The (Columbia, SC) - Sunday, September 23, 2001 Author: JEFFREY DAY Staff Writer By last Sunday morning, we had been traveling for five days, stranded in Goose Bay, in Labrador, Canada, then back to Tashkent, Uzbekistan , where our trip had started.
We were one of the hundreds of international passenger airliners looking for a home after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Sitting next to me on the jet was a Russian Orthodox woman who crossed herself as the plane taxied toward takeoff. Next to her, a Russian Jewish man who lives in New York read his Torah.
On the other side of me were two Indians, Hindus.
Many of the other passengers were Muslims.
The Sept. 11 attacks took our plane on a circuitous journey that brought together many races, nations and religions. We longed to return to the familiarity of our homes, be they in Tashkent or Samarkand, Uzbekistan , New York City or Columbia, S.C. We wanted to know whether loved ones were safe and to let them know that we were fine.
Still, we helped each other through our anxieties, fears, sadness and the brutal mechanics of traveling through five countries in five days.
A CHANGED VOYAGE
The flight, on Uzbekistan Airways, left the Tashkent airport at 7 a.m., Sept. 11.
I had gone to Uzbekistan , a part of the former Soviet Union that gained independence 10 years ago, to visit friends in the Peace Corps and to hear Turku, a Columbia band, play at a music festival.
Uzbekistan , a mostly desert country east of Iran, south of Russia and west of China, and sharing a small border with Afghanistan, is about the size of California with a population of 25 million people.
The majority of the 150 passengers aboard the flight were Uzbekistan natives. About 25 passengers were U.S. citizens - a handful born in the United States and the rest formerly of Uzbekistan , Russia or India.
We stopped in Birmingham, England, to change crews and refuel. Next stop: New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.
About two hours before we were to arrive, an announcement, first in Russian, and then in broken English, told us we would land in Canada. We received no explanation.
When we landed at 4 p.m., we still didn't know where we were or why. We would sit in the plane on that runway for five hours.
A young Uzbek man who lives in New York told me: "The twin towers are gone. They crashed a plane into the Pentagon."
I didn't believe him. I took it as more paranoia from people who had feared terrorist attacks during Uzbekistan 's independence celebration the week before.
Then we were told to leave the plane. I was greeted by Lars Kamminga, ground liaison officer with the Dutch air force.
"Do you know what happened?" he asked.
"No idea," I replied.
He explained it briefly and clearly. We were in Goose Bay, in Labrador, Canada, at a military base used by Canadians, French, German, Dutch and Italian crews for low-altitude fighter jet training.
"You'll be our guests here until air space opens again," he said.
It was here, in front of a big-screen television tuned to CNN -in this remote area miles from a paved highway - that we saw what had happened in New York. When the second plane struck the building, the entire room let out a gasp. Many would stay up all night watching; others stayed close to the phones trying to contact loved ones in the United States, India and Uzbekistan .
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
The Dutch took good care of us, spooning out more food than we could eat, a dozen phones to call anywhere, Internet access, foosball and pool. They gave us small wooden shoes, decals, hats and badges.
We gave them Uzbek souvenirs, but mostly small knives and other sharp objects. We were told they might cause problems at airport security checks.
Ralph Reefman, commander of the Dutch group, strongly suggested we not stay at Goose Bay even though we were on the same continent as our destination. The small airport has limited service. You can't rent a car. It's 300 miles of gravel road out of Goose Bay.
As a send-off, local musicians performed at a movie theater, about a seven-minute walk from the base. The theater staff distributed popcorn and sodas.
Tonger Campbell of Goose Bay played several original songs, one about his father who made a living in this barren land by trapping: "He learned to survive in a land so hard."
"I want to welcome everyone," he said. "It's not good circumstances but welcome anyway."
Then the Uzbek pop band Anor, who shared my flight, took the stage. The group was on its way to play at the Uzbek embassy in Washington and in New York's Central Park. They also have friends in Charleston, where they spent nearly two months last spring.
Before long, the audience members - the people on the flight, locals and the Dutch military crew - were dancing.
Stanley Oliver, in charge of personnel support services at the base, had put the concert together that morning. He danced onstage the entire time. "We just wanted to do anything we could to help out," he said.
When we left Goose Bay around midnight, headed again for Birmingham, it seemed we finally would make it home.
Once we landed, we were told U.S. airspace had closed again.
After an hour in Birmingham in a cramped, smoky lounge, we were told to decide to return to Uzbekistan or set out on our own. About 25 people left, others climbed on board.
Finally, Rosemary Suh and I, two of the three U.S. natives, remained in the lounge.
Suh left through the door of the airport, hoping to meet friends in London.
I walked the long ramp back to the plane.
Galnara Khudaiberganova, Anor's manager, assured me: "I have an apartment; you can stay there for as long as you need. Don't worry."
And then I was offered more places to stay, given the address of the American embassy, flooded with telephone numbers.
Gurpreetmann, who lives in New Jersey, would return to the place his journey began: India.
"Come to India with me," he said. "Stay as long as you like."
CALM IN TASHKENT
We arrived in the decrepit Tashkent airport at 1:30 a.m., where we waited in lines for passport control, baggage checks and customs declarations.
Two hours later, our bags were thrown on the back of a truck and 25 of us packed into a van and headed to the Hotel Uzbekistan .
That night I took a walk through the park with Saule Osponove, who lives in Kyrgyzstan, and Azqm Sultonov, who is from a small village in the Fegama valley about 200 miles from Tashkent.
"I'm the first person from my village to go to America," Sultonov said.
He was trying to get to Nashville, where a friend is trying to help lure businesses to Uzbekistan .
Although Afghanistan is only 400 miles away, life in the bustling capital went on as usual.
We walked to the area known as "Broadway," where the soft-serve ice cream machines churn out a fine product, where the music of Britney Spears, Eminem and Christina Aguilera blares and signs advertising Nescafe and Lucky Strikes light the night.
The final day in Tashkent began at 3 a.m., when the front desk called us down to the lobby to pay for our phone calls.
Going back through the Tashkent airport was crazy - about six stops for security, tickets, baggage, passport and customs checks.
The flight to New York took off an hour late, which was nothing considering how long we had waited thus far to get home.
Most people tried to sleep. I couldn't. I collected addresses and phone numbers.
Only about 30 of those who started on the original flight were still aboard. The others were passengers on a routine flight to Kiev, Ukraine, where we would stop briefly.
It felt as if strangers had invited themselves into this family we had constructed during the preceding five days.
We had been taking care of each other, and it was hard to give up that sense of connection.
HOME TO TRAGEDY
On that final leg of the journey, when the U.S. customs forms were distributed, we were apprehensive. That was when we were diverted to Goose Bay on the original flight.
But we landed at JFK. And everyone applauded, as they had each time we had landed.
It didn't feel like a war zone, but just another day at the airport.
For my new friends, it was different. They didn't know how the telephones worked. They needed to get to the bus station. They needed to find flights to the west.
I stayed and helped them, but felt I couldn't do enough for all they did for me in a place that was not my home and where I didn't speak the language.
I did what I could.
The next morning, I walked to the park at the end of a street in Queens where I'd spent the night with friends. The first person I saw was a teen-age girl, a Muslim wearing a headcovering and long dress, running for the bus.
It was a perfect fall day in New York, the same kind of day when the city was attacked.
Across the water I looked at the skyline of Manhattan, a place I know well, the dark towers that dominated it gone, smoke still hanging over the spires of the city.
The force of what had happened finally hit me.
On the chain-link fence separating the walkway from the park was an American flag and a row of candles.
I wanted to hang the flags of Uzbekistan , India, Kyrgyzstan, Canada and the Netherlands alongside of it.