Local man narrowly escapes attacks
Many are asking “what if?” after last Tuesday’s attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
Among these people, G.O. Parsons also has his share of what-ifs.
Of course, they weren’t on the North Tahoe High School graduate’s mind as the Sun Country flight he and his father were on flew by Manhattan around 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, minutes before the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. He wasn’t straining to get a final look at the New York skyline from his middle row seat before settling back for the flight to Los Angeles, either.
Like many of the other 70 or so passengers on the early flight, G.O. was taking a nap.
His flight had been scheduled to depart at 7 a.m., but two delays pushed back the departure time and the Boeing 737 didn’t take off from JFK Airport until 8:30 a.m.
The 19-year-old was on the East Coast last week to attend the New York International Film and Video Festival in which his documentary “The Suicide Kid: The Mikey Henderson Story” was being screened. His father, George, who lives in Tahoe City, joined him for the trip.
During their time in New York City, the pair saw some of the city’s sites, including a trip to the World Trade Center observation deck on the south tower where they spent an hour on the clear morning of Sept. 7.
“I remember thinking ‘Wow, we’re pretty high up here,'” G.O. said.
Both were impressed by the size of the two buildings, how they towered over the skyline and had more people in the two towers than the population of Lake Tahoe.
After attending the screening of G.O.’s film the night of Sept. 10, they departed the next morning for the West Coast, but were lucky to get a flight out. A ticketing mix-up left them stranded in New York, and after scrambling to book flights there were two options: the Sun Country flight to Los Angeles for both or for George to take United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.
Concerned about his only son’s first time in New York, George elected to join G.O. on the Sun Country flight rather than catch a flight to San Francisco.
Later that day, the Newark-to-San Francisco flight offered to George was hijacked and crashed in Shanksville, Pa.
Left in the dark?
No one on the Sun Country flight knew what had happened or what was happening, when the plane began a quick descent around 9:40 a.m. There was a scheduled stop in Minneapolis, but it was too early for that.
The flight’s captain told the passengers there was nothing worry about, but there was a national emergency and all planes were grounded.
“I thought ‘He’s lying to us. There hasn’t been a national emergency since the Cuban missile crisis. So I thought there must be a bomb or a hijacking or something,” G.O. said.
The plane landed at an ex-military base in Marquette, Mich., around 9:50 a.m. And there the passengers sat for an hour not knowing a thing about their situation.
“We noticed there was a Northwest flight that had already touched down and let all the passengers off the plane,” G.O. said. But, he said, the flight crew wasn’t letting anyone off the Sun Country flight.
“I was very worried,” G.O. said. “We still had no word on what was going on, and no one was telling us what was going on. We’re sitting in an abandoned military base thinking there’s something wrong with our plane – there’s a bomb or a hijacking.”
The flight crew continued to tell the passengers that there was nothing to worry about. Cheerily, the captain said several times he was going to come out and talk to the passengers, but he never did. Finally, G.O. and George and a few other passengers demanded to know why they weren’t allowed to exit the plane.
“They told us they couldn’t tell us because they didn’t know, which was a lie,” G. O. said. The outspoken group countered with an ultimatum: either open the doors and let us out, or we’re going to open the emergency doors and let everyone else out. Five minutes later the flight crew opened the doors and let the passengers off.
They filed into a terminal-like room with glass windows, turning around in time to see police and federal officials board the plane and escort a young man, with long brown hair and a white shirt off the plane, wearing handcuffs.
Inside, two FBI agents came into the room, told the passengers about the attacks and said the group would be questioned about any suspicious activity on the plane or at JFK. The people were instructed to sit in a long line of chairs, two chairs between each person. The Parsons waited a half-hour before they were questioned.
“I was kind of in shock over the whole thing, seeing we had just come from New York,” G.O. said. He and his father answered the agents’ questions for about 10 minutes apiece, and waited to take a bus to a hotel where the American Red Cross was waiting to assist the 70-odd passengers.
Over the next three and a half days, the what-ifs lingered.
“The Newark to San Francisco flight was the only one available until the Sun Country flight came along. I was thinking about what if I had been in the World Trade Center, if I couldn’t get a flight out until Wednesday,” G.O. said.
The young filmmaker did not bring his video camera with him, saying he packed lightly. Otherwise, he would have filmed everything. Instead, for the duration of the next few days, the father and son walked to Lake Superior, spent time in the hotel room and contemplated life.
They received briefings roughly every three hours from the Red Cross on the FAA closure of the national airspace, though they knew they weren’t leaving Wednesday or even likely Thursday. The Red Cross also fed them.
The flight crew kept to itself, and the FBI wasn’t seen after they left the airport. Nor was the young man who’d been taken off the plane. Later the Parsons learned that the man was a Russian student who didn’t speak English and had been “acting suspiciously” on the plane.
When the flight took off Friday afternoon, the Russian was not on board. The plane left Marquette and made its stop in Minneapolis where George caught a plane for San Francisco. G.O. arrived late Friday night to what he described as an “abandoned” Los Angeles International Airport.
The what-ifs persist, though they’ve evolved into lessons learned.
“If anything I started thinking about trying harder ” G.O. said. “You have to get going on what you have to do.”