See http://www.life.com/gallery/33492/in-praise-of-911-first-responders#index/0 for 37 photos of 9-11 first responders.
On 9-11, my family and I were in the air, on the way to Orlando, FL for a Disney World vacation. Matt was 11 and Grace was 7. The pilot announced "There has been a national disaster. Every plane in the country has been ordered to land. We will be landing immediately."
From my emergency preparedness training, I knew that a nuclear blast would disrupt radio and computers, so I thought "OMG, there has been a nuclear blast somewhere in the US", followed immediately by "I hope it was an accident!"
Passengers immediately turned on laptops and cell phones and the word swept the plane that the US is under attack, one of the Twin Towers is down and another is burning, multiple planes are reported missing, etc. The pilot initiated a sharp descent and within minutes we were on the ground in Jacksonville, FL. The pilot announced that we would board a bus for the remainder of trip.
I told the kids to prepare themselves to see and hear a lot of distraught sad people crying and to just stay close to Mommy and Daddy; that it would be OK. Instead, we encountered 1000s of people crowded into one airport with determined looks and helping hands. Everyone was helping someone; lifting bags, opening doors, pushing carts. I was so proud of the response, the "We can do this" attitude. I've never seen so many men in suits so physically active. It appeared that every corporate executive at the airport was on the floor, getting the job done.
We quickly boarded a bus and left for Orlando. The ride was arduous and once aboard, a lot of people dropped their determined demeanor and openly wept. TV monitors on the bus broadcast gave us all our first look at the destruction.
Of course, not everyone on the bus was going to Disney World. The Orlando airport was closed and evacuated (like all others), but arrangements had been made to unload there and move to cabs, etc. As we drove into the airport, it was a surreal; a scene from a Twilight Zone episode or any of a dozen end-of-world movies. There were 100s of aircraft of all types parked haphazardly across the tarmac; jets, small planes, helicopters. No people were visible. Inside the terminal, the baggage conveyors continued to move and mop buckets stood abandoned as if the workers had vanished. I snapped a photo of Matt and Grace with the empty airport looming behind them; a scene I suspect (and hope) they will never see again.
Of course, throughout this, we received and made many calls, assuring friends and family that we were safe; that we were not in "one of those planes".
When we arrived at Disney World, we found it closed. Since we were staying on Disney property, they allowed us to go to our rooms. The park re-opened the next day and for the kids, we put on our "game face" and tried to let them enjoy it. The Disney workers were rightfully distracted and not engaged, no one wanted to be there. Home was calling and I was anxious to get back to my comfort zone.
After the airports re-opened, we returned home on the second possible day. I had considered renting a car and driving home as opposed to putting the family back into a plane. There was a tropical storm in Florida and I kept concentrating on the statistics-flying is safer than driving a rent car home during a storm. I also thought that few people would be flying and that security would be much tighter. Regardless, it was gut-wrenching to board that plane. Luckily, there were few people on board and no one slept; everyone was watching everyone. If someone had sneezed, I suspect he would have been jumped!
The flight was uneventful. I was never so glad as I was when we exited that plane.........
Over the years, I have reminded Matt and Grace that they are part of a very small fraternity; people who were in the air when the Towers fell.