September 11, 2013

Hours After 9/11, Virtually Alone In The Skies

Sharon Mico is pictured top right, seated in front (Photo: Dory Graves)

By Angel MedFlight Contributor

Twelve years ago this week, airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, another jet hit the Pentagon and Flight 93 went down into a field near Shanksville, Pa. On Sept. 12, 2001, a day after the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000, Angel MedFlight's Sharon Mico was in the air working as a flight attendant -- when virtually all other aircraft had been grounded.

In the summer of 2001, Mico was working as a flight attendant for Sierra Pacific Airlines. Sierra Pacific was a charter carrier  that the Bureau of Land Management had contracted to transport firefighters to and from wildfires. Mico was on call, living for the summer in a hotel in Boise, Idaho.

Mico remembers waking up the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and turning on CNN. It was minutes after the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Mico remembers thinking at the time, "How could the pilot not avoid the World Trade Center?" Then, when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, Mico thought the same thing as many of us that day. "We're being attacked."

The first thing Mico did was call her mother to tell her that she was okay, that it wasn't one of her company's planes. She went down to the lobby and watched the rest of the horror unfold on television. When she returned to her hotel room hours later, the message light was blinking on her telephone. She called dispatch. The voice on the other end said to get ready; she and the rest of her crew would be picked up at 6 p.m. and taken to Boise Airport. She told the dispatcher everything's been grounded. How can we be flying now? The dispatcher answered. She along with two other flight attendants and three pilots would be flying FEMA workers to Baltimore-Washington for the Pentagon recovery operation and then to Newark to drop off the crews working at Ground Zero.

Quality Assurance Director Sharon Mico
Once Mico arrived at the airport in Boise, it was delay upon delay. The Sierra Pacific jet was stuck on the ground for hours as each member of the crew went through a new tighter round of background checks.

The FEMA crews were picked up in Mather, Calif. Nothing but a few hushed voices were heard on the 737-200 as the somber flight made its way back east. The first stop was Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) and as the plane made its way into BWI's airspace, Mico looked out the window to see two F-16 fighter jets flying alongside the airliner.  She's not sure how the Sierra Pacific pilot knew for sure but he later told Mico that those F-16s had their "missiles locked on us." She says, "Had we deviated off course I may not be sitting here talking to you today."

Once on the ground in Baltimore, Mico remembers it was the weirdest thing she had ever seen. "No movement in this airport. I mean, Baltimore? BWI? Nobody. Nothing. It was eerie."

After letting off 38 FEMA workers at BWI, Mico and her crew took off for Newark. It was a short hop from Baltimore to New Jersey, barely up and down. It was early in the morning on the 12th.  As the sun rose in the eastern sky, the jet flew closer into New York airspace. Seeing this, Mico walked up to the cockpit door, opened it and asked one of the pilots if he would take a photograph as they flew near Ground Zero. Mico says the photo shows twin plumes of smoke coming up from what once was The World Trade Center.

The FEMA crews heading to Ground Zero had now deplaned in Newark. Mico had now been up almost 24 hours, running mostly on adrenaline now. The Sierra Pacific jet was mostly empty, flying back to Boise with just the crew. Upon arrival in Boise, Mico says she gathered with her fellow crewmembers at the hotel and decompressed. For more than a day she had to hold it together, keeping emotions at bay as she transported 76 FEMA workers to two of the saddest scenes in American history. Finally back in her hotel room, she looked at some newspapers that recounted the horrible events of the day before. As she turned the pages and looked at the photos, she could no longer hold back the tears.

Twelve years later, Mico recall details of her trip like it was yesterday. Mico, now The Quality Assurance Manager at Angel MedFlight Worldwide Air Ambulance, has some photos from that day but unfortunately she cannot locate the one that was taken of  Ground Zero from the air. Perhaps a photo is not needed. The memories are powerful enough.

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