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Panic in the sky

Kenosha mom who was in the air when 9/11 happened shares her story

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The Lowes

Janet Lowe smiles with her husband and son, Donald Lowe and Donald Anthony Lowe, in this photo taken in the early 2000s.

When they dropped below cloud level, Janet Lowe could see planes dotting the sky out the windows of her US Airways flight. The terror attacks of 9/11 had just happened. Everything seemingly was changing by the instant.

Americans from across the country reflect on the life-changing impact the world's deadliest terror attack had on their lives. A day forever etched in our minds. A day America promises never to forget. Source by: Stringr

That morning, Lowe — who then lived in Tampa Bay, but now lives in Kenosha — had planned to fly to Pittsburgh to be with her mother before she went into surgery. It was a Tuesday.

She’d packed her 2-year-old son Donald Anthony into a stroller, kissed her husband Donald goodbye, and boarded. It was supposed to be a routine travel day.

While in the air, Lowe was standing in the bulkhead bouncing her baby in her arms when a stewardess walked up, clearly frazzled.

“I need to tell somebody something,” the stewardess said to Lowe. In the days before smartphones and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, none of the passengers had any reason to know the most audacious attack on American territory since Pearl Harbor had just happened.

The flight staff had been told about the terrorist attacks. The stewardess told Lowe, who was then 38 years old, that planes had flown into each of the World Trade Center towers. The stewardess was shaken, but Lowe didn’t realize how quickly her week was being derailed, and how drastically her flight, air travel, American culture and her country’s status were about to change.

‘We’re being rerouted’

Soon after, the plane began to descend. The pilot spoke, likely too drastically and exaggerated, over the speakers: “America is under siege and we’re being rerouted … I’ll come back on the announcement once I know something more.”

Passengers started to panic. Lowe tried to calm them, telling those around her that there wasn’t a full-blown invasion, just a terrorist attack — the death toll of which would end up being nearly 3,000; if you include those who died later because of “exposure to toxins at Ground Zero,” the toll is likely more than 4,200. The other air travelers didn’t believe her at first until she confessed a stewardess had confided in her what she knew.

Moments later, the plane dropped below cloud level. That’s when the passengers saw what appeared to be dozens of planes dotting the calm Tuesday morning sky, circling above an airport hundreds of miles south of Pittsburgh.

“You never see planes circling,” Lowe noted. It was then she realized the severity of the situation. “We’re declaring ATC (Air Traffic Control) zero,” Bruce Barrett, then a senior manager at the New York Center, famously had said after the World Trade Center’s South Tower was hit, the start of the grounding of virtually all air travel in the nation that day.

After landing, the pilot gave the OK for passengers to stand up and reactivate electronic devices. “It’s going to be a long time before we reach the gate,” the pilot admitted.

Lowe opened her turn-of-the-century era cellphone — “It was a brick,” Lowe said recently with a laugh — and saw she had more than a dozen messages. All of them were from Donald, her husband.

He’d heard about Flight 93, the plane that hijackers intended to crash into the Capitol or White House before it went down in a field southeast of Pittsburgh. Knowing his wife and son were headed to Pittsburgh, he was terrified their plane was the one that had crashed after the terrorists were heroically overpowered by passengers.

She got Donald on the phone and calmed him down, that she and Donald Anthony were OK. When he asked where they were, she realized she had no idea. She didn’t even know what state they landed in.

‘Where are we?’

After getting into the now-crowded airport, with the baby in the stroller munching on Skittles, she asked a worker at a newspaper stand: “Where are we?”

“Charlotte,” the woman replied.

“Which one?” Lowe asked again; there’s Charlottes up and down the eastern seaboard: in New York, Tennessee, Vermont, Maine.

They were in North Carolina, the most populous Charlotte in the country and biggest city in North Carolina.

She then called her boss at Abbott Labs. She didn’t have a credit card on her — it was 2001, after all — and had maybe $100 in cash. She asked if the company could get her a hotel room somewhere near the airport; she had no idea when planes would be cleared for takeoff again so she could either get home or get to her mom in Pennsylvania.

Her boss found a hotel and booked it — Lowe thinks it was a Quality Inn, but can’t remember for sure. Had she not been able to make this call, Lowe and her baby likely would’ve ended up sleeping on a cot set up by the Red Cross in one of the local schools with most of the other stranded air passengers.

During the conversation with her boss, the airport began being evacuated. A similar situation was in place in airports across the country.

Lowe was able to avoid the mob rush to the doors and slowly pushed the stroller out, trying to figure out who to get to the hotel. She ran into a flight crew. One of them asked her where she was headed, and by happenstance they were booked into the same hotel.

They packed the baby’s stroller into a limo and were all dropped off at the hotel. She described the crew as “complete strangers, never to be seen again.” Her next few days would be filled with people like that.

‘Do you need a ride?’

The hotel experience felt “surreal,” Lowe said. “Everyone in the hotel was from all over. There was a truck driver waiting for his load. There was a couple on their honeymoon trying to get to Jamaica. There was another couple going back to California that was stuck there. People from all over the country that got pushed out of the airport like we did.”

Lowe spent her next couple days wearing the same set of clothes she’d flown in — they weren’t able to get their luggage until Thursday, she recalled — spending time in the pool with the baby and walking the stroller a couple miles down the road daily to a store to buy the cheapest meals she could with the cash she had.

“With my 100 dollars, I’m buying diapers, potted meat and sausages,” she laughed, thinking about her now full-grown son, who is due to graduate college this year and remembers nothing of 9/11. “Even today, he still loves potted meat, and Vienna sausages and wieners.”

By Thursday, the trucker stuck in the hotel told Lowe, “Ma’am, I’ve watched you walk down this street every day for the last three days.” She recalled him speaking with a thick Carolina drawl. “Do you need a ride?”

She agreed, climbing into the stranger’s big rig with her baby to go to the store and back.

Ticket envelope

Janet Lowe saved the envelope that had held her boarding pass for the U.S. Airways flight she was on Sept. 11, 2011.

US Airways had been saying each day it was rebooking flights for all the other stranded passengers, but nothing was definite. Even though most U.S. airports reopened on Thursday the 13th, Lowe’s flights kept getting canceled.

Lowe got help from a stranger once again. Her boss recruited an employee who lived in South Carolina to drive up to Charlotte, pick up Lowe and the baby, then drive them back to South Carolina. Lowe’s boss then got them down to Atlanta. Her husband picked them up in Georgia and drove home to Tampa.

They were home by Friday.

Life quickly got back to normal. Lowe’s sister had to cancel a vacation. Their mom had her surgery. A hurricane had been bearing down on Florida that whole week; Lowe’s husband and a friend had sandbagged the house, but no flooding occurred. People got back to work. Two years later, the Lowes moved to Kenosha; she now works for a medical supply company.

One of the things that has stuck with Lowe, now 20 years later, was an old man who she sat next to on the plane. He was flying to Pennsylvania for his mother’s funeral. Lowe figured his mother must have been really old, since the man appeared to be pushing 80.

When they landed in Charlotte, she had tried taking care of both the man and her baby. But during the mad rush of the airport evacuation, they got separated. Lowe figures he ended up on a cot in a gym of a school, but has no idea. She doesn’t even remember his name.

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