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Spending the night at the airport

London double decker bus covered by snow as snowstorm hits Europe

The volcanic ash cloud earlier in 2010 was followed by snowstorms hitting London just before Christmas. Which one was a bigger disaster?

We’d been stranded at London Heathrow airport since 3 p.m. the day before. It was now 5 o’clock in the morning, on Sunday December 19th, 2010.

My study abroad program -I’d been enrolled in London for the semester- had just ended and I was excited to be heading home to New Jersey with friends from my program. We had scheduled to arrive just in time to celebrate Christmas with family. But a freak snow storm had closed down airports all over the UK, and in other parts of Western Europe. We lay on mats clutching thin, tin-foil blanket (these had been given to us to prevent lawsuits resulting from hypothermia due to the cold temperatures in the Virgin Atlantic terminal, or at least that’s what it felt like).

Passengers Catch Much Needed Rest As They Wait Until A Flight Becomes Available

People wrap themselves in tin-foil -emergency- blankets as they dream of a flight home.

I peered over at some of my friends around me, sleeping, or staring blurry-eyed as movies played on their laptops.

Our group had decided to make camp right below the check-in desks, which we were told would open at 6 am. We figured being this close would give us an advantage over the crowds slowly amassing behind us. I’d thrown away my cheap pay-as-you-go phone that I’d been using during the semester. I hadn’t thought it necessary to keep it as I prepared for my flight home. Lesson: never get rid of a functional cell phone. My BlackBerry was working fine, but I was not covered by an international plan, so any texts or calls I had been making to my parents during this process were piling up for a very hefty phone bill.

Waves of snow and sub-zero weather conditions swept the european continent as far south as Italy

We’d been stranded at London Heathrow airport since 3 p.m. the day before, but 3 more days to go

The black winter sky outside was getting lighter. I’d maybe gotten 45 minutes of sleep, but I knew I had to be focused if I was going to speak articulately with the airline workers. My friends slowly started to rouse from their naps on the cold tiled floor. We gained our footing and began gathering our carry-ons. I wondered how long it’d be until we’d get our luggage back. We’d checked them the day before when we were told our flight to Newark, and one other flight to Boston, would be the only planes allowed to depart on the frozen runway. Virgin should have flashed “Just kidding suckers!!” on the flight schedule screens.

Trying to Get Home

Here we are at Heathrow Airport - putting on our best smiles. How long will this last?

Thrilled to be stranded in the Virgin Atlantic terminal

It was almost 6, and the terminal became flooded again with irritated voices, all in different languages. I was pretty sure that, after almost a day of this, any of these people would not hesitate to trample my gangly corpse to get a flight home. There were all sorts of crazy rumors: bribery and sexual favors, people paying up to $4,000 for a flight. There was even a story circulating that a flight had remained on the runway for hours, and was allowed to leave before everyone else only because pop-star Madonna was on board. Even if it wasn’t true, we hated her for it.

The Virgin Atlantic attendants slowly filtered out in front of us. They each had a look of restrained fear as they faced hundreds of exhausted, cold, and hungry travelers. As angry as I was at the situation, I knew it wasn’t their fault the runways froze over. But still, people need scapegoats in times of stress, and these very nice looking people were hostage to our wrath. I felt my BlackBerry vibrating, and saw that my dad was calling. It was 2 am back in New Jersey-my parents must have been up for hours talking to different airlines.

“Carey,” my dad said, “Marty can get you standby on a Delta flight that leaves at 8 am.”I felt drunk with relief. I’d forgotten my dad’s friend Marty was an airline pilot for Delta.

“You need to get to the Delta terminal immediately,” he said.
I remembered that the Delta terminal was a good twenty minutes away from where I was now. I hung up the phone and looked at my friends, who were staring at me, waiting for any news, good or bad. I told them about the Delta flight.

“That’s awesome, man,” Amir, who’d been my best friend during the semester, said to me, trying his best to sound enthusiastic. My other friends smiled and nodded, too. I suddenly felt a surge of guilt. How could I leave them behind? As horrible as this experience had been, we’d gone through it together, and I wasn’t sure how well I could fare on my own.

“I feel bad,” I said.

“Carey-just go, at least one of us can get home,” my other friend said.

In that moment I knew even in times of complete desperation, your friends still want the best for you. It was too painful for me to give each of them a hug goodbye, so I told them good luck, and ran out of the terminal.

Surrounded By Stranded Strangers

The cold air hit me like a good slap across the face. I hailed a cab and sprawled across the comfortable leather seat in the back. I rested my head back; it was nice to be sitting on something that people don’t walk on every day.

On the radio, British reporters were chiming in with news about the snowstorm, and the airport closures.

On the radio, British reporters were chiming in with news about the snowstorm

British reporters were chiming in with news about the snowstorm

It was weird to think this was making international news, and that I was on the inside. I was now the person other people back home in America, warm in their beds while watching CNN as they drifted into sleep, saw on the TV screen and thought, ‘I am so glad I’m not him right now’. Dawn was slowly rising in the distance. At least the snow had stopped.

“You sure you want to go to the Delta terminal?”  The cab driver asked without turning back to me.

“Yes,” I said, “I might be able to get on a flight.”

“Well,” he said, “that probably won’t be for a while. The Delta terminal just closed down, too.”

I felt like I’d been removed from my own body and I almost started to laugh. The cabbie dropped me off, and I headed inside. It was more of the same: people milling around, wearing tin foil blankets, talking on cell phones, crying. The only thing that was different was the overhead lighting. It was this intense yellow, and it made everything look sickly; I became nauseous. I wandered around, hoping the cab driver had been wrong. Various airline attendants and security guards each confirmed his story. I sat down against the wall and thought about my friends. They seemed so far away from me now. Had they gotten on a flight? I didn’t have any of their numbers since I’d thrown my go-phone out. Even though I was surrounded by hundreds of people, it was the first time I’ve ever felt truly isolated from the world.

A Haven in the Study Abroad Center

With the little money I had on me, I decided to make my way back on the tube to the abroad program headquarters in central London, figuring they’d know what to do. I didn’t even know the address, so I had to find it based on memory from some time we’d been there earlier in the semester. The snowy streets of London were silent and empty that morning. It felt like the world had ended, and I was was some weary survivor, aimlessly searching for other survivors, for answers. The program headquarters was in a beautiful old town house, and the British directors had been up all night, fielding phone calls from concerned parents, and taking in stranded American students so they could stay there till they found a flight home. I checked in with one of the friendly directors. He was so kind, asking me if I needed any food, or coffee. I drank some coffee, but didn’t even bother explaining my story to him. I went into the common room to charge my phone, and fell asleep on a couch. When I woke up, my friends had all arrived from Heathrow. We embraced each other, joking about our ridiculous 24 hours.

Home Sweet Home

4 days later, after lots of arguing and negotiating, my parents got me on a flight to Boston, just in time for Christmas. Landing on Logan Airport’s runway, I instinctively hugged the stranger sitting next to me. I watched the snow falling outside as we taxied into the gate. I thought about the friends I left behind in London (who also ended up making it home for the holidays), and how much I’d miss them. Part of me still wanted to be with them at the program house, drinking wine and watching the old VHS movies from the collection in the entertainment room-or finding some other way to distract ourselves from the situation.  Even now, almost two years later (and zero flights since) I can imagine that cold, damp smell of the terminal, the rustling of tin foil blankets as passengers pulled them tight around their bodies, the sunken eyes of dazed confused, sleep deprived travelers-all still as fresh in my mind as it was yesterday.

Statue of Liberty - Welcome Back Home!

Liberation from freeze and snow!

Comments on: "London Heathrow Airport Disaster" (1)

  1. […] technology is that allows us to soar through the clouds with such safety and ease. Unfortunately, not everything about flying is fun. While the people on planes usually don’t run into any problems getting from point A to point […]

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