Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Somewhat Silly Segue

When you start blogging with a story about an emergency plane landing, what do you do for an encore? It’s hard to follow that. I do remember saying it was time to put that experience “on the list.” (I love lists.) Then I thought, wait. I don’t have a list for that. I have a to-do list. I have a contact list. I have a bucket list. I have a “Move or Not Move Closer to my Kids” list. So today I will add to my list of lists with a “Things I Never Want to Experience Again” list.

First, let’s move past the obvious: Really Sad Life Events, Root Canals, Final Exams, Traffic Tickets, Traffic Accidents, Stomach Flu, and my personal C-Words – Cooking, Cleaning & Camping.

We’ll add “Emergency Landing of any Kind” to that list, and now for the others.

As I thought back through my history of trauma, I realized, first of all, I’ve been pretty lucky because the list is not long. But there have been moments, and starting at a fairly young age.

How I Became the Lightning Mom

Back in my Peoria kid days, I was, as usual, with my best pals, Jackie & Janet. Although it was rather nice where we were, there was thunder rumbling in the distance, so we thought we would go out to their dad’s station wagon and pull in “The Skil Tool Man” display that was sticking out the back window. Two of us were in the car, and one was standing outside, when the biggest flash and the biggest zap I’ve ever witnessed, flashed and zapped, and I remember we all froze. Lightning had struck one of their trees, and amazingly, somehow did not strike us.

The fact that I remember the Skil Tool Man shows how that moment is imprinted in my mind. So, as you might imagine, the three of us developed a very healthy respect for lightning. Years later, as a softball mom, I watched many a game affected by weather. Depending on the umps, the game was either stopped immediately after a flash or rumble, or they played a while longer, and sometimes too much longer. Enter the Lightning Mom. It used to really irk me that some adults entrusted with kids’ safety didn’t appreciate the seriousness of lightning. Not only did I have that experience as a kid, but on the job, I’d had much safety training involving lightning and how to make sure people didn’t get struck by it. So, let’s just say sometimes some of the umps needed some educating. You’re welcome.

I Watched a Tornado

This really happened. It was in Peoria, maybe in the 70s? Now stop right there, I know when you see 70s, you think, “Uh, huh. It was the 70s.” But I did not dream this. There was a white tornado in Peoria that skipped over the city of Peoria and landed out in the country north of Peoria and took out a couple of houses I think. No one was hurt, which, of course, is the good news, but there it was. I was at the dentist, when the siren in the parking lot starting going off, so we looked outside, and man, I wish we’d had smart phones back then because there was a real live tornado. The strange thing, well, there were several strange things, but one of the strange things was it looked like someone had taped a white tube over the rest of the normal world. Seriously. The sun was shining where I was (hence, the white tornado), but just north of us, maybe a few miles away, houses were being destroyed. And that’s the second strange thing. Where I was, stoplights continued to change, traffic continued to move, and everything was normal……..except if you looked to the north you could see a tornado on the ground.

I did just google “white tornado, Peoria, IL, 1970s” and I found a list of tornadoes in Illinois counties ( There was an F4 tornado in Peoria County on June 29, 1976 at 1:45 pm. There were two other tornadoes in Peoria County in the 70s, but they were in the evening, so I wouldn’t have been at the dentist, so I believe I have found my white tornado. I love the Internet almost as much as I love lists.

One Tropical Storm/Hurricane is Enough

I have to admit, I have never been in a hurricane, but being in a tropical storm, although cool, was more than enough, so we’ll just throw “hurricane” in there as well. It was Tropical Storm Jeanne several years ago, and I was on Fort Myers Beach with my two partners in crime, Jan & Tonya. We knew it probably was coming our way, but we weren't very concerned because we were in Florida, together, laughing and generally having a great time because that’s what we do when we’re together, and then the National Weather Service posted the warning. So we went to our emergency plan. We closed the hurricane shutters, we ordered Chinese food, we stocked up on refreshments, and, I love saying this, we hunkered down. During the night, the wind started whistling, really whistling, like what you would hear in a movie, so we did what all sane people do because, well, we’re from Illinois, so we went outside to see it. Here’s proof.

Ok, so we thought we’d try to fake some tropical storm adventure pictures before the actual storm started, but somebody had to put her cup down, which, as you can see, wasn't blowing in the wind, and well, it seemed like a great idea at the time.

But Then...

Then in the morning, Tonya and I decided we had to check out the beach. So we went out to the beach, which was crazy swirling and blowing, and the water was way over where it normally was, and then we realized with a wind that strong, something blowing could actually hurt us, so we ran back to the condo. Funny thing about tropical storms, I now know. The wind is seriously strong. It kind of took over, and we literally could not stop running. It almost seemed as if we were flying. The only way we could stop was to run around to the other side of the building so the building blocked the wind. True story. Here’s the proof.
Our windblown beauty.
You can't fake this.

I have just realized everything I’ve written about is a weather event. Perhaps this is why I’m fascinated by weather! I have just written about three things that I don’t ever want to experience again, but yet, I am fascinated by all of them! I don’t know what that means, but there you go.

There was one other thing I’d thought I’d mention, but now that I realize I have a weather obsession, I’m a little concerned about the fact that the other thing I have vowed at some point in my life to not experience again is, um, another weather event. So, I will talk about how much I hate Illinois winters another time.

I don’t have a good ending for this, but I guess I got us to stop thinking about emergency landings.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

American Airlines Responded, A Few More Things, and Moving Forward

Since I didn’t hold back about the bad parts of my recent experience with American Airlines, I now need to acknowledge their response. Yesterday, as I was googling American Airlines corporate leaders for my next round of correspondence, an e-mail appeared in my inbox from the airline. It was a response from a real human (thank you, Anita J.), who actually did read what I wrote, and she provided me with a decent voucher and an apology.

Here are some excerpts:
“Please accept our apology for the difficulties you encountered…We are truly sorry to hear we didn’t provide the level of service you expect and deserve…What we can and should do is make every attempt to minimize the inconvenience for our customers when we encounter operational problems. We are disappointed that we didn’t do a better job….”

The letter went on to say my concerns and questions regarding what actually happened on the plane were forwarded to their Risk Management Department, and they would respond to me within 15 days.

Could I fight for more? Maybe. But the goal wasn’t to get into a war with American Airlines. My goal was for them to apologize (they did), for them to own their mistakes (they did), and for them to provide me with some reasonable compensation to encourage me to continue as their customer (they did). I am satisfied with their response, I will appreciate my next round trip to the beach being on them, and I am considering the matter resolved.
Heroes all. The captain is second from the right.
Our flight attendant is below. Photos by Jeni R.

A Few More Things

I know many people reading this will be shocked to know I have a few more things to say.

Accurate News Coverage

Without even knowing most of the 46 other passengers on my flight, I think I can speak for all of them when I say we were slightly offended by the only Peoria Journal-Star article on our emergency landing. “An American Eagle flight … turned around and made an emergency landing Sunday after a heat or smoke sensor went off, Airport Director Gene Olson said.”

I don’t think I need to say much more than, trust me, it was more than a buzzer. Here is a link to a more accurate follow-up story from WEEK TV in Peoria, and it is appreciated:

Constant Screaming Helps NEVER

Another topic discussed in the post-landing rehash by our little gang of four, was the constant screaming by the person or persons in the back of the plane. First of all, it was beyond annoying. Secondly, this was a time to focus on conserving oxygen, not wasting our limited supply. Thirdly, it was beyond annoying. Yes, I mentioned that twice.

Gotta Love a Scientist

This still makes me laugh. When we were discussing our potential last thoughts, one of the gang of four said she felt bad that she didn’t think about her family, because she loves them dearly; and she wasn’t praying, which her church family would be unhappy to know; but instead she was trying to calculate how many minutes of oxygen we might have left. It amused me so much because I know and even love a few scientists, and I could see them doing the same thing. We all went to our safe place.

Some Random Items

I wish I knew the name of the young woman who let me use her phone to text my girls. To the woman with the beautiful smile who was a trainer for, perhaps, an insurance company, thank you again.

Someone in Row 8 videotaped the entire plane experience. I would love for that person to post the video online.

Some of the younger people in my life have commented that they don’t know how they would react in a situation like the one we experienced. I have to say that I honestly don’t know what I would have done or how I would have handled it if I were 20 or 30 years younger and/or I feared leaving my small child. That would have presented a whole new level of distress. I do know, however, that I still would not have screamed the entire time.

I am the queen of mechanical difficulties and flight delays. I normally don’t react much because they happen so often in my life that I'm sort of the running joke of travel delays. This was different.

The staff at the UPS Store/Business Center (especially Stephanie) in the Hilton Americas Houston and the bellmen (especially Cliff) in the Hilton Americas Houston could teach classes on great customer service. They saved my week again and again.

Moving Forward

I think, for the most part, I’m ok. My re-sprain of my ankle is healing, and mentally, I think I’m generally pretty tough. I do have to say, though, there were some “moments.”

During our group’s banquet at the conference, the power went out, and the room went dark. My initial thought (to myself) was, “Oh, dear God, what’s happening??” My brain knew it was not a big deal, and the rest of me came to that conclusion shortly afterward, but it was a startling moment that normally would not affect me in the least. I went to my safe place and texted my girls. Leah sent me a picture of Matthew, my grandbaby. Crisis averted.

On the second leg of my trip home, I realized the flight number was the same, 3176, and I was in the same seat, 5A. I did have to wonder if someone was messing with me, and I did have to take some deep breaths and talk myself through it a bit. I reminded myself I knew exactly where the emergency exit was and I could jump myself right out of it.

This was an interesting situation, and I wanted to ask the flight attendant, but I didn’t want to be “that” passenger (a very funny Friends episode involving flying comes to mind), so I didn’t say anything, but here it is. There was no one seated in one of the exit rows. So what happens if there’s an emergency landing? Who opens that door? I decided I would do one of two things, either jump across and back one row and do it myself, or just go out the exit door behind me and call it a wrap. It did concern me though.


I’m alive, I’m grateful, I encountered a lot of wonderful people, and I witnessed a lot of human kindness.

A few days ago, as I was again coming in for a landing in Peoria, and as I was again watching our approach, I realized I was smiling. It's all good, and it's time to move forward.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Lot of Good, A Little Bad, and Now the Ugly

In my last post, I wrote that I had more to say. As to what really happened, I don’t know exactly. We were told that some kind of pipe overheated, and there was no actual fire. That’s not a lot of information, and I would like to know more. I want to know what actually did happen, why it happened, what they can do so it doesn’t happen again, and what they can learn from this whole experience to help people in the future.

The big “they” in the room, of course, is American Airlines. As I mentioned earlier, I cannot find enough wonderful and positive words to describe the flight crew. Now, let’s walk down the hall to Customer Service, shall we?

Our flights were rebooked for the next day, and we were given rooms for the night in a downtown Peoria hotel, that fortunately had a bar that was still serving. We appreciated that. Depending on which agent helped us, we either got a food voucher or we didn’t. I got one. The others didn’t. (Huh?)

Three of us had been rebooked on a 10:30 a.m. flight through Chicago the next day. We got back to the airport, and we’re sitting at the gate for a while, when we learn our flight has been delayed. We did not learn this from the airline, mind you. We learned it from another passenger who had received a text message. There was no one at the gate from American Airlines, so there was no one to update us, rebook us, or in any way assist us.

While this was happening, a friend of mine who was also flying from Peoria to Houston, came and went……on Delta. We continued to wait.

By the time the agents finally did come to the gate, it was questionable whether two of us would be able to make our connecting flight to Houston from Chicago. We were assured, however, that we could.

Fast forward finally to Chicago. We landed while our connecting flight was boarding. My new friend, Marlene, had to wait for her gate-checked bag, so I hurried out to the arrival gate to have them call ahead to the departure gate to let them know we were coming. There was no one from American Airlines at our arrival gate (are you sensing a recurring theme here?). So I hurriedly limped on ahead (remember the ankle) to the departure gate, perhaps a five-minute walk, to tell them Marlene was on her way. I got to the gate, and you guessed it, there was no one from American Airlines at the gate. The plane was still there, but there was no one from American Airlines to help us.

Another gate agent walked by, and I told her we needed help, and she said there wasn’t anything she could do. American Airlines employees, it appears, have no modern ways to communicate with each other.

Marlene arrived at the same time the gate agent came out of the jetway, and we pretty much knew at that point, we were out of luck. The agent told us we couldn’t get on the plane because it had already left the gate. I said, “We were on another one of your planes. Couldn’t you see on your computer that we were only minutes away??” She said yes, but they don’t hold planes. Now, I know I have been on planes, more than once, where the plane was waiting for people to get there from a connecting flight. I know this has happened, and I have waited a fair amount of time. We are talking minutes in this case, and they knew that, but they chose not to wait.

Soooo, we had to get re-rebooked. (I think I just made up a word.) They told us there was one seat on the 3:30 flight (we were originally supposed to be in Houston around 2). Marlene, bless her, said to give it to me because I was trying to get to a conference, and she was just trying to get home. Let’s further remember this was on our second day of travel with American Airlines, and I probably don’t have to remind anyone reading this that the day before we were breathing nasty smoke in one of their planes because of one of their faulty pipes and we had to make a very scary emergency landing, and…..ok, no, I probably don’t have to remind anyone of that.

Marlene was finally able to get booked on the flight also, and she learned there were two first-class seats. So she asked (as I stood there in awe of her) if we could be upgraded to first class because of all we’d been through. The Gate Supervisor told her she’d have to call Phone Customer Service because Phone Customer Service apparently has more authority than Gate Customer Service. She talked to someone at Phone Customer Service, she was told her request was approved, she was then put on hold for many minutes, and she was then disconnected. When she called back, she was transferred to three different people, and she then insisted she be connected with a Phone Customer Service Supervisor who had the authority to make decisions, and she was put on hold for another long amount of minutes. When she finally did talk to Phone Customer Service Supervisor, she was told she needed to talk to Gate Customer Service Supervisor because Phone Customer Service does not, in fact, have more authority. When she finally found the Gate Customer Service Supervisor, she was told, and I am not making this up, we could not be bumped up to first class because they can’t upgrade everyone who is affected by “mechanical difficulties.”

Mechanical. Difficulties.

We thought we were going to die in a crash landing on one of their smoke-filled jets that was caused by their airline, and they referred to it as “mechanical difficulties.” Ohhhh, American Airlines, you shouldn’t oughta have done that.

I have previously made it clear that I know very little about aviation. Well, this girl does know Customer Service, having spent 20+ years of my professional life working in that capacity. Let’s just cut to the chase here. The one thing you never do, as a human being, but certainly as a business, is minimize a bad experience your customers had, especially if the bad experience involved a terrifying, life-threatening event caused by your company. If you’re wrong, you own it, and you do what you can to make it right. It is not rocket science, and frankly, if they had thrown a decent amount of miles or a voucher my way and said how sorry they were for what I experienced, or even, if they didn’t want to admit fault, if they had said how happy they were that I was ok, I would not have a strong need to pursue this. But, they didn’t.

In fact, I have heard nothing. We were told their Legal Department would be in touch. Not even the Legal Department has attempted to contact me. It has been more than a week, and no one from American Airlines has bothered to get in touch with me at all. That’s ok, though, because I will be getting in touch with them…..

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Your Flight Has Been Canceled.

I have wanted to start a blog for a very long time, but I have hesitated because I can’t seem to get past the idea that no one will really want to read what I have to say, so why bother; and I don’t have a specific subject in mind, although I have narrowed it down to a few; and I do know some things, but I don’t think of myself as an expert; and the list goes on. This week, though, I decided I’m going to write, and people can read it or not.

I’m starting this now because after my terrifying experience with American Airlines earlier this week, I have a lot to say. Some of this is to respond to the many questions I’ve received. Some of this is to try to describe what a potential brush with death feels like. Some of this is to share the good, the bad and the ugly. And mostly, it’s too long to post on Facebook, so today I start my blog.

As many people saw on my Facebook status, I was on an American Eagle jet last Sunday going from Peoria, Illinois to Dallas, Texas. About 15 minutes into what seemed to be a very normal flight, there was a loud pop, and smoke poured into the cabin. It kept coming from whatever its source was somewhere behind me (I was in 5A). At first we thought a window had broken because of the continuous rushing of air, but the smoke quickly became the focus of concern.

Photos by Sheryl I.
In answer to one of the most-asked questions, the oxygen masks did not drop. I have since been told we were not high enough in the air for that to happen. (The flight attendant had just said we could turn on electronic devices.) I have also been told the masks drop when the cabin loses pressure, which was not the case. I have been told the pilots can cause the masks to drop, but with the risk of fire, having more oxygen could be more of a hazard. And I read online that in the case of smoke, the masks don’t really help because they provide a limited amount of supplemental air, and we’d still be breathing the cabin air anyway.

Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of aviation other than the fact that planes usually get me where I want to go, and Delta has the best cookies. I don’t want to imply I have any knowledge. I am only repeating various things I have heard from others if they seem to make sense to me.

After the pop followed by smoke, and the alarms that started beeping, some people started screaming for the masks. Other people just screamed. There was crying, yelling and a lot of fear. I don’t think I screamed, and I know I didn’t cry, but I can’t find the words to describe how truly terrified I was. I have been asked what my first thought was. Here it is. Wait for it. “Well, f**k. I’m going to die.”

At some point, because I was expecting to nosedive, I realized the pilots were still in control of the plane, and I remember thinking that perhaps we could survive this. I’m not sure if the pilots or the flight attendant told us this, but somewhere I remember hearing we were turning back to Peoria. I thought we were too far out, and there was no way we could get that far safely, but I remember feeling a slight bit of hope that they seemed to think they had options.

The smoke was really burning my throat and eyes. The flight attendant told us to cover our mouths with clothing and stay as low as possible. I pulled my t-shirt up over my face and put my head down, and that seemed to help. I remember telling myself to stay calm and take shallow breaths. I’m not sure where that bit of wisdom came from. Maybe the flight attendant said it. I don’t know.

Did I pray? I did. Some people think because I don’t go to temple and I don’t say much about  my religious beliefs that I don’t have a relationship with God. That is not true, but generally I don’t think other people need to hear about it. I’m breaking that rule today. I prayed to not die because my mama needs me and I didn’t want to leave my girls and my sweet, sweet grandson, and I hoped they all knew how much I loved them. Then I prayed for the pilots. I prayed for them to have all the strength and wisdom they needed to land the plane safely. I prayed for them a lot.

The flight attendant kept repeating to us to stay in our seats, keep our seatbelts fastened tightly, cover our mouths, keep our heads down, stay calm, stay in our seats, keep our seatbelts fastened, etc. We were told when we were five minutes out and then two minutes out. I looked out and could see we were approaching our landing. I thought we were going too fast (as many of us did, I learned later), but they placed the plane down beautifully. Then as the plane came to a stop, and we were all feeling the relief, the seemingly-calm flight attendant suddenly jumped up and began yelling for us to get out the emergency exits. I was a bit surprised, as were others, but I read online later that people who survive emergency or crash landings have the best chances of survival if they get out of the plane within 90 seconds. I also learned there is a thing called Normalcy Bias, which causes people to think they survived the landing so they can stop worrying. I really must have been affected by that, because my brain told me we were safe. In hindsight, um, there was smoke in the cabin!

In answer to the next frequently-asked question, I don’t know how cool it was to use the slides, because here’s another thing I learned. Smaller jets don’t have emergency slides! Even one of the gate agents told us later she didn’t know that. So, back to the exits, I get to the door thinking I would continue on walking or climbing down steps (because they would magically appear on the tarmac?), and I looked out and saw nothing but air. Yes, we had to jump about six feet down to concrete. There were two wonderful men who had jumped out pretty early, and they were helping people get out. I remember grabbing their hands and jumping, but (remember the big ankle sprain the night before our family ski trip?) my ankle did not land well, and it quickly turned when it hit the ground. More on that later, but again, big picture ….. I was alive.

Again, I thought the danger was over. Then a calm voice told us to get away from the plane. Another good idea! As we were landing, the fire trucks were rolling out, so the voices of reason from the firefighters sort of took over from there. They were probably the calm voices telling us to move away from the plane. We were just so happy and shocked to be alive.

Then I realized I didn’t have my phone, and I just really needed to reach my babies. A lovely young woman gave me her phone, and I could only text Lindsay because I couldn’t remember Leah’s number (apparently there’s not a “Leah Cell” on every phone). I remember writing something like “Tell everyone. Emergency landing. I’m ok. It’s mom. (I thought that was probably important.) I love you.” The young woman told me she’d let me know if I got a text back. Then a few minutes later she told me she thought there was a text for me. I looked at it, and the first two words were, “Holy shit!” and I said, “Yep. That’s my girl!” :)

I waited my turn to hug the flight attendant, and when I got up to him, I saw he was crying. He did such a good job keeping us all safe and calm, and then getting us off the plane, and it was at that moment it dawned on me that something like this must be horrendous for a flight crew. The pilots were pretty quiet, mostly talking to the fire department, one of them videotaping everything, but I did shake the captain’s hand, and he seemed almost embarrassed by all the gratitude. I will never forget the actions of those three individuals. I hope they will be able to recover from this as well.

It was cold and windy on the tarmac even for the woman my children call “Hot Flash.” Again, minor problem considering we were alive, but when the little parking shuttle bus finally pulled up to start taking us to the terminal, people started looking around for elderly or disabled people or others who should go first. I didn’t have a jacket, so they pushed me onto the bus. It was very sweet. Everyone was so kind to everyone else.

There were other good things that happened that night. Everyone helped everyone. We took turns just like the normal row-by-row getting off a flight. No one pushed anyone out of their way, and we all made sure the others were ok.

Later, in the hotel bar as three other women and I rehashed the whole episode, we reflected on how fortunate it was that there were no pregnant women or young children on the flight. I couldn’t even let myself think about a terrified child going through that. There were no disabled people, and there was only one elderly gentleman who seemed to be ok. A friend said something to me later about her parents not being able to jump out of a plane. I thought of my mother as well. There would have been no way she could have done that. I’m sure the other passengers and/or firefighters would have handled that, but it would have been terribly scary for them, and we were all relieved everyone could get off the plane fairly easily.

I held up throughout the whole ordeal pretty well. Then I finally got my phone back, and when I powered it up, my beautiful little grandson’s face was smiling at me, and I remembered how just a few minutes earlier, I thought I would never get to see him again. I may have shed a few tears at that moment as I kissed his beautiful face on my phone.

Oh, I was asked how hard it was to get back on a plane the next day. I was amazed that it wasn’t difficult. I felt that the statistics had to be in our favor, and I even wondered as the flight got closer if it would affect me, but it didn’t bother me at all. That did surprise me a bit.

There is more to say, but I will end this post on another good note. I genuinely liked the above-mentioned three women. You kind of bond easily when you’ve been through a situation like this, but I would like them anyway, and I hope we stay in touch. We had a great laugh on the way to the hotel, when I think we went through a red light or a very questionable yellow light, and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we lived through an emergency plane landing and got killed in a car accident?” Some people may not think that’s funny, but we sure did. Guess you had to be there.

Did I mention how grateful I am to be alive?