What I Do: Claire Heeke, 38 

Flight attendant, American Airlines

On September 11, I was in Tucson on a layover. I got up that morning and turned on CNN. The first plane had already gone in. The first thing that came to my mind was, I remember the weather yesterday in New York. I thought, Maybe some little brook job ran into the World Trade [Center]. There was a three-hour time difference, so it was around 9 on the East Coast.

I went downstairs. The pilots were already there. Then a flight attendant came in and asked if we had watched the news. He told us another plane had gone in. We were en route to the airport and we had the radio on when they announced the first flight [that crashed into Tower One] was Flight 11. It was American Airlines. We all thought, My God, that's a wide bird, a 767.

We got to the airport and it was chaotic. We went through this area we call operations — it's security — a small room at the Tucson airport. There were three crews of us so there were probably 16 of us in the room. I went outside to borrow a phone to call home to say I was OK. I thought about my friends based in Boston. I wondered who was on the flight.

That's our first reaction when a plane goes down: Who was on the crew? I was on the phone when a woman next to me said a plane had gone into the Pentagon, Flight 77. Immediately I knew. That's D.C.

You know certain flight numbers by heart. I did that flight all the time. I knew the crew well. I knew them all. It's like being in school together for 12 years, you get to know everybody.

At that point, security came in and said we couldn't leave the room anymore: "We don't know if [the terrorists] are posing as crewmembers or if they're going after crewmembers." They sequestered us for three hours. It was strange because while everybody was watching this unfold on TV, we were huddled over a radio. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. We couldn't leave. I was in Tucson until that Friday.

I went back to work right away. I got on the plane Friday thinking, I just want to get home to my family. It was all that mattered. I had one day off and then I had to go back to work on Sunday.

That Saturday I started getting really scared. But I had to go back. It was just horrific. My flight was leaving out of Dulles and I was departing from the exact same gate as Flight 77.

I talked to other flight attendants and everybody was just going nuts. Nobody knew how to deal with it. People were calling in sick, and I thought, What am I doing here? It was so chaotic. But in some respects it was helpful that I got back on that horse quickly.

For 12 years I've been taught this is how you deal with hijackers: You listen to their demands and you land the plane as soon as possible. You maintain service and you treat them with kid gloves. But this time they had no demands. The one thing they wanted was to kill the pilot, which they did to get a hold of the airplane. All of a sudden, everything I had learned for 12 years about how to deal with this situation was useless.

As a flight attendant, you keep running stuff over and over in your mind like, At what point was the crew [of Flight 77] in their workday? Was Michelle making a pot of coffee? At what point did they realize?

There were so many memorial services to go to. I knew what those firefighters must have been going through. You put your uniform on, you go to all these memorial services and you just cry your eyes out. And then you get up the next day and you go to another one and you cry your eyes out again. You think, I just can't go to another one, I can't do this anymore. But you get up the next day and you go to the next one.

It won't ever be the same. It can't be the same. When I go to work I'm reminded in myriad ways how much it's changed. Every once in a while I stop and look around. When did I ever imagine we'd have air marshals with guns on planes and bomb-sniffing dogs? I feel like I've been enlisted in a war I didn't sign up for.

— As told to Brandon Walters, Photographed by Scott Elmquist.


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