Mark VanZanten: A Forced Landing


Early on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I made my way to the Austin, Texas, airport from home. My family and I had relocated to Austin from the Bay Area just two years before, but I was a frequent international traveler and always seemed to be heading off somewhere else in those days. On this particular day I was scheduled to be on the early morning flight bound for San Jose on American Airlines.

In those days, because of the large number of tech executives traveling back and forth between San Jose and Austin, AA operated several direct flights each day, which became affectionately known as "nerd birds." I was pleased to have my cabin assignment upgraded to first class and settled in next to a pleasant-enough software sales manager and chatted with him from time to time over scrambled eggs, fruit plates, email and spreadsheets.

It was approximately two hours into the flight when the plane started banking hard to the left and then beginning a rather steep descent -- very abnormal. My seat mate and I thought something was definitely off, and the captain confirmed our suspicions when his voice came over the loudspeaker:

"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please. We've been instructed by Air Traffic Control to land this plane at the nearest airport, and that would be Albuquerque. Please remain calm, and we'll have more information for you after we land. Thank you."

The feeling was a bit surreal, and we were left to wonder why we were being diverted. I honestly thought there was someone or something on this plane they wanted off. In retrospect, I guess it was better to have us all speculating than tell us the awful truth of what was unfolding below. Needless to say the passengers were all nervous and fairly quiet during the descent.

We landed in Albuquerque, and the captain came back on the intercom after we taxied to the gate. The order to "get every plane out of the sky as soon as possible" affected us directly. I only had the news of the two collisions with the Twin Towers at this point, but it was harrowing enough. The plane was emptied, and I entered the terminal to find most people moving around like zombies or staring in stunned silence at scattered TV screens broadcasting CNN updates.

After taking in the scope of what was happening for a few minutes, I called my wife, Kate, and reassured her I was OK. After 45 minutes at the ticket counter, it was obvious no one was going anywhere today. I called my favorite hotel VIP line and secured a room for the night, thinking I could get out early the next morning. I spent most of the afternoon staring at the television, as did most everyone I have talked to since. I had little taste for food or leaving the room.

By noon the next day and after countless calls to airports and airlines, it was obvious I would not be flying any time soon. I successfully rented a car (pick-up in Albuquerque, drop off in Austin) -- which, as I look back, could have been more problematic than it sounds. I made half the journey home that day, and half the next. I actually took a little time to see things I might never get the chance to see again (Billy the Kid's grave site in Fort Sumner, N.M.; Buddy Holly's birthplace of Lubbock, Texas; etc.) and listened to various talk radio hosts doing their thing (when I was within range of radio waves, that is).

I rolled into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport around 5 p.m. on Thursday, and a plane was taking off as I entered the rental-car return area, which I believe was the first resumed flight service from Austin. I went home and enjoyed the return to my family, my brush with 9/11 limited, yet memorable.

Mark VanZanten

Maybell Avenue

Palo Alto

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