Monday, March 19, 2007

Update from LaGuardia

Trip update
Sherin and I are sitting at a coffee shop here at La Guardia waiting for my cousin to come get us. THEN it's back to the airport in the morning to try and face getting a flight home. Fortunately it's now only the 2 of us and with the weight of responsibility lifted I can go back to deal with the nightmare called Newark.

We spent 2 days trapped in Newark, ending with the most horrendous experience of being kicked out of the terminal by the airline in the middle of the night. Without a place to go and 12 students still with us, the weight of responsibility was almost crushing. If hotels were difficult for 1 person they were impossible for 14. The airport was like a war zone split at the security area, like a border crossing - once we left the terminal we would have to face the cold and the other side in baggage claim. There were people sleeping in the area since the ordeal began. During the middle of the night I had spoken with a homeland security guard that raged about mothers with kids were sleeping on the floor in baggage claim and the lack of humanity that a company had to have to allow something like that. I walked away from him sobbing. I went back to the students relieved that we had not left the terminal but with those images of families on cold hard floors trying to make it through this ordeal. The thing that kept going through my mind was - "this is a snow storm NOT a blizzard or national emergency", why weren't the airlines or airport prepared for this, why isn't there emergency protocols for these events. Little did I know it was only the beginning of our own trials.

I began the morning (4:30am) in line trying to get us on any standby available. Two students had left on their own in the night to try and claim their bags (6 hour wait) and take a train to Washington DC, where one of their parents were waiting for them. One student called an uncle that came and got her.

All day we moved from gate to gate - 6 students were able to get on a flight to Houston, that left us with only 12. We waited at a gate and were able to secure seats for ALL of the students on a flight leave for LAX at 3:30. The flight was delayed, they made announcements that the plane had to be de-iced but was on the ground and been there all day. We waited for 5 hours.

Earlier that morning we were able to make reservations at a hotel less than a mile away from the airport. By 8pm, I HAD to make a decision whether to wait it out or go to the hotel. The airline reassured me that the plane would go out. A pilot waiting to be transported out on our flight, reassured me "this plane will NOT be cancelled, if it is I'll quit." Good enough for me - we stayed. Sherin cancelled our rooms and we waited but by 10pm there still was no word about the flight. They made announcements that there weren’t enough ground crews to de-ice the plane. THEN they moved us... all the way to the other side of the airport. We moved the group and settled in, so much hope. Sherin bought ice cream for the group, everyone waited patiently because we were certain that we would soon be going home. I watched a plane land and much to my surprise it was taxi-ed to our gate, passengers exited and the doors were quickly closed again. We were told it would only be a short while now - they were cleaning the plane. Now it was far past midnight. We had nothing to lose - no rooms, no other flights - we waited. Then the incredulous happened - a man quickly came out from behind the closed doors and announced that the flight had been cancelled. All around us people began screaming, shouting and crying. Then he yelled that everyone HAD to get out of the terminal and get their bags - the airline would not be responsible for unclaimed luggage. Then he ran back to the door and locked himself in. Several men rushed to the door and began pounding on the door and windows. The passengers were in a near riot. Most of my students were sobbing out of exhaustion and frustration. Sherin and I began to frantically call around for hotel rooms (I can't even describe the feeling of despair I felt when my cell started beeping due to low batteries.) The airport was a ghost town, there weren't any airline personnel only the abandoned passengers.

During the next hour we moved from one task to the next - find a room, find a shuttle, and get everyone somewhere warm and safe. Sherin through her husband was able to find a hotel back in the city. A shuttle driver aware of what was happening at the airport got us to the hotel. The hotel and a man that I only know by his first name - Paul, helped get us in rooms. The look of genuine compassion on his face is something that I will NEVER forget. Morgans is the BEST hotel in NY!

After being lied to, told that our flight would definitely go out, and then being completely abandoned I have a completely different outlook on life and the plight of others. I have never known such exhaustion, helplessness, happiness, and pride. I know after a few weeks (maybe even days) the intensity of the experience will dull but I hope I NEVER forget the lessons that I learned on this trip. Sitting on the floor of an airport terminal with all of the students sleeping around me and feeling so responsible for their well being. Speaking to worried parents promising them that I would get their child home safe. Watching them FINALLY board a plane and watching them fly off - almost bliss. The amazing captain of the plane (AIRTRANS - ROCKS!) that watched over them, texting us from the plane.

I never realized when I began this class and set up this group blog this would end up being a lifeline for so many of the students on the trip, including myself.

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