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If only she knew

It was September 15th 2001. I was driving my Estate Car south along the M1 motorway. I was trying to drive, hold a conversation with my brother-in-law, fight off the sleepiness and keep my fear under control. I was on my way to Gatwick Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was bleary eyed because of the time - 4:00 am - but in the main I was scared. Let me explain.

I had never flown before nor had any serious desire to until my good friend in America invited me over to visit for a week. I had happily accepted the invitation even though I knew I would be afraid on the day because I knew that I could cope and half-expected that I might actually enjoy the experience if I made the effort. As the day grew nearer the fear grew and I began to doubt my ability to make the journey without making a fool of myself. Then, with just 4 days to go, the unthinkable happened and New York and Washington became the targets of a terrorist attack. I, like the rest of the 'civilized' world was numb with the shock of what had happened and will never be able to put into words my thoughts, feelings, emotions and disbelief at the events of September 11th.

My trip seemed most unlikely to go ahead, and under the circumstances a holiday seemed extremely inappropriate. My friend and I discussed the wisdom of cancelling our plans ... for reasons of safety and out of respect. It was a difficult decision for many reasons, but we decided to continue with our arrangements if at all possible. Every hour the news bulletins were re-running the images of that day. Images that need no description here for we all have them ingrained in our memory. As the days passed, the realisation that I may soon be sitting in a plane and be as vulnerable as those poor souls had been did nothing to help my still growing fear of flying ... a fear of flying that was now escalating out of all proportion. Perhaps we should cancel this holiday after all.

Frequent checks were made with the airline but the news was always the same "No scheduled flights until further notice". It was looking increasingly as if the trip would have to be cancelled but fortunately US air space re-opened the day before I was due to leave, and I found out that my flight, though subject to many delays, would nevertheless be flying to Pittsburgh as planned. My heart tied knots with my stomach at getting this news, a feeling made worse by learning that my plane would be one of the first to fly over US territory since 911.

I arrived at the airport in good time and made my way inside looking for some clue as to what to do first. I was feeling as if my dentist was about to pull a tooth without first giving me any anaesthetic. I was scared. I followed the signs to Departures, found my airlines desk and was promptly told to return in an hour. I wandered aimlessly trying to understand the layout of the airport ready for later. Eventually, I returned to the check-in and was told that no hand luggage was being allowed onboard. I rapidly stuffed a few essentials into my pockets but had to say goodbye to my Walkman, book, sweets and bottle of water. Soon I was all checked in and now had a few hours to kill before boarding.

I found a coffee shop, wandered through the shops, browsed the shelves of a bookshop and visited the loo often. On one visit, as I walked along a long corridor, I saw four Arab looking gentlemen huddled and whispering in a corner. Should I call security? Should I simply observe? Should I panic? I walked past them trying to look nonchalant. On my way back they had gone. Perhaps I should alert someone, I mean, one of the guys had a briefcase and how suspicious is that?

A couple of very long hours later we were called to board the plane. My bowels objected once again. Another hour was spent sitting in the boarding lounge while the plane was checked for the umpteenth time. Then the announcement I had been dreading. "Will all passengers please board the plane". As I shuffled along the tunnel with the other passengers I looked back and there behind me were the four Arabs. This was too much. A fear of flying and my first ever flight was so soon after 911 and terrorists were boarding my plane. I was falling apart at the seams ..... and then it happened.

"I'm not sure about this" came a small frail voice on my left side. I looked to my side and there was a little old lady looking quite ashen and extremely worried. "Excuse me", I said. "I'm not sure about this" she repeated, "I mean, how safe can this be? How do we know we're not going to be blown up or crashed or something? I'm terrified ... aren't you?". Without thought I responded. "Me? Nah! This is my first time but I'm not scared. Look, they have checked this plane a zillion times, checked every passenger a zillion times, checked all the baggage a zillion times, and put a zillion security guards at every strategic point in the airport. If it's not safe to fly today it never will be." and gave her the best, warmest smile I could muster. "Oh, do you think so?" she enquired. "Absolutely ... no question ... we're gonna be just fine." On board, she went one way and I went another and she quickly slipped from my mind. However, I didn't feel quite as scared from then on.

We had a good flight. The four Arabs didn't blow us up and we eventually touched down at Pittsburgh late in the afternoon. The sheer relief of our safe arrival caused spontaneous applause to erupt throughout the plane as it was still rolling along the runway. As I was making my way off the plane a familiar face across the crowd caught my attention. It was the little old lady. She was too far away to speak but she gave me a slight lift of her head and a very grateful smile. If only she knew.