Editor's note: As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Sunday, this story starts a series of reflections this week from Lake Forest, Lake Bluff residents on that day, or how that day has affected their lives in the past decade. We invite our readers to add their own reflections in the Comment section at the end of the story, or email editor Jim Powers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It was like the world was silent, it was unbelievable,” Suzie Hempstead said as she recalled what she and her husband, Jack, felt as they drove back to Lake Forest from the Des Moines, Iowa airport on Sept. 11, 2001.
What was supposed to have been the beginning of a fun-filled vacation with four other couples in Lake Powell, Ariz., abruptly ended after their flight took off from O’Hare International Airport at about 8 a.m. on a crystal-clear Tuesday morning.
The Hempstead’s flight had been delayed due to mechanical issues, and they had just begun to settle into their chairs in the lounge area, when the pilot came out and ordered all passengers on the plane immediately.
Suzie was relieved that the problem had been fixed and that the passengers were boarded so quickly. “We took off and everything seemed normal,” she said.
Not Your Ordinary Flight
After the flight attendants took their breakfast orders and served the passengers beverages, Suzie got out of her seat to use the restroom but was stopped by an attendant and told that the pilot didn’t want anyone leaving their seats. Soon after, they realized that the plane was beginning to descend.
That’s when the pilot of the aircraft announced the president had ordered all air traffic in the United States grounded.
“I’ll never forget that. We looked at each other, and I thought that maybe it was because of the computer glitch that was always happening; the computers always went down,” said Suzie.
Jack, a personal pilot and former Marine, pulled out a portable GPS that he had in his bag so he could track where they were going and how fast.
“We were descending at a pretty good rate; the controllers put us into something like a penetration dive to get us down as quick as possible. I knew there was nothing wrong with the aircraft, but I just didn’t understand why we were coming down as quickly as we were, and for what reason other than we might have a radar glitch,” said Jack.
The Word Begins To Spread
As the plane descended, passengers throughout the plane began receiving calls from family and friends telling them that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. The second tower hadn’t been hit at that point, so the passengers weren’t too concerned.
However, once the plane was taxiing down the runway in Des Moines, Jack knew that there was more to their unscheduled landing than a computer glitch.
“As we’re taxiing down the runway I look out and I see at least a half dozen F-16s and all of the military personnel running around. I told Sue, 'God, National Guard, this is a weekday. Why are they getting these aircraft? Something’s really up for them to get these ready,’ ” said Jack.
Once the plane stopped, the pilot came out of the cockpit and Suzie vividly remembered the look on his face.
“He was dripping wet. He had this grayish white shirt on and he was a thin man, and he was visibly shaken. He said a plane had hit the World Trade Center, but he had to have known it was more serious than that,” she said.
Rental Cars Become Rare Commodities
Jack had a sense that they wouldn’t be flying again anytime soon. He went straight to the Hertz rental car desk so they could rent a car and drive home to Lake Forest. Suzie waited for Jack in the airport bar where the reports were being televised.
“The bar was packed with people and we were all watching the television. The man on one side of me was flying for the first time in his life, and the couple on the other side of me were on their honeymoon. As we were watching, the second plane hit. The bar was silent except for the few sighs and groans of disbelief,” recalled Suzie.
Thankfully, Jack had rented the car because soon after, the rental agencies stopped renting to out-of-state drivers. “We were so fortunate to get a car. We drove back immediately on the most beautiful day,” said Suzie.
“Our friends were put down in Colorado Springs and Omaha, and they weren’t able to rent a car. They had to stay for at least 48 hours and they couldn’t get their luggage,” said Jack.
As soon as their plane landed in Des Moines, Jack and Suzie’s sons, who were both in high school, called to make sure that they were OK. Jack asked his oldest son to meet him at the rental car agency at O’Hare, and he remembered that being one of the most surreal experiences of the day.
“That was scary. We drove in and there wasn’t one rental car on the premises, and there were hundreds of people waiting for people like me to turn in a car,” recalled Jack.
Changes in Their Lives
In the days after the attacks, the Hempsteads talked a lot about what had happened to them. How strange it had been to be in the air on that infamous day, and whether or not they actually had been at risk of being on a terrorist targeted plane.
“We believe our plane took off after the first plane hit the building. It was an odd thing that the plane had a mechanical problem and then 10 minutes later the pilot came out and said ‘get everyone on the plane.’ But thinking about it afterward, if they were targeting jumbo jets and tall buildings, here we are on one near the Sears Tower and the Hancock buildings,” said Suzie.
As a former Marine who did 2½ tours of duty in Vietnam, Jack couldn’t believe that the United States was under attack.
“We sit in this country and we watch the attacks go on everywhere else, but we never had an attack on our homeland. I guess people couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Since 9/11, plenty has changed for the Hempstead family. They both “reinvented” their professional lives and teamed up to become successful Realtors,. They have also become more vigilant and aware of what goes on around them, and they have even more pride of country.
“After 9/11, I wanted to do something about it and if I had been able to get back in the Marines I probably would have,” said Jack.
Suzie added that “when you are a part of the military, you don’t want a homeland attack to happen on your watch. When it does happen, you want to be there for them.“
Even though Jack wasn’t able to join the Marines, they do what they can to show their pride of country. They fly the American flag, and they give back to the community whenever they can.
“After 9/11, nationalism came back and people realized that you just can’t take anything for granted anymore,” said Jack.