I was on a plane, flying from New Delhi to Hong Kong to San Francisco to Seattle. The attacks happened while we were in the air from Hong Kong to San Francisco.
The first time any passengers knew anything was out of the ordinary is when we landed - in Vancouver, BC. The guy sitting next to me in the window seat said “Hey, this isn’t San Francisco.” At that point, people started getting on their cell phones. I heard someone say “World Trade Center” but I was mostly thinking about travel and missing my connecting flight to Seattle and just normal things.
Plane chatter got louder and louder and after awhile I could figure out something was wrong, I heard the word “bombing”, people on the plane were very agitated. The pilot came on the loudspeaker and said that planes had crashed into the world trade center and all incoming planes to the US had been diverted, we had been diverted to Vancouver. He turned the loudspeakers to a radio station and we all listened to the news.
We sat on the plane for about 3 hours - basically in silence, no complaining that I remember, tons of wide-bodied planes from Asia were being diverted to Vancouver and they weren’t prepared to process us all. Back in 2001, I didn’t carry a cell phone with me, but someone was generous enough to loan me one for a second to phone my boyfriend at the time, he had been frantic - he knew I was in the air and knew my arrival time, but didn’t know my flight number or even airline. The travel office for my company refused to release my itinerary to him and he had no idea if I was returning from New Delhi via the Pacific or Atlantic routes. I had made the trip before - from New Delhi to Amsterdam to Detroit to Seattle, I could have been flying from the east coast.
After we got off the plane, we went through the most stringent security check I have ever encountered, every single carry-on item was emptied and searched, every person was wanded/patted down. They couldn’t give us our checked bags, they just kept yelling “keep moving, keep moving.” Tons of people from my flight didn’t speak English, lots of people crying, huge huge huge crowds at the airport, lines at payphones 10 people deep. All the rental cars were booked, all the trains were full.
I finally ended up at an Elephant & Castle bar in the airport, those pubs usually have a red British style phone booth as decoration. Turns out, there was an actual payphone in the one at the Vancouver airport, no lines at all. My boyfriend at the time was going to drive from Seattle to Vancouver to pick me up (neither of us had ever driven to Vancouver before and it was a 2 hour drive), so I settled down. None of the TVs at the bar were allowed to show anything about the tragedy, I watched episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I used the pay phones to call my boss, my mom, my dad.
A friend of ours online who lived near the Canadian border confirmed via chat that the borders WERE open. My boyfriend at the time, John, was able to get to Vancouver without any incident. He picked me up and we drove to Seattle. Of all the places to be diverted, Vancouver was a great option. I had made a logistical error on my trip out of New Delhi - my flight had left at 10:00 pm and I hadn’t showered in the evening (just the morning), my total travel time (including a plane delay on the ground in New Delhi, layover in Hong Kong and time in Vancouver) was over 50 hours, I reeked by the time I got home.
My bags showed up about 2 weeks later. I was so grateful to be home and okay. I definitely never travel now without sharing my full itinerary. I was really shaken up for a couple of days - being in the air on a plane when it happened made me feel, I don’t know, closer to it somehow. I know that I was so lucky, I was just dirty and without my luggage for a few weeks, I was so lucky.
While we were in the air, looking back, there were only 2 signs that something was not right. I asked the flight attendant if I were going to miss my connecting flight to Seattle and she put her hand over my hand and told me not to worry about it (in retrospect, because she knew there was no connecting flight for me). Also, the little screens that show where the plane is flying (distance, temperature) went black. I figured it was just a malfunction at the time. I have to commend the flight crew - for all they knew we could have had a lunatic on board, they really held it together and showed NO SIGNS anything was out of the ordinary.
I had a slightly different experience than most people in the US, by the time I knew about the attacks, they were definitely attacks and not some kind of horrible accident.