Once-busy airport takes on an eerie calm

Terrorism Strikes America

September 20, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

IF YOU WANTED to see what the suicide terrorists had done to the collective psyche of this country, you had only to drive out to BWI yesterday.

At 9:30 in the morning, this big, bustling metropolitan airport suddenly looked like it was serving Fargo, N.D.

It felt like a sad, empty shell of an airport. Instead of thousands of passengers lined up at ticket counters, browsing through shops and hustling to make their flights, the corridors were eerily quiet, with only a few dozen people passing through at any one time.

At the security checkpoint at Concourse D, only nine passengers were in line to walk through the metal detectors and have their carry-on luggage scanned.

The international terminal was almost completely deserted. At the ticket counters for domestic flights, the few passengers there seemed somber and jittery, their state of mind not exactly helped by the nonstop announcements over the PA system:

All airport patrons - keep all packages and luggage with you at all times.

Due to increased security measures, only ticketed passengers are allowed beyond this point.

Cars left in front of the terminal will be ticketed and towed.(Why anyone had to park in front of the terminal is beyond me. There were so many empty spaces in the parking garage, they could have held a flea market.)

If all that wasn't dreary enough, here and there small pockets of airline employees discussed the latest headlines about their industry: "More than 30,000 layoffs expected at Boeing," "U.S. Airways teeters on the brink of survival," "Aid package planned for industry faltering in wake of attacks."

After about a half-hour of this, I got so depressed that I needed a drink, except it was only 10 in the morning, and a drink at that hour would have led to a nap by 11.

Instead, I asked a woman at the Southwest Airlines counter to direct me to the airport chapel.

"We call it the Meditation Room," she said.

Ah. Of course. The Meditation Room.

"Oh, you'll like it," she said, pointing down the terminal. "It's really quite nice."

Well, I ... I guess it was nice.

The room had a total of 28 seats, institutional beige carpeting and the antiseptic feel of an insurance agency. At the front of the room was a huge mural depicting some kind of vague, swirling, sunset-and-clouds montage.

While I didn't expect to find anyone curled up and quivering in fear at the prospect of boarding a flight, I thought I might find a few nervous fliers there, alone with their thoughts.

Instead, the place was empty, and I sat there for a few moments, drinking in the quiet, which was actually only a little quieter than out in the terminal.

A few minutes after leaving the Meditation Room, I ran into a woman named Yvette Chisholm, who said she was from Gaithersburg.

She was pulling a small suitcase and said she was flying to Chicago, and at that moment, she looked like she could use a visit to the Meditation Room or, failing that, a handful of Xanax.

"I'm very nervous," she said in a soft, tired voice.

She works for a business-research and consulting firm and was headed to a big conference, even though other people had dropped out of the conference in droves, she said.

"No one wants to fly," she said. "If I had my druthers, I would have taken a train. Or driven. ... But you have to get on with your life, your business, your work."

Right now, all she could think of was the report she'd seen on TV about the recent scare at Dulles Airport, where an emergency alert on a flight to Amsterdam had resulted in the pilots scurrying down rope ladders from the cockpit and the FBI surrounding the plane.

It turned out to be a false alarm, but Chisholm said it still rattled her. Pilots escaping on rope ladders - that'll get your attention. And since she had arrived four hours early for her 1:30 flight: "Oh, my God, I have four hours to think about it."

A few minutes later I came upon Dennis Campbell and his wife, Mindy, from Harrisburg, Pa.

Dennis was flying to California in a few hours, but neither he nor Mindy seemed concerned in the least. This is probably the best time to fly, they both said, what with all the extra security measures in place.

"I'm very religious," said Mindy, "and I have a lot of faith."

"You can get in a car accident and get hurt or killed," Dennis said.

Mindy began: "Statistically, you have a better chance of ..."

But then her voice trailed off, maybe because we all knew what was coming next.

Then Dennis and Mindy said part of the reason they weren't afraid of Dennis flying is that they had lived in Arad, Israel, for 3 1/2 years.

They were used to fear, used to the threat of terrorism, used to living with heightened security measures.

"You want to see security, go to Israel," Dennis said.

No, thanks, I said. I wasn't even crazy about coming out here.

I wandered around BWI for another hour or so, talking to a few more people. Most of them had the same mindset as Yvette Chisholm.

Most were nervous about flying. A few had terrible images in their heads, images of the death and destruction they'd seen on TV so many times in the past week, images they couldn't seem to shake no matter how hard they tried.

But it was time to get on with life, they said, time to get on with work.

As I left the airport, still eerily quiet in the early afternoon, I checked the Meditation Room one last time.

It was still empty.

And maybe that was a good thing.

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