Michael Lambert immediately regretted that his flight back to San Francisco had been booked for departure out of Newark. The cab he was in was moving very slowly westbound on I-78, and his flight was due to depart in less than an hour. He looked wistfully to the east in the direction of La Guardia, wishing that he needed only to go there, as the traffic seemed much thinner in that direction.
“Dammit!” He fumed to himself. “If I don’t make this plane, I’m finished!”
He didn’t care about the fare slowly climbing as the cab creeped along the highway. He didn’t care about the awful high-pitched voices that screamed from the radio. He didn’t even care that the cab was not air-conditioned and that he was sweating right through his three-piece suit. What mattered most to him was getting back to California before his bosses decided that since they had missed him for the past week, they could afford to miss him permanently.
Lambert didn’t regret his trip to the East Coast – not one bit. His daughter had just started as a freshman at Fordham University and he had to be there for her. Her mother, who was local, had been there to help her move in and this time had to be his. Otherwise, he might not see her again for months, which would not be unprecedented but was undesirable nonetheless.
But work was another matter. There was a major project due the next day, and if Lambert had any hope of getting it completed in time, he had to make it back to the office by noon Pacific Time. The three-hour time difference gave him some much-needed breathing room, but if he didn’t make this flight, the next available one would not arrive in San Francisco until well into the afternoon over there. That was utterly unacceptable.
Lambert had set his alarm for 5:30 AM, under the impression that it would give him plenty of time to dress, check out of the hotel and find a cab. But he didn’t count on the Manhattan morning traffic being quite so beastly. Acquiring a cab by itself took nearly twenty minutes, and it took nearly that long for it to make its way down the block once it picked him up. It was hard for him to appreciate a city where it took over forty minutes just to move a hundred feet.
He looked at his watch. 7:12 AM. “Excuse me sir,” he asked the driver, “Is there any alternate route you can take? My flight is taking off in less than an hour and I really have to make it.”
“I’m sorry sir. There’s always a lot of traffic this time of day. I’m doing the best I can.”
Lambert could do nothing except fidget in his seat, nervously looking to see if any of the other lanes were moving faster. They were not, otherwise he would have begged the driver to switch. He willed the cars in front to move faster, knowing that it was futile but still needing to feel like there was some control he had over the situation.
Finally, the traffic started moving faster. What before was a sluggish twenty miles per hour on the speedometer was rapidly pulling up to forty and climbing even higher, much to the delight of the cab’s passenger. He relaxed his back onto the seat, taking a deep breath and praying for the speed to continue accelerating.
The cab finally made its way over the Newark Bay and past the junction with I-95. Soon afterward was the junction with Route 9, which Lambert knew led right to the front of the airport. It was now 7:27. He was getting close, but time was running out fast.
“Step on it!” He yelled, getting excited at seeing the planes taking off and landing. But then the cab took the final turn onto the stretch before the airport entrance, and Lambert’s heart sank as he saw the line of cars at a standstill in front of him.
“OH NO!” He beat his fists against his seat in stark frustration.
He craned his neck toward the cab window to get a better look at the traffic. In the distance there were people disembarking from vehicles, but he could not see any other explanation for the slowdown or if the cars were moving at any discernable speed. He could feel the blood vessels in his brain hardening as the stress of missing his flight grew more salient by the second.
After what seemed an eon, the cab finally shifted forward, though it was start and stop action for several agonizing minutes as Lambert anxiously watched the line of cars. The cab then pulled in front of the gates. He did not care if he was where he needed to be – he simply wanted out of that small chamber of torture.
“Let me out here!” He fished out his wallet and pulled out several twenties, throwing them at the driver. “Keep the change!” The cab door opened and slammed shut as fast as its mechanism would allow it to, and Lambert fetched his luggage out of the trunk so fast he could have qualified for an Olympic event. With suitcase in hand, he dashed down the sidewalk and through the first door he passed. The time was now 7:40. His plane would be leaving in only twenty minutes, and he hadn’t even gone through security yet.
Lambert dashed through the airport mezzanine, barely dodging the throngs of people as he made a mad dash in the direction of the security checkpoint. Fortunately, the line was not very long and he was able to quickly weave his way through the rope maze that led to the metal detectors. He nervously gazed at the line of people ahead who were slowly emptying their pockets and putting their bags through the conveyor belt. For the love of God, he wondered, why did so many people have to bring so much carry-on luggage? He realized his hypocrisy as he looked at his one piece of luggage that he had no intention of checking, but he didn’t care. Time was running out fast.
By the time he made it up to the detector, it was 7:48. He removed his belt quickly and threw everything on his person into the little bin that would be put on the conveyor belt. Finally, the security guard motioned for him to walk through the detector. But no sooner did Lambert pass the metal upright box then a beep went off around him.
“Hold on sir,” the guard held up his palm, “Can you please go back and through again?”
Several of Lambert’s cranial capillaries exploded. He really did not need this right then. He did as he was instructed, but walking through again led to the same cursed beeping.
“I don’t have anything metal on me!” He protested vigorously. “What the hell is wrong with this machine?!”
“I’m sorry sir, but I’m gonna have to do a pat-down.” The guard first took out an electromagnetic wand and used it to scan around Lambert’s body. Nothing abnormal was detected. Lambert continued to fume as the guard subjected him to a frisking. He started to think about how much he hated waiting in lines and how much worse it would be when he would soon have to join the line at the unemployment office.
“Okay sir, you’re free to go ahead,” the guard told him. Lambert raced toward the conveyor belt to grab his belongings and then started a mad dash for Terminal A. He did not know where it was located, so first he ran as fast as he could to the big sign in front of him that pointed the way to the various terminals. He saw that Terminal A, along with many others, was to his left. So he ran down the wide hall in that direction, frustrated at the fact that Terminal G was the first one he passed.
Just as he bypassed several fast food and merchandise outlets and roared past Terminal F, an announcement came on that made his heart race with both fury and fear.
“This is the final boarding call for United Airlines Flight – “ Lambert could not hear the flight number because of some loud businessmen talking in a gaggle around him. But he assumed that it was his flight, which caused him to step up his pace even faster. He no longer cared about running into people. It was now 7:55, and he still hadn’t even made it past Terminal D yet.
His heart pounded just as fast as his feet pounded on the floor, his lungs heaved air in and out with agony, and his vision became blurry. But none of that mattered to him. He made it past Terminal C, then B, and then finally, Terminal A was in his sight. He was disheartened to see that there was no longer a line to board his flight, but he was not about to give up yet.
He made one final, desperate sprint to the terminal and darted his head around in panic to find Gate 17. He saw Gate 16 and ran toward it, figuring that it would be in the vicinity. Sure enough, he stumbled upon 17 and, out of breath, showed his boarding pass to the attendant, who was just about to make a move towards the doors.
“Did I miss it?” He asked worryingly, seeing that it was 7:58. “Has it taken off yet?”
“No, it hasn’t sir,” the attendant said chirpily. “But you better hurry, because I was literally just about to close the doors.”
“Thank you!” Lambert heaved as he ran through the gate, down the mobile tunnel and into the plane. Once he got past the entrance and into the aisle he pumped his fist into the air, found his seat and collapsed into it.
Sure enough, it was barely a minute after he sat down that the lead flight attendant stood in front of the coach section and began her introduction speech.
“Good morning everyone, welcome to United Airlines Flight 93, nonstop flight from Newark International Airport to San Francisco International Airport. It is now 8:00 AM on September 11, 2001, and we expect the duration of this flight to be approximately five hours and forty-five minutes. We will be taxiing shortly but as there is heavy congestion on the runways our departure may be delayed. For now, sit back and relax and we will begin our coverage of the safety procedures shortly. Thank you and enjoy the flight!”
Lambert finally caught his breath, began to relax, and took out the in-flight magazine, looking forward to a quiet and restful flight home.