After eating we went back up to the train platform and saw the conductor. He had no new information on the situation, so we went back downstairs to the cab dispatcher, to see if we could get a cab. There were still quite a few train passengers waiting for cabs, or for the train to start. I studied a map of the train system – if the bomb scare was in Newark Penn Station, then taking a cab and bypassing Newark to get to a station farther down the line might work. My original goal of this morning, Elizabeth, might still be an option.
We were only there for another minute or two when a bunch of nice shiny Yellow Cabs, with Newark Airport registrations, came zooming up. With the airport closed, the cabbies were out looking for fares. I asked one if he could take us to the Elizabeth train station, and he said “Sure”.
The cabbie took off, zig-zagging through the city streets. We crossed over a small river close to the Newark downtown, and went through a Portuguese neighborhood. I was starting to have some doubts about where he was going to take us when he comes to a freeway and enters. This freeway was just north of the airport, and soon we were going past the airport entrance. A number of the big airport snowplows had been pulled up and were blocking the entrance ramps on the freeway. We went past a number of car rental places, but I really couldn’t tell if they had cars to rent. Anyway, from my map study I knew that Elizabeth wasn’t far away.
When we got off the freeway in Elizabeth, we saw a town in pretty bad shape, in terms of the local economy. The number of trashed and boarded up buildings were probably as bad as anywhere we had seen on the trip. The train station was on the fringe of the city, and it seemed pretty busy. We went up to the westbound platform, and started to study the map. The rail system is fairly complex there, and the route map, the fare schedule, and the train schedule were spread out over a number of different signs. I really had no clear idea of what to do, other than go west.
I took a look at the crowd – it was a real mixture of ages, races, socioeconomic groups. They didn’t look threatening, so I took a chance. In a loud voice, I ask “This might seem like a strange question, but where can you go from here?” A couple people asked what we needed, so I started in on The Story. When people heard where we had come from, even more crowded around. Everyone had advice on what to do – unfortunately, they all had different ideas. When I told them about the bomb scare, they got a little concerned, too, and said that probably explained the long wait they had for the train.
Not long after that, a westbound train pulls in, and a women conductor gets out to announce the train. A bunch of the passengers pull her over, and quickly tell her our story. She listens, and then tells us that the bomb scare was over, and that it was for New York Penn Station anyway, not Newark Penn Station. She said our best bet was to go to the other platform, take a train back to Newark, and get on Amtrak. She then jumped back on her westbound train. We followed her advice, went downstairs and crossed to the other platform. A train soon came in, and we were quickly at Newark Penn Station.
Most of the people we had met the last two days were very helpful. Many went out of their way to make sure we were on our way. And then there was Amtrak. I won’t go into everything that happened, but just suffice it to say that everyone who works for Amtrak is either stupid, rude, or stupid and rude. Whatever bad thing ever happens to Amtrak, they deserve it. People all over the tri-state area, in fact from New York to Cleveland, were under pressure those days. The Amtrak people were the only ones who couldn’t handle it.
To make a long difficult story short, we were at the Newark ticket counter a few minutes after 3, and were able to get three tickets on a train to Philadelphia that was going to leave at about 3:25. While waiting on the platform, I got out my cell phone and for the first time was able to get hold of my parents, who were back home. They were among the last of my family members who found out we were OK – they were on a golf outing on the 11th, and it wasn’t till 1 or 2 in the afternoon of the first day that they were able to find out we were fine. They would have found out sooner if they knew how their cell phone voice mail worked, but had about five scary hours. My mom had also had a call from some of the NABE people -- we had left the WTC before just about everyone else, and not many of them knew we had gone south. They tracked down my parent's phone number, and called to find out where we had gone. It was actually the first news I had from anyone in the group.
Anyway, the train was packed. Rachel had a seat, but Sharon and I stood on the trip to Philly, the one advantage that Amtrak has over an airline. We talked with a number of the other standees, who had been visiting New York but were in midtown yesterday. They were in a large group, and they were going to try to rent a motor home to get back.
We got to the 30th Street Station in Philly between 4 and 4:30. My first plan was to try to get a train to Pittsburgh, a town where I have many relatives. If we could get there, it would be easy to get a place to stay and a ride to Cleveland. However, after the typical bad experience with the people at the Amtrak counter, it was time for another plan – there were no seats till Saturday. The train station had a number of rental car counters, but they were all out of cars. However, one of the clerks at Avis or Hertz said that there were plenty of cars at the airport, so that if we wanted a car we should go down there. After today’s travel, and no sleep the night before, I was ready to look for a hotel. However, Sharon didn’t want to stay in a big city, and wanted to get out on the road into the country
We left the station for the cab stand, which was empty. Then we saw that all the curb lanes around the station were cordoned off, and all the cabs were across the street. We got one, and just as we got in the car my cell phone rang. It was Sharon’s nephew Eric, who was getting ready to drive east to get us. We told him to hold off till we tried the airport.
The cab got us to the airport quickly, and took us down rental car row. It looked like most of them had cars, and we told the cabbie to drop us off at Budget. Not only did they have cars, but as we recounted our story the clerk gave us a free upgrade to a Taurus, and told us that Budget was waiving all drop off fees. The rental car from Cleveland to Philly would actually be cheaper than our rail tickets from Newark, plus the people at Budget were the opposite of the Amtrakkers – they were friendly and they knew what they were doing.
By 5:30, we were pulling out of the airport, heading for the beltway that took us up to King of Prussia and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. For the first time since 8:46 am the day before, I actually felt secure. We had a car, we were on a road that I’ve been on before, and we had some control over our travel. We found a news radio station -- with all the moving around we had done that day, we had only been hearing bits and pieces of the news. Compared to most of America, who had been glued to their TV sets the past two days, we were relatively uninformed. We stopped at a service plaza around 7, to use the pay phones to call my family and Sharon’s, so that they knew where we were and our plans. (The cell phone batteries had finally given out.) At close to 9 pm we were in Lancaster, PA, and found a room at a Hampton Inn. The next town was Harrisburg, and we didn’t want to stay too close to Three Mile Island.
It was a fairly easy trip from then on. As we approached Pittsburgh on Thursday, we saw the column of smoke not far from the Turnpike that was the spot where Flight 93 had gone down. (We had traveled from one scene to the other). One of those big electric signs was along the turnpike, advising motorists to avoid the New York metro area. After lunch outside Pittsburgh, we got back home to Cleveland around 2:30. It looked fairly normal, and untouched. Later, when I dropped off the rental car at the Budget counter at the Cleveland airport, someone was waiting for a car that he was going to drive to JFK airport. I was getting ready to tell him some of the obstacles he might be facing, but I was tired of telling The Story. It was just time to go home.
(Many other NABE members have told their stories, too. You can find them at http://www.nabe.com/am2001/stories.htm
©2001-2003, Bruce Kratofil