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  • Andrea Rader

We Will Always Remember

Everyone remembers where they were. What they were doing. What they did next. For those who were working at an airline on Sept. 11, 2001, the memory of that day never fades.

We know that memory well. Most of us at Hospitio worked for airlines on 9/11. Some were in management and executive roles, some worked on the front lines of the sprawling global operations of the world’s largest carriers.

Several of us were employees of United Airlines and American Airlines on that fateful day. And 20 years later, we feel anew the horror we felt when we learned it was our people and our passengers who lost their lives -- our airlines that had been attacked.

We can still visualize the terror on those airplanes before the lives of so many were viciously cut short. We recall the calm courage of American flight attendants Betty Ong and Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, who used the on-board Airfones to call AA’s reservations center in North Carolina and the Boston flight operations office to report the hijacking on board AA Flight 11.

Passengers and flight attendants at the front of the plane had been stabbed and were likely dead, they reported. Some kind of chemical – Ong thought it might be mace -- was filling the airplane. They couldn’t get through to the cockpit, where Captain John Ogonoski and first officer Thomas McGuinness had been stabbed as well.

“I see the water. I see buildings,” Sweeney said as Flight 11 neared the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “Oh, God.”

Ong’s final words: “Pray for us. Pray for us.”

And then, silence.

And in the next horrifying hour, we would see a second plane, United Airlines’ Flight 175, hit the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Then AA Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 into a farmer’s field in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Mostly, we remember the silence. The silence that followed Ong’s and Sweeney’s phone calls, and the silence of the skies over the airports as the FAA grounded all flights in the U.S. for an agonizing 72 hours. Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote recently of the eeriness and silence of those few days, and we agree. To airline employees, the silence felt like an added insult to a tremendous injury. We didn’t see the comforting familiar jet contrails over our workplaces. We didn’t hear the sounds of airplanes taking off and landing. Inside our buildings, it seemed we all spoke in hushed tones.

In our offices, at the airport, on the ramp, in the reservations and operations control centers, these few days are still vivid and yet a blur. We knew only that we had work to do – to recover from what we had all just witnessed, and to get our customers and our people back home.

And so everyone working at American and United and every other airline, got back to work.

Some were dispatched to help grieving victims on the airlines’ CARE teams – a task that would keep them away from home for months. Others swallowed their own grief and prepared to help the thousands of airline employees who would lose their jobs as the airlines tried to absorb the huge losses that the attacks incurred.

Those who remained dug in to help, offering ideas to help their airlines through the crisis. Many offered to sacrifice their own jobs or work for free until their airlines could get back on their feet. They wore their badges with pride. They vowed to do their part.

Over time, the airlines did recover, and many of those laid-off employees returned to work. But neither they nor their airlines would ever be the same. Security would be tighter. Suspicion on board more acute. Manuals would be rewritten to incorporate procedures for widespread terrorist attacks.

Memorials would be built to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11, and every year, we honor their sacrifice at 9/11 ceremonies across the nation. We are honoring them here as well, in this small way, dedicated to the memory of those 25 flight attendants and eight pilots whose lives were lost on that awful day. You made all of us proud, and we will never forget.

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