Sky Talk

9/11: Tears and panic at JFK

On Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines flight attendant Heidi Gunderson was working a morning flight from New York to Los Angeles that ended up never leaving JFK as the airport was evacuated soon after the terrorist attacks occurred.
On Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines flight attendant Heidi Gunderson was working a morning flight from New York to Los Angeles that ended up never leaving JFK as the airport was evacuated soon after the terrorist attacks occurred.

Heidi Gunderson often worked the New York-Los Angeles route. On Sept. 11, after her usual layover, she was anxious to get back home to California.

The Boeing 767-200 was full of passengers and ready to go for its 9 a.m. departure from New York’s JFK airport when the pilot came on and said the flight was delayed because New York’s airspace had closed.

“Several people were on their phones and crying and wanting to get off the airplane,” Gunderson said. “That was the first time I had any indication that there was something wrong.”

A few minutes later, her flight was canceled and passengers were asked to deboard. Some ran up the jetbridge trying to get off the plane while others were in tears trying to collect their carry-on bags. Gunderson still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. When she went back to the crew offices at the terminal, supervisors were telling everyone to leave immediately.

“JFK looked like a madhouse. Every flight that was supposed to go [that morning] and every single passenger was asked to just get out,” Gunderson said.

The taxi line seemingly stretched for miles and people were wandering around, not sure what to do. Gunderson learned that taxis and hotel buses were no longer being allowed to return to the airport and she wasn’t sure she would be able to make it back to her hotel.

“I was literally just outside waiting for another airplane to fall out of the sky,” Gunderson said after she heard about a plane hitting the Pentagon. “I thought, ‘how many more are there?’ It was a frightening feeling.”

Gunderson eventually hopped on a shuttle bus that dropped her in Queens and she walked back to her hotel where she haad spent the previous night.

Feeling alone, Gunderson asked to check the hotel’s guest list of American crew members to see if any fellow flight attendants were still there. Trying to get information on what was happening, Gunderson and other crew members were given a hotel meeting room where they could talk and support each other.

“From our hotel, we could see the smoke. There was so much smoke, it clouded the actual city,” Gunderson said. “We were there, I want to say three days, but it felt like a year.”

Gunderson was able to leave New York on a special charter flight that American operated out of Stewart Airport later that week. Since she had previously scheduled vacation time, she had a couple of weeks off before returning to flying.

“It was difficult, but it was a job that I’ve done for so long that I think I felt more comfortable going back to work as opposed to staying out,” Gunderson said. But her job as a flight attendant changed, as crews became more aware of suspicious activity and were trained to fight back in the event of a possible attack.

“I think we’re always going to be vigilant in a different way than we ever were before this happened,” Gunderson said.

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