Traveling amidst tragedy: a report

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[atlanta] The most sobering thing was not that I arrived at Boston's Logan Airport at the same time as the Sept. 11 hijackers but that I did so with their victims.

As Advertising Age's beverage reporter, I was on Delta's Flight 1043 from Boston to Atlanta for a one-day meeting at Coca-Cola Co. to see its latest round of "Life Tastes Good" ads. I'd booked a 7:45 a.m. flight. Some time later, as we flew over Manhattan, the pilot announced smoke was billowing from the World Trade Center. It must be a fire, he surmised. Locked in my 6 a.m. wake-up stupor, I couldn't be bothered to rouse myself from the trio of seats across which I had stretched. Few of the other jaded frequent fliers could, either.

The pilot announced a short time later that it appeared as if a small commuter plane had flown into the building. At that time, the 40-odd of us crowded the windows. The towers were hard to see, but smoke poured out the left side, miles ahead of the plane.

Some passengers gasped. Others placed their foreheads in their hands and closed their eyes. Another off-handedly commented that this wasn't the kind of news he welcomed 28,000 feet up.

People sat down, we were past Manhattan, and then the pilot had more news: A second plane had crashed into the second tower. Was I dreaming?

Once we touched down, the pilot was back. Now that we were on the ground, he said he could tell us about the Pentagon and that all flights had been grounded.

Not realizing two of the then-three crashed planes had taken off from Boston within minutes of mine, or that anyone would think I had been in danger, I tried to call my family via Airphone. Nothing. I tried another credit card. Still nothing. It was the same with another two cards. I didn't realize I was trying to dial on the same system at the same time as passengers who were crashing close to my parents' home in Pennsylvania.

Inside the terminal, I called collect. My shaken mother and father picked up. They'd learned of the Boston flights 90 minutes ago and had been trying to reach me. My husband, Neil, however, had gotten my flight information from my company and knew it was unlikely I was on the Boston-California flight, and that my plane was in the air and appeared safe. He called my parents with the news.

Uncomprehending, I looked over my notes again, preparing for the meeting. But a man panned a video camera around the gates, women dabbed red eyes, and I was nauseated, thinking of relatives who would long for far misses like mine. By 11:15 a.m., not long after the fourth crash, a gate attendant told a waiting man that he didn't know when flights would resume and that he didn't think any hotel rooms were left in Atlanta. Reports later said 30,000-twice the size of my North Carolina hometown-had been stranded at Hartsfield.

It took me almost two hours to find my aunt, who was meeting me at the airport. She told me that when she told the guard she was meeting a Boston flight he acted concerned, apologized profusely but told her he couldn't let her go to the gate. She said her only consolation as she waited was that I was on a Delta flight. She hoped reports were true that it was not a Delta flight that had been hijacked.

Once on the road from the airport to my meeting at Coke, I used my aunt's cell phone to call the company. No long-distance calls would go through. I finally got a relative who told me TV reports said Coke was closed. Still unaware of the gravity of the situation, I couldn't believe such a business would send 4,000 employees home for plane crashes hundreds of miles away. I called my Coke contact and asked if the conference would be held the following day and what he could say about the new "Life Tastes Good" work. Probably in disbelief at my callousness or idiocy, he told me things were on hold until at least the next week. Then it began to dawn on me: Life may never be the same.

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