In Honor of 9/11 – One Classmate’s Experience

Joy (Burlison) Arnswald was a flight attendant for United Airlines working a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles during  the terrorist attacks that took place. This was the email she wrote to friends and family just days later.

Flight 890   11 Sept 01
NRT-LAX   (Narita Airport serving Tokyo, Japan)

As my family and I have received so many calls and E-mails from all our friends and family  as to my whereabouts on September 11th, I thought it would be appropriate to write my experience to you.

We left Narita airport about an hour late due to weather.  We were awaiting our connecting passengers.

Things were uneventful for the first half of the flight.  Our arrival time in LAX was to be about 11:30, 45 minutes late.  About half way through the flight we were informed that there had been  terrorist threats in the United States and to be aware of anything abnormal on our airplane.  We have a map on our television (in-between movies that tells the passengers our whereabouts, and our expected time of arrival) that had been turned off.  We were also told not to call the cockpit (This is called sterile cockpit- which is usually only in effect the first and last ten  minutes of a flight.)   Also, the Captain had turned the seat belt sign on  and it was left on for a very long time.

Most of our passengers were asleep as this is an all-night flight into Los Angeles;  however, many were anxious to use our restroom facilities and started coming into the galley to see if they could get up to use the restroom.   Our aft purser called the cockpit to check on this and was told “Do not call this cockpit.”  This is when we realized the seriousness of this situation.  Six of us were on rest break in our upstairs bunk room. Our last rest break ends about 1:45 minutes out of our destination, then we do our breakfast service and prepare our passengers for landing.

When I got out of the bunk room, I was told that we were landing in 45 minutes and to secure the cabin immediately.  (My first thought was “those damn pilots, we’re landing early and they didn’t tell us and how are we going to get this breakfast done in 45 minutes).  Then I realized the severity of the situation. Most of our passengers were still asleep, windows closed to keep the cabin dark, and thankfully no one asked questions.  We were slowly approaching land, we had no idea where we were, where we were landing, why we had not been notified, but knew not to ask questions.  We were mentally prepared for anything and everything.  (My thoughts were that there was a hijacker in the cockpit or a bomb somewhere and we needed to get on the ground immediately).  For once, I was glad to be in coach as it would take a hijacker a long time to get back to me

About 15 minutes before landing, passengers started waking up and one American man asked “where are we?” and I said “I don’t know”.  He asked no more questions.  Most of our passengers in coach were Japanese and we had a large group of Chinese who did not speak Japanese or English).

About 5 minutes before landing  someone from the cockpit said that they would be making an announcement after landing and that they expected full cooperation from them.

We were on the runway for a very long time before an announcement was made.  All I could see were Air Canada airplanes, and some JAL, and assumed that we were in Canada.  He said that he would be making an announcement shortly and to please not ask the flight attendants any questions as we knew nothing. Then he announced that we were in Vancouver, Canada, that they had probably been making cell phone calls to find out what was happening (heaven forbid I would have used mine, and not followed FAA regulations).  He told us of the atrocities that had so recently happened.

The cabin stayed very silent and as passengers and flight attendants absorbed what had just been told to us.  We were on the ground with our passengers about 3 more hours. (We were able to serve our passengers breakfast during this ground time..) Planes were being accepted onto a jet way in  Vancouver one at a time, and 20 passengers were taken off at a time and thoroughly checked. We were very lucky to be the 3rd aircraft, as many had to stay on the aircraft up to 8 hours and more. We were put up in some apartments in down-town Vancouver (what a gorgeous place to be).  We were pretty much on call as to when we would be able to leave and go back to Los Angeles.

We “ferried” our 747 to Los Angeles on Thursday and arrived back in Los Angeles about 6 p.m. During this ferry, one of our pilots, Doug Price, came down stairs and discussed with the crew as to what went on in the cockpit, and why they felt it necessary not to tell us anything.  I will try to tell you as best I can.  Doug is in the reserves, and was over in Iraq last winter getting shot at, and understands terrorism and also the importance of communication between crew members.

About 4 hours out they got a message that one plane had been hijacked  and had been flown into the World Trade Center.  They immediately started brainstorming as to where they might land and whether they should tell us.  Not too long after that, there was a message that another airplane had gone  into the twin towers. Then they were informed of the Pentagon, and then Pittsburgh.  Their strategy was constantly changing as this  ordeal continued.  The most important thing to them was to get the aircraft out of the air safely. They barricaded the cockpit with suitcases, etc. and did not come out of the cockpit.  They  chose not to tell us,    They wanted things  to seem normal to the passengers and flight attendants.  We descended slowly and passengers were  unaware that we would be landing soon.

Apparently, all domestic United aircraft was ordered to land as soon as possible at the nearest airport other than the one that they were scheduled in and International aircraft were instructed as to which airport they should land.

Well, this has been lengthy and I hope this helps you understand what we went though.  I know you all had your own hell and terror. I am very thankful to have finally arrived home and look forward to getting together with all of my family and friends.  I love you all so very much.



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5 Responses to In Honor of 9/11 – One Classmate’s Experience

  1. Karen (Humphries) Lindsey

    Joy what a brave team you had on that flight! We are all very proud of you! What a heart felt experiance, brings tears to my eyes!
    I had just flown in to LAX the night before with my daughter and son-in-law. My husband and other son’s were to fly in on the 12th so we could provide the music for my sister’s wedding, planes were grounded and they never made it to the mainland.
    Thank you Lord for your protection on Joy and her entire flight!
    Our country is really under stress right now, please everyone pray daily for our America- MAY GOD BLESS OUR USA WITH HIS LOVE!!!

  2. Susan Holt Couture

    Thanks for the your articulate recounting of your harrowing experience. For many of us who travel frequently it is a reminder to be ever vigilant. It made me remember and cry . And today, 9/13/2012 we cry yet again over the loss of American life at our embassy in Libya. God bless America.

  3. Wilma

    We all remember that day with heavy hearts and it’s hard to know how to put into words what we felt that day and every reminder since. Just knowing what you endured during those hours, Joy, reminds me again of the severity of the situation no matter where you were in the world. It took a toll on everyone, some so much greater than others. There were heroes, and certainly you were one, who when needed rose to the occasion and considered others first. I am proud to know you.

  4. Bob Arnold

    Joy thank you for sharing your story! Hopefully we all reflect on 9-11 the terror of that day and may we never forget it and those who died that day! And, now all that have died since that day defending us, God Love the USA!

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