Night slipped over the runways as we waited at Dulles airport in DC to see whether our flight to San Francisco would be cancelled. We had boarded, only to be taken off when the Asiana jet crashed on landing at SFO. Our group of eight, formed solely by physical proximity in the gate lounge, had been brought together, it seemed, to consider unexpected tragedy, to understand it, to adjust to it.
There was the guy who worked at the San Francisco airport. He had colleagues on the phone who were out on the runways looking at the accident to see how bad it was. Two people had been killed, he told us, but he thought that was not the end of it. The tail was gone and the front half of the fuselage was charred. The airport was closed. It looked bad, he said, and we all understood that he meant both for the Asiana passengers and for our prospects of going to San Francisco that night. He wore a dark purple shirt and tie. Who knows what I would have imagined him to be if I had only seen him in passing. He turned out to be sensitive and compassionate, and to know a lot about airports and airplanes.
It’s hard to hold onto tragedy. We didn’t have many facts. It was a plane crash, and we were all trying to get back on another airplane. Perhaps some part of us, of me at least, didn’t really want to know too much. While we waited we did what people waiting together, people who are locked together by troubling circumstances, do: we asked about one another. As if studying x-rays of our mortality, everyone wanted to know everything about the others; everyone wanted to the others to know about her.
There was the couple from DC who were going on a group expedition to Yosemite that was leaving from a hotel in SF at eight the next morning. They had trip insurance, so they had decided that if the flight didn’t go tonight, they would just stay home. He had sold a chain of service firms he inherited. I don’t think he wanted to sell, but someone made an offer he couldn’t refuse. I especially liked them because they laughed at my corny jokes.
There was the man from Helsinki who was on his way to speak at a big conference in SF on solar energy. He was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts and outrageously yellow sneakers he had just bought in Milan. He had a little goatee and looked more like a hipster than a scientist, but he knew a lot about solar. We talked about the Chinese push in solar. He thought that other countries were going to be able to back the Chinese off their aggressive dumping of solar panels. He was funny and irreverent. He made me want to go to his conference to hear him speak.
There was the charmingly modest couple from Indonesia. He was a lawyer and she a book publisher. They were on the way home and still had a long way to go. We talked about the kinds of books she likes. I told him my grandfather had been with the Ford Foundation in Bangkok in the sixties and had traveled to Djakarta often. He knew the Ford Foundation well, the man said, and the way he said it, with warm approval, made me feel we were connected by the efforts of so many men like my grandfather over so many years to help others.
We followed each other from announcement to announcement, from ticket agent to ticket agent, like college freshmen at orientation. After four hours, our flight was cancelled. The couple on their way to Yosemite collected their bags to go home. We all said we were sorry they had to miss their big adventure. For the rest of us, the scramble began in earnest. We had been allied in our waiting, but now it was every man for himself.
There was a long line of ticket agents. The one Meg and I got told us the soonest we could get out was in three days. The solar guy scored a flight at six the next morning. I thought of the Yosemite couple—they might have been able to catch up with their group if they had gotten that flight. Meg and I were looking for hotel rooms, thinking of making the best of a forced visit to museums and monuments, when Nick, our (practical) son who was with us, suggested we might get out sooner if we split up. He had just been on a tour of DC with his glee club, so he had seen all the history he needed to see for a while.
I got back in line and was talking to a nice agent who was tapping away on her reservations computer--as fast as she found a space, someone else took it--when Meg called me from where she was sitting with our bags and said that another United flight scheduled to leave at the same time as ours was still showing online as not cancelled. What about that? I asked the woman who was helping me. I don’t think so, she said, but then she checked and, I’ll be damned, it was still going and there was space. It’s at the other end of the airport, she said. You’d better hurry.
I about had a heart attack running to check us in, then a big slowdown---like slow motion in an action movie---while the gate printer broke and the gate agents checked us in by hand-writing seat assignments on old boarding passes. None of our new friends were with us. I felt like a traitor, getting out on the last flight through sheer dumb luck. I found out later that DC representatives from the NTSB may have been on the plane, on their way to investigate the crash, which, if true, was no doubt why it took off when others didn’t.
The next morning I woke up thinking about our airport comrades. We had been close for those few hours, almost intimate. It made me wish I could find out how they were doing that morning. It made me wish we had time—or could somehow make time--to better know the people we sit next to in coffee shops or ride beside on subways or pass on the sidewalk. The world—at least my world—would be the better for it.
Good luck, friends. Come back to Yosemite. Bring us solar energy. Give us new books. Keep us safe as we travel.