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Sojourners grateful to be home -- and alive

Headed back from Italy and France, travelers are diverted to Newfoundland and endure agonizing waits.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 23, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- The bad news squawked over the intercom as Delta Flight 085 was jetting across the Atlantic, winging John and Imy Hamilton home to Snell Isle from their family vacation in Italy.

"We were two hours out of New York when the pilot came on and said there was a medical emergency, and so we landed at St. John's in Newfoundland," Imy Hamilton said.

Plastic surgeon John Hamilton, 76, had just retired Sept. 1 from his Beach Drive practice after 53 years. His family owns the 400 block of Beach, which is set to be developed into a $70-million high-rise apartment complex to be called the Villas at St. Petersburg. Their daughter is Pinellas County attorney Susan Churuti. She and her husband, Bob, had taken the trip with them.

Once they landed, the family knew a medical emergency was not the problem.

"Maybe one plane a day lands at St. John's," Imy Hamilton said. Looking out her window, she watched as 26 were grounded.

The truth about the emergency, they were soon to learn, was much worse. Their pilot came out.

"He said there has been a national disaster. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been hit by planes through terrorism," John Hamilton remembered. Then the captain left to meet with other pilots. The passengers remained on board and waited -- for 13 hours.

Officials and volunteers tried to quickly set up makeshift customs stations. They checked identification, confiscated pocketknives and surgical equipment. Even golf balls fell victim to increased security.

Organizers faced a logistical nightmare. Where could they put 5,000 people? The answer: on pallets inside the brand-new civic center.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army, city officials and residents came out in droves to help. Tables were set up with phones so people could make free calls home, be they to St. Petersburg or Sudan.

Chefs from neighboring hotels cooked meals each day. Because passengers had walked off with only their purses, wallets, medication and airline pillows, organizers arranged bus trips to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and toiletries not issued by the Red Cross. Residents offered tours of their towns, and there were trips to watch the whales migrate from Signal Point in St. John's.

It was surreal at first and then stressful as false reports came in that they soon would leave, the refugees said.

The Hamiltons' flight was postponed 12 times. At one point a storm swamped the airport. At another a small plane crashed and spilled fuel along the runway there. A group of Americans on a Belgian airline who had been ordered to return to the plane's country of origin walked two blocks away, hired a lawyer and filed an injunction so that they could return to the States -- further delaying everyone's takeoff.

One of the first ones in, the Hamiltons' plane was among the last to leave. "We flew over New York," John Hamilton said. "You could still see the smoke and the embers. We went over at night and you could see the fire burning down in the rubble."

When they landed in Atlanta, "the baggage carriers had a big old sign that said 'Welcome Home' and everybody clapped," Imy Hamilton said. "You were just so grateful to be there and to be alive."

No more trips abroad

As the rest of the world remained glued to their televisions, radios and Web sites on Sept. 11, Kevin and Angie Focke were glued to their seats aboard US Airways Flight 27, hoping it would not crash.

"We were about five hours into our flight from Paris to Philadelphia when our pilot said we were flying into Gander, Newfoundland, for a systems check," he said. "We thought there was something wrong with the plane. We guess he didn't want to say what was going on in case there was a terrorist on board."

In eight minutes the plane dived 30,000 feet to land at the small airport.

"We just dropped out of the sky," Focke said. His wife was crying beside him. He held her hand.

It was the last time things would move with any speed for the couple, who spent the next five days stranded in Canada, cut off from the States and current newscasts.

"For 25 hours we were on the plane," he recalled. Bathroom breaks were limited at first. A generator at the back of the plane, which ran on fuel, pumped cold air into the cabin.

At final count, 34 planes carrying more than 11,500 people packed the airport. The refugees inundated Gander, population 10,000.

When he finally got home last week, Kevin Focke kissed the ground in front of his home and swore he would never vacation abroad again.

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