In the jetway they merged. All of the personages from the traveling public, those warehoused in the Admiral’s Club with its spacious comfortable tapestry-upholstered chairs and the less fortunate sitting in the gray industrial-carpeted public spaces filled with rows of gray naugahide seats, all came together, waiting to step across the gap into the aircraft for the steward’s receipt of their boarding passes and a pleasant but quick nod off in the direction they should travel to find their assigned seats.
Uma Hawkins turned instinctively to the right, clearly the public space of tourist class, gesturing for Anye Se to stay close to her as they found their seats. She paused momentarily, wondering at the dull, nearly concussive thud, a sound alive deep in her inner ear, but then remembered they were close to the harbor and reasoned the sound was simply one of the enormous tugs or freighters sounding, a horn asking a bridge to open and make way for its imminent passing.
Awkwardly she and Anye Se walked sideways down the aisle, searching for their seats.
Stowing her briefcase in the overhead, she saw, beneath the cuff of her white blouse, the summer’s tan of her wrist broken by the curious pale and now pained recollection of the missing bracelet which had for so many years graced that spot.
It’s silly to grieve this loss, she thought reminding herself not to worry about the bracelet. Someone, she hoped, a child repeating her catechism, will surely find it, and she realized, snapping shut the overhead, she had never really reckoned with absolute, irreconcilable loss.
She struggled to put that and all the images of people clamoring for attention out of her thoughts for the time being. The frown crossing her face, creasing her forehead, did not detract from her simple, classical loveliness. She obliged her thoughts to narrow, as the space before her and Anye Se seemed to shrink.
The congressional hearings they would attend, she knew, would be important. Now was time to think about the task at hand. She left off thinking of the FCC, corporate interests, the public trust, all of the issues so important in the conscious world of responsibility, liability, honor, due process.
They located their seats, joining an elderly man already comfortable and peering out the window. She and Anye Se settled in, as did the other passengers, waiting, as the scheduled time for take-off approached.
The plane, disconnected from the terminal and turned, seemed, in its lurching but recognizable journey, stopped. The time for take off passed, yet the plane, stilled in its resting place, bore none of the usual signs of an imminent departure.
After a delay sufficiently long to persuade Uma to reach above her, re-open her brief and resume study of the annotated pages, she then placed her leather valise, empty now, into the overhead compartment. Bent over her work, penciling in notes, correcting small errors, a last chance before arriving at the Federal Communications Commission; she glanced at Anye Se and, satisfied she was not put off by her neglect, carried on.
Overhead the speaker crackled.
Uma, paying little heed, assumed it was a captain or first mate announcing their departure, but instead of the speech, oddly, there was silence.
Uma looked up.
A gasp of distress from somewhere forward of their seats left her agitated, ill at ease. Someone had become quite ill, she thought, a heart attack, or worse, the gasp of a child whose parent was suddenly incapacitated. Instinctively she rose, trying to move forward and help but quickly discovered more than one passenger was complaining, gasping, choking or exhaling from some sudden sickness, some unanticipated, unknown despair.
Uma saw, noting an awareness of acute danger in her ancient sub-cortical brain, there was commotion all around, uncommon sounds and sense, the startled noises that come before comprehension might quantify what was, in fact, happening. In a moment she saw passengers everywhere rising, gesticulating, pointing to the window or at something on the tarmac.
There was, as suddenly, a crush of people to the same side of the aircraft where the first person, she had thought, had grown ill.
In their faces she saw unabashed wonder, consternation, a tinge of horror and, leaning down to look, to see through the porthole what had occasioned their upset, wondered if even the unthinkable had happened and a plane had crashed or run into another on the runway. Seeing nothing on the tarmac, only when she raised her eyes and her view did she begin to understand.
In the distance, she saw black smoke and a fiery red plume emanating from what she thought was a skyscraper, perhaps even one of the towers in the belly of her own home, Manhattan.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” spoke the captain, “this is your captain, David Brennan. I am sorry but there has clearly been a terrible accident at the World Trade Center which many of you can probably now see. The information we have from the tower, from our air traffic control tower is limited now, and the most I know, the most I can really tell you is that we have been asked to move off the taxiway, stay in line, and wait for further instructions.”
All three hundred plus people from bow to stern fell hushed. Those who had remained seated, locked in their routine, knowing the rigors and expectations of repeated travel, their seat belts still fastened and readying themselves for sleep or settling in for the hour-long journey, seemed suddenly to come awake. On cue, as the captain’s voice fell away, sucked up into the vacuum of quiet within the shiny silver space capsule, nearly half those on the left side of the cabin stood and pressed their way, suddenly, to the right.
Anye Se and Uma found themselves covered and pressed into each other and the elderly man beside them by passengers in the aisle who leaned over them trying to see better. Uma looked through the half blocked porthole and through the somewhat blurry plastic to the tower in the distance engulfed in flames and smoke.