Ernie Gerbasi - Eyewitness to 9/11
September 11, 2001
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Describing my brush with hijackers and subsequent tragedies on Flight 1989.



Sept. 11, 2001


Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of a firestorm for no apparent reason. For me, Sept. llth was like that. Not an unusual day. I awoke about 5:30 AM, packed my bags and set out for Logan Airport. It was a clear and fine day for flying. I arrived at the airport at 6:45, checked in at the sidewalk, bought a copy of the New York Times and proceeded to linger in the area around gate 33 prior to boarding a direct flight to Los Angeles. I had not bothered to cast any more than a casual glance at passengers in surrounding gates. If I had, perhaps I might have noticed something a bit out of the ordinary. Maybe a nervous or fidgeting passenger. Or perhaps an accent that seemed out of the ordinary. I did not see any of those things because I was simply too intent on reading my newspaper. But later, I learned they were in the same area. I originally made a reservation on American Airlines Flight #11 but changed to a Delta Flight five days earlier to preserve my air miles.

There were three direct flights leaving for Los Angeles from Boston that morning and all were a bit tardy in getting off at their designated departure times. We were next to American Airlines flight eleven and not far behind awaiting takeoff. Although we were scheduled to lift off at 8 AM we did not get out until 8:20 AM.

The flight seemed to be uneventful for the first hour or so. I was deep into a new book detailing the life of John Adams. The pilot greeted his passengers on the intercom and than set out the route that would be taken to complete the trip. From what he said, flying time would be four hours and one minute. I remembered that because he seemed to be so precise. Most people would have said four hours and left it at that. But he had to add that extra minute. He seemed to be super alert, the kind of pilot we should all fly with.

I don’t remember what time it was when the pilot said, "I don’t mean to alarm you but a plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York and as a precaution we'll be landing in Cleveland." For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what that had to do with us. We were in the air, well on our way to Los Angeles and nothing could stop us. I did not perceive that we were in any danger and I did not know the full significance of a plane that "hit the World Trade Center." What kind of a plane? Was it an accident?

The passengers looked at each other trying to figure out what was going on. We had no access to radio or television and though we were literally in the middle of a huge story we were the last to develop a realization of the immense consequences of this news.

When we landed in Cleveland, I picked up my cell phone and called Louise. Other passengers also tried to make calls but could not get through. Because I was one of the few who could get through, other passengers gathered around me as they heard my reaction to the events. " An American Airlines plane on its way to Los Angeles." "I don’t believe it." "You mean the building isn't there any more." The story was incredulous. And the other passengers swarmed around me. When I ended the call, a woman next to me asked about the flight number on the American Airlines jet. I said it was flight number eleven. In an instant she broke down sobbing. Only later did I learn that seven of her friends from TJ MAXX were on that flight scheduled for a business conference in LA. I believe she said that the company had made reservations. But because she was a bit late she made her own reservations on Delta Airlines.

We were in Cleveland but nowhere near the terminal. In fact, we were parked on the edge of the tarmac nearly a half mile away. We were an island apart from anything else at the airport. We sat on the ground for more than an hour before stairs were pushed up against the plane's door. Then we saw the FBI and Secret Service board. They asked us to gather our personal belongings and to escort them to the edge of the tarmac. We lined our bags along the strip, and stood beside them while a bomb sniffing dog made his way alongside the luggage. Had he noticed anything usual, there probably would have been dire consequences. I thought that it was a good thing I didn't throw a ham sandwich into my bag before I left. Frankly, I don’t know of any dog who wouldn't prefer the smell of a good piece of ham to a bomb any day of the week.

The dog did not find a bomb. We were walked to a separate building far from the terminal in Cleveland. Each of us was interviewed by the FBI. They wanted to know who we were, and asked for photo identification. They also wanted to know if we had noticed anything unusual before boarding the plane. I had not and to the best of my knowledge, none of the other passengers had not either.

After the interviews were completed. We were led back to the plane which by now was surrounded by 30 members of the Cleveland Police SWAT team. I did not see the television cameras but they were there in the distance recording this on site news event for the citizens of that city. We never reboarded the plane. We got on buses that took us to the Holiday Inn in Independence, Ohio, about a twenty minute drive from the terminal. We arrived there at about five in the afternoon. A large television was set up in the lobby and for the first time we began to comprehend the enormity of what had happened.

What our pilot failed to mention was that a second plane flying out of Boston also hit the World Trade Tower. Following that logic, was it reasonable to assume that a third terrorist was also on the third flight to Los Angeles, that is Delta flight 1989. The FBI seemed to think so. And though they questioned a young Saudi Arabian more intensely than other passengers, they concluded that the passenger manifesto was clean. However, they were not sure about the plane. And that was why it was kept on the tarmac long after we departed. I believe the SWAT team was looking for a bomb. We never saw that plane again. It was flown to Cincinnati where a thorough search could be made by airline mechanics. The next day, The Cleveland Plain Dealer told the story in headlines that read "Terror Hits Home - Hijackers ram 2 airliners in World Trade Center, 3rd plane slams into Pentagon, 4th crashed near Pittsburgh; thousands die - Plane diverted to Cleveland triggers alarm."

During our stay in Cleveland, the passengers who at first seemed faceless to me came into focus as genuinely good people with shared fears and apprehensions. We felt hopelessly bereft and with little to do in Cleveland, we developed some meaningful friendships. There was Joan and Rod Gilmore from Santa Clarita, a retired couple. Rod was a wizened and impish version of Winston Churchill. And Joan was embracingly outspoken, in a very humorous way, about nearly everything.

Another couple from Bel Air, the Cherniaks,. shared nearly every meal with me. Earl was a retired podiatrist with roots in south Boston. His wife Renee originally came from the Bronx. They were a charming couple and eternally grateful that they had the chance to see another sunrise. In their letter to me they said, ""Every time we see a newscast of what happened in New York, reality sets in and we realize how very fortunate we are to be alive. The poor souls sitting in the area next to ours waiting to board their planes, the American and the United, have all perished and we have survived. Renee and I will never forget how fragile our lives were and we thank the almighty for allowing us to live."

There were the Clarks, newlyweds from Newburyport making their way to Hawaii. And Ricardo Sandoval, a young Mexican whose wife gave birth to his first daughter on Sept. 9th. He relied on me for any news and flight arrangements that would get him back to Mexico.

I liken the time spent with other passengers comparable to the bonding that takes place in a hostage situation. Initially, we were all nameless and faceless to each other as we made our way to Los Angeles but were given a unique opportunity to develop unusual friendships

Although we spent a lot of our time watching television and in being social, a good deal of our effort was expended in trying to get out of Cleveland. But that was nearly impossible. The trains were full. Rental cars weren't available and the trip to California by bus was dicey.

Some of the passengers were a bit frantic. They thought of renting a car and driving to California, a 39 hour drive. Others thought about the bus and all of the dining they would be forced to partake in at greasy spoon truck stops. Of course, AMTRAK was an option, but reservations were difficult to come by. One group rented a limousine back to Boston for a cost of $1600. Others took rental cars when they could find them. But the stalwarts kept right on trying to manipulate their way to Los Angeles any way they could.

On the fourth day of incarceration, we made reservations to leave Cleveland for a flight to Cincinnati with the admonition that we must be ready to roll at 4:30 AM. I received A 3:45 AM wake-up call and waited for the motel limo to whisk us to the airport only to learn that our flight had been canceled once again. This was the third time my Delta reservation was scratched and when we tried to make contact with the airline to get another commitment, we could not get beyond an endless busy signal.

In sheer frustration, we all piled into the limo and went to the airport to take our chances. We joined a very, very long line. I was fortunate in getting a flight to Atlanta, and thereafter the very last seat on a plane heading to LA. I lucked out a bit because it was in first class where the wine flowed nearly intravenously. I noticed only one passenger who looked like an Arab and as fate would have it he became my seat mate in the first class section of the plane. Along the way he offered me some peanuts. I guess my imagination was running a bit wild. He turned out to be an ordinary guy with a funny accent.

My friend Ricardo was diverted to one of the feeder airports outside of LA. The Cherniak's headed back to LA via rental car with overnights in St. Louis, Denver and Las Vegas. I never saw the Gilmores but presumed they left later on the fourth day. The only members of our group that did not make a connection at that time were the Clarks (the honeymooning couple headed to Hawaii). Maybe they're still in Cleveland.

When I arrived in Claremont I met strangers who knew of my plight and seemed genuinely relieved that I was unharmed. Many people were touched by the events of September 11th and meeting someone, like me, who was so close to the catastrophe seemed to make them highly empathetic. At first, I wasn't touched by our brush with death until I saw the ticker tape on the bottom of the CNN screen chronicling the names and age of all of the Bostonians who perished on the Logan flights. I could visualize their home towns and could imagine my own name and age streaming along the bottom of the screen. That got to me.

There was another occasion where I was visibly moved by events. My daughter was performing at a concert in Pasadena. Everyone in the audience was given an American flag lapel pin and a small, push button flashlight to use as a candle light. They played Bolero and a few other classics that evening, but when they played God Bless America, the lights were dimmed and the candle lights were thrust into the air above our heads. I could barely contain my tears as I remembered the war years and the great comfort Kate Smith brought to us when she sang that song.

I suppose my saga came to an end after I returned to Boston. Yes, security was tight and I had to turn in my belt while going through security. My greatest fear at that time was not that we might be hijacked but that my trousers would end up around my ankles.

God Bless America.

Postscript

Delta 1989 left Boston about twenty minutes after American Airlines flight 11 and just a few minutes after United flight 175. Initially, all planes followed the same route to Los Angeles. The American flight hit the world trade center at 8:46 AM. United plowed into the second tower at 9:03 AM Our pilot, Captain Tom Werner, learned of the terrorist attacks from his cockpit radio around 9:15 AM. He thought a small plane accidentally hit the tower and had no idea that air traffic controllers and the FBI suspected his flight would be next. Controllers in Cleveland were asked to keep an eye on flight 1989. At 9:30 AM, controllers confirm their worst fears. They hear shouting as Delta flight 1989 approaches the Pennsylvania border. Amid the sounds of scuffling one voice is heard saying, "Get out of there. Minutes later, a heavily accented voice intones, "Ladies and gentlemen, here its the captain. Please sit down. Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb aboard"

The accent betrays the hijackers. The Cleveland Center rushes word to Washington that terrorists have commandeered another flight. At least, that's the way it seemed until 9:35 AM when their attention was diverted to United flight 93 as it climbed unexpectedly and turned back toward the Delta flight. Controllers tried to call United but every attempt was met by silence. Captain Werner, flying only 25 miles behind United 93, was ordered to change course to miss the oncoming plane. He did so successfully, and controllers assumed that everything on his plane was okay.

However, Werner requested permission to land in Cleveland long before the FAA issued its general warning to ground all planes. Suspicions in Cleveland were heightened once again. Werner received coded messages from Delta and repeatedly asserted that all seemed to be fine. During the confusion, however, Werner fails to inform the Cleveland Center of the Delta communiqué ordering his plane down.

As he makes his approach to Cleveland, controllers attempt to contact Werner but there is no response. They were deeply concerned about hijackers or the possibility that a bomb might be set to detonate when the plane lands or hits the runway. A SWAT team gathers on the tarmac at a remote taxi way at the Hopkins International Airport. The flight lands at 10:10 AM and remains in place for two hours before it is boarded by the Secret Service and the FBI. In the interim, conversations with the pilot are conducted through an open cockpit window. It was not until mid afternoon that authorities concluded there was no bomb aboard.

Commentary fron Earl Cherniak, a newly found friend who shared my experience wile in Clveland:


RESPONSES / COMMENTS

RE: 9/11
From: Earl Cherniak, DPM


This date has special significance for my wife, Renee and me. Our lives were spared that day when so many of our fellow Americans lost theirs. It was on that day, we checked in at Logan Airport in Boston for a non-stop 8:00 a.m. flight to Los Angeles. We were on Delta flight 1989. There were 2 other flights destined for L.A. at the same time; United and American. The United passengers sat next to us at Logan. It was mind-boggling to realize afterwards that the perpetrators, the terrorists, were sitting next to us at Logan as well as all their poor victims.

In flight, our plane was ordered to land in Cleveland. After landing on a tarmac away from the main terminal our plane was thoroughly inspected. We and all our fellow passengers on the plane were taken to a separate building at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (the officials thought there might be terrorists on our plane) since the other 2 planes went into the New York Trade Center. After all this, we finally found out about the disaster in New York.

We all the prayed for those who lost their lives and thanked God for sparing us. A few passengers on our plane had friends on the other planes who were all going to a meeting in Los Angeles.

We thought of the shoddy inspection we had of ourselves and luggage at Logan that day. Renee and I thought back, at the time, how it compared to the one we had in Israel 20 years earlier. When we went back to Boston in 2003, it had improved but still had a lot to be desired and improved.

We empathize with the families of the many of our fellow Americans who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001.

Earl L. Cherniak, D.P.M., D.Sc. (Hon), Los Angeles, CA

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Logan Airport control tower


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Terminal Interior


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Mohammed Atta


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American Air Flight 11


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Leaving Logan for the west coast


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Initial strike by American Air flight 11


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The moment of impact


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Delta 1989 ordered to land in Cleveland


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rSwat team Reception committee in Cleveland


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Delta flight 1989 boarded by the FBI


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ATF agents also invoved


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Flight 93 before take-off


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Flight 93 passengers killed in Shanksville, PA
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