their trip to Italy as the tragedy unfolded. Here are Passarella’s reflections on first hearing the news, and on traveling home. This story was originally published on September 20, 2001
Tuesday, September 11
Tired and thirsty from our long, steep climb to San Miniato, we sip the obligatory vino rosso and acqua minerale, non gas. We bask in the late afternoon sun at the Piazzale Michelangelo, with Florence spread out below our feet. To our left, however, a tiny battery-operated television blares the increasingly intrusive sound of an Italian announcer. We think we hear the word, “pentagono.” To our right, a waiter holds his hands flat, bent at the wrist, and pantomimes diving planes for the German couple at the next table.
Curious, we get up to squint in the glare at the four-inch TV screen. We see smoke over downtown Manhattan. “Strange,” I think. “The camera angle makes it look as if there were only one tower.” Two Californians join the growing crowd. Realizing we’re Americans, the waiter urgently calls out the owner of the cafe to translate. She speaks sadly of jets and explosions. We look back at the TV and, this time, see only smoke. The words, “Both towers have collapsed” flash in English across the bottom of the screen.
My brain has room for only four thoughts, playing on infinite loop: My sister and her family live 20 blocks from there. My oldest friend works in that neighborhood. I grew up in New York and remember the skyline before the two towers ever existed. My wife and children have stood with me on that observation deck, looking down on small planes and helicopters flying past.
“How many people work there?” asks the man from Los Angeles, tugging me back from the personal panic to confront the magnitude of the tragedy. “Thousands,” I say. “Thousands.”
Back at the hotel, CNN once again fulfills its role as the global campfire. We hunch forward, trying to find warmth in the news. We dial familiar numbers and punch in calling-card codes, vying with all the other anxious travelers trying to phone home. Six hours pass before we know all our loved ones are accounted for and safe.
From the rooftop cafe, we take a last look at Florence. The barman says, “It’s crazy.” He has a friend in Connecticut who frequently works in New York. He can’t get through to her. We wish him luck and say goodbye. Our minor challenge, truly insignificant beside the anguish faced by so many others, becomes figuring out how to get home.
Wednesday, September 12
The FAA decides for us. No planes fly in American airspace today. CNN says domestic air travel may begin again on a limited basis, but it could be days or even weeks before international flights resume. Unable to come home, we begin a dual existence. In the hotel, glued to the TV, we are stranded and hurting Americans, coping with the mechanics of crisis travel. On the street, we are just two more tourists enjoying the sights and tastes of Italy. With no clear idea of when we’ll be able to get across the Atlantic, we decide to begin the next leg of our trip. We can only hope things will be closer to normal by the time of our scheduled departure this Sunday. I call the office at SmarterTravel to suggest a couple of story ideas, forgetting that it’s 3:30 a.m. back home, then we head for the train.
In Monterosso, the northwesternmost of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre, people swim and sunbathe. Laughter fills the seaside cafes. Yesterday’s news recedes, in denial and hope, until we check in at the hotel. When she learns we’re American, and our name is Italian to boot, Giovanna the proprietor rushes from behind the counter to engulf us with hugs, kisses, and tears.
We turn on CNN in the lounge, and Americans instantly appear. A young woman worries she and her friends won’t be able to get to Chicago on Friday. A man wonders if he’ll fly to Dulles on Thursday. As if afraid to fully confront their grief and horror until on familiar ground, all the Americans we meet talk only about getting home. Reaching airlines by phone proves nearly impossible in the crush of travelers seeking information and alternatives. Internet access seems as elusive as the Grail in a town where tone dialing still isn’t standard. Our instant community compares notes on getting the train to Malpensa Airport near Milan. We debate the merits of trying to change reservations now against clinging to our originally scheduled flights. With insufficient information to make an informed decision, we all stand pat.
Thursday, September 13
Having implemented the new security measures, more American airports reopen. Our destination, Boston’s Logan, the starting point for two of the fatal flights, remains conspicuously closed. CNN broadcasts encouraging news about domestic flights, but the Herald Tribune reports an Alitalia flight was turned back. We decide to give events one more day to unfold before trying to make a new plan.
Leaving the hotel, we take the local train back to Riomaggiore, the first link in the Cinque Terre chain. There we buy tickets for the Via Dell’Amore, the cliffside path leading to the next town, Manarola. Halfway along, I peer over the railing straight down to the rocks and the Ligurian Sea. Suddenly, I’m wrenched out of tourist mode and recall images of that sheer drop down the side of the World Trade Center towers.
Friday, September 14
On the long train ride to Lake Como, we share a compartment with three elderly Americans. They’re continuing to Zurich, having come from Istanbul on the Orient Express, waiting extra days in Venice. They, too, concentrate the conversation on their hope to fly home to San Francisco the next day. We wish each other luck as we part company.
A ferocious thunderstorm drenches us as we run from the cab to the hotel. Inside, we see the lounge is called “The American Bar.” We can’t resist ordering burgers because they, absurdly, provide an illusion of home. We try the free Internet access in the lobby. Logging on takes 10 to 15 minutes. SmarterTravel has a package of travelers’ resources I want to see, but the connection is excruciatingly slow. The home page takes five minutes to display. Clicking further causes the connection to time out. Checking the Swissair website and trying to retrieve e-mail bring similar frustrating results. The Internet won’t help us in Como today.
Back in our room, CNN delivers hopeful news. More airports reopen. More airlines resume operations. Still, Boston remains closed. We make a plan. Ideally, we’ll stick with our existing reservations and fly home via Milan and Zurich on Sunday. Failing that, we’ll fly our first leg to Zurich and either get to Boston when a flight opens, or re-route to Montreal.
After many tries, I get through to the Swissair 800 number. The recording directs me to a special hotline. More redials and a long hold later, I speak with a live customer care representative who tells me he can’t help us from the U.S. He provides a Milan-area number for Swissair. It doesn’t work.
Finally, I get help from the front desk with reaching yet another local number. The Swissair representative tells me we won’t be allowed to fly to Zurich because the airport there has to handle the backlog of stranded passengers first. Boston still isn’t accepting flights, he says, and tells me to call back Saturday. “Canada’s closed, too, you know,” he adds, when I mention Montreal. So much for that plan.
I manage to reach our travel agent back in the States for advice. The first confirmed backup reservation she can find for us on Swissair is for Thursday. I also call my boss, Dan Saul, the president of SmarterTravel, to update him on the situation. Dan uses the Internet to make a Sunday-to-Thursday reservation for us at the Zurich Airport Hilton. We won’t know whether we’ll need it until tomorrow.
Saturday, September 15
In the morning, Swissair tells us to stay put and check back in the evening. “We’re expecting news,” I’m told. We spend what we hope will be our last full day in Italy walking and sitting by the shore of Lake Como.
We try Swissair again in the evening. “Call back in an hour and a half.” Somehow, we manage a leisurely dinner, then call again. After an hour of re-dialing, we get through. “Go to the airport, tomorrow,” the agent says. “Things seem to be operating normally.”
Sunday, September 16
We begin the day by carefully laying out our matching Swiss Army penknives, a nail file, and tweezers on the hotel room night table. We’re taking the security precautions to heart. The somber cab driver shakes our hands and says, “We are with you.”
Things begin to move quickly. Cab to the train from Como. Train to Milan Centrale. Cab across town to Milan Cadorna. Train to Malpensa Airport. There, four carabinieri with automatic weapons form a semi-circle around the top of the entrance escalator. Ahead of us, three of the police divert a small group of darker-skinned men to check their papers. The other security man waves us to the next checkpoint. After the first luggage scan, the guard wants a closer look at my Palm Pilot. I compulsively reach out to help him fit it back into the pocket of the bag and he tenses up, staring hard at me. What am I thinking?
We take the shuttle bus to the small jet on the tarmac. Before we board, they collect the larger carry-ons and stow them in the rear luggage compartment. My duffel bag is the last one in. More than an hour into the 30-minute flight, we touch down in Zurich. My bag does not reappear. For 10 minutes, the baggage handlers and flight attendants search. I feel impatience from the crowded shuttle bus behind me as I wait. We’re not the only ones running late for a connection. Finally, the bag slides down the portable conveyor, the last one off.
The final security check in Zurich turns out to be the most rigorous. We watch a man with a leg brace and cane struggle up two flights of stairs because the people movers and escalators near the gates have been turned off to slow the flow. Guards pat us both down in curtained stalls, as they do every single passenger. It’s oddly comforting. Many bags are thoroughly searched. We watch a woman negotiate in vain with the Swiss guard to keep her cuticle scissors. We see a swab from an elderly woman’s bag put through the explosives sniffer.
Reaching this point somehow frees the largely American crowd at the gate to talk about the attacks. Everyone knows someone from Boston or New York who may have been affected. We watch the departure time modified, then pushed back again. At last, we board and the plane lifts off two hours behind schedule. People fill fewer than half the seats in Envoy class. We wonder aloud how many empty seats belong to those who got away sooner, or to those who just didn’t want to fly into Boston. During dinner, I notice the knives – I’m sure they were metal on the way over two weeks ago – are plastic.
More than eight hours later, we feel the bump and hear the screech of wheels on runway. Weary applause drifts through the cabin. We are home.