Grahame Lucas, currently the head of the Southeast Asia department, was flying to the United States on September 11, 2001. He remembers the hours of uncertainty onboard the Lufthansa flight.
It was going to be a business trip like any other. Travel to Frankfurt Airport in the morning, take off for the United States around noon, give a presentation at a conference and shortly afterwards fly back to Germany.
Everything started as expected. The Boeing 747 took off and the passengers settled into their routines and soon enough you could see the coast of Newfoundland out the window.
"US air space is closed"
Then it happened: a cargo plane that had flown parallel to us for hours turned southeast then further to the east. I couldn't figure out why - there's nothing in that direction but more ocean. Then the loudspeaker came on and the captain said in a somewhat surprised tone, "Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, I have to tell you that US air traffic control has denied us access to US air space. I will keep you informed." Then we also turned around.
We passengers were confused and annoyed. An American solider was sitting next to me on the way home for leave. We exchanged a puzzled look. People all over the plane were whispering about one thing: what was keeping us flying circles over the Atlantic?
Victims of a hijacking?
The captain's voice soon came back onto the loudspeaker asking if there were any Arabic speakers on the plane who could translate for the pilots. That's when people in the cabin started getting nervous. A couple of soldiers behind me started whispering and the word "hijacking" was making its way around the plane.
A passenger from Jordan said he could speak Arabic and was brought to the cockpit. Minutes passed with people wiping beads of sweat from there faces. Then the Jordanian returned to his seat. He needed to help translate for a wealth Arab who was going to miss an appointment in the United States.
Shortly thereafter the captain was back on the loudspeaker, "Ladies and gentlemen, US authorities have just closed US air space due to a plane crash. Unfortunately, we will have to fly back to Frankfurt. I'll listen to the news from Deutsche Welle to give you more information."
Initial reports of the tragedy
Flying back toward Germany, the captain told us what he heard on DW: Two planes crashed in New York. My watch said it was 5 p.m. German time - morning on the East Coast of the United States. DW called it a tragedy with many victims, the captain said. A plane also crashed in Washington. He said there would be more information available by the time we landed.
There was an eerie silence in the plane. I went to the galley to get some water and there were five or six US soldiers standing there having an intense discussion. Was it a terrorist attack? The man who had sitting next to me was in the group. Together we tried to make sense of the situation. We speculated that al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were most likely behind the attack - the terrorist group had already bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.
"We'll get them"
Our reasoning turned out to be right. But the pictures on the televisions waiting for us when we got off the plane were worse than anything we could have imagined while in the air. Standing in front of a large-screen TV in the arrival hall the soldier who had been sitting next to me stammered out one sentence, "We'll get them - whatever it costs, we'll get them." That also would prove to be true.
Grahame Lucas / sms