Dear SFO, is it safe to come home?

Yesterday at around 11:30am (PST), Asiana Flight #214 crashed on the runway of the San Francisco International Airport.  The news rocked the city as reports of injured passengers and pictures of the burning plane were replayed on news outlets around the country.  Survivors and observers tweeted their experiences, expressing shock, horror, bewilderment and grateful humility, the most notable “I just crashed landed at SFO.  I’m ok.  Surreal.”  Traffic at the airport stopped immediately as various emergency crews responded and thousands of travelers were left to find alternative means to reach their destination.

I was in the air and heard of the accident about two hours before we were due to arrive.  As the captains voice crackled through the speakers, we learned the airport had been closed and we were being rerouted to Portland, Oregon.  There was no mention of further information or how, as most of my fellow passengers wondered aloud, we would get to San Francisco.

It had been an uneventful flight until that point.  We were flying on United Airlines (UA 927), from Frankfurt, Germany; our dinner choices were between chicken with mushrooms and beef with steamed carrots.  There was $7 charge for alcohol.  I was seated at the window, next to a German father, his wife and two children in the row before us, who were embarking on a summer vacation, 6 weeks of which would be spent in the Bay Area.  To his right was a young German woman, who alternated between watching the inflight movies and sleeping.

After the announcement, the flight attendants raced to get through the next snack service, but most of their time was spent answering the same questions.  No, they couldn’t tell us more about what happened at SFO.  No, they didn’t know what would happen once we landed, if there would be buses or another flight.  If there was more details, they would share them.  Please, just be patient.

The young woman mentioned her boyfriend had been due to arrive in San Francisco a couple of hours before.  Without mobile service, she didn’t know where he’d been rerouted and she wondered whether I thought he too would be in Portland.  The father asked me what I thought would happen and how I would be getting home.

How far is it, this Portland, from San Francisco?  It’s about a ten hour drive, north.   So, far away then.  He gave out a sigh and glanced at his youngest son, who’d been sick on the plane.  His wife exchanged a worried glance as she held her sons and stroked their hair.

As we got closer to Portland, to take our minds off the growing anxiety, the pilots drew our attention to a clearly visible Mount Rainier off the horizon.

Mount Rainier, Portland Oregon

Taken from the air, United Airlines (UA927)

Once we touched down, I was one of many to access my phone for more details.  It was then that I saw photos of the crash, and learned two passengers had died and many others injured.  I had a voicemail message from the San Francisco Blood Bank, asking if I could come in to donate.

As we poured into Portland Airport, the customs officials gave off a calm, light hearted manner.  “We know it’s not San Francisco”, they joked.  I lost track of my German friends after that.  We collected our baggage and waited to hear from the United Customer Care as to what would happen next.

It would be a long wait.  While SFO had started to reopen, flights inbound would be limited and there was nothing that could be done tonight.  United flight agents handed out hotel vouchers to first class passengers first, calling out names from the center of a throng of people; lines for outgoing flights became disjointed, mingled with the stranded passengers.  We became known collectively as the Frankforts.

As the hours passed and the promise of hotel vouchers failed to materialize, people began to splinter off to find food or take shelter near a power outlet to charge their phones.  I settled in at Beaches, a tropical island themed restaurant with friendly staff that cheerfully recommended the fish tacos and had no concerns whether I was there for an hour or four.  I spent the first two getting caught up on work emails and then proceeded to find lodging for the night.

It is easy to feel frustrated by such circumstances when almost everything feels out of your control and you are at the mercy of organizations who cannot consider individual needs.  I’m spending the day at Portland Airport, waiting for confirmation I’ll be headed home this afternoon.

In the face of unexpected tragedy and continued uncertainty, the kindest gift has been the warm smiles and graciousness of the staff here.

To the surrounding cities of whom we Frankforts, and others, have been guests of this past day: Sacramento, San Jose, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, thank you for your hospitality.  To all the other passengers detoured on their way to San Francisco, I wish you safe travels today.  I, for one, will be glad to return home.

(photo courtesy of twitter @eunner)

One comment

  1. Isabelle says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing your story… sorry that you were stuck somewhere else! i hope you had a safe trip back home.

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