Editor’s note: Clermont resident Marie Aiello shared this story with sister publication Clermont News Leader.
On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, everything began normally at the United and American Airlines terminal at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The two airlines operated in Terminal 2 at that time, side by side, and all the employees from both companies were very close. I was working as a service director for United and just happened to pass through the employee breakroom located behind the ticket counter in the main lobby, where the TV was tuned to the morning news.
Just a few minutes before 9 a.m., I stopped in my tracks as they suddenly broke in on the regular programming and showed a picture of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on fire.
I remember the newscaster remarking something about “a small plane” that had hit the building a few minutes before. I called out to my manager in the next office to come see what was happening, and just as he entered the room, we both witnessed the second airplane ram into the South Tower.
I’ll never forget the look on his face as we both, in shock, exclaimed, “That looks like one of ours!” Within a few minutes, while the TV newscasters were scrambling to get their updates, we already had our internal information coming across our operations printer with the horrific news.
That was indeed our United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 out of Boston, which had been heading to Los Angeles. A few minutes later, one of the American Airlines employees ran into our break room in tears, announcing that the first plane to hit was their Flight 11, also a Boeing 767 out of Boston to L.A.
We all stood in front of that TV, heartbroken, frightened and in shock as the news kept coming over our internal printer about our passenger numbers and crew. It didn’t take long at all to realize long before the news reports had to tell us that our nation was under attack.
We turned to monitoring our internal communications at that point, and soon learned of the American plane flown onto the Pentagon, and ultimately our United 93, which flew into the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The names of the passengers and crews on board came out rather quickly, as there was access internally to manifests and crew schedules. Although none were based in South Florida, we knew some of the commuters, who did live in the area and commuted regularly to their bases in the Northeast or elsewhere.
We were in such mourning for their families and friends.
Those days right after the tragedy became strangely eerie. All flights had been grounded, but United Airlines ground staff still had to work long hours in our grief and shock dealing with the displaced customers and keeping up on all the new information, mandates and subsequent training and security bulletins.
Each airline had to appoint ground security coordinators, a position which I gladly accepted, and we worked closely with the FAA, FBI and local police departments going forward.
Life as we knew it changed in so many ways, and it’s hard to believe 20 years have passed. I made a point of traveling to Shanksville for the 10th anniversary in 2011. It was one of the most emotional events I have ever witnessed. That year was the dedication of the Flight 93 Memorial, which was eventually completed a few years later.
I still cannot bring myself to return there, nor to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. Maybe someday it will be less painful.