My 9/11 Story – Updated

(Note: I originally posted a shorter version of this story on 9/11/12, some 7 years ago today.  This year I add many more details to round out some of the edges. -jlk)

On this important day, like many others, I offer my ‘where were you on 9/11?” story.

I was having a quiet breakfast when I first became aware of something quite out of the ordinary.

As I recall, the main course of my breakfast consisted of a cheddar cheese omelet. On the side were home fried potatoes and stewed tomatoes. A small breakfast roll, butter and jam, water, coffee, and orange juice rounded out the meal.

I never got to finish that breakfast.

As I was eating, the overhead public address system came alive with the following announcement:

“All flight attendants to the intercom!”

A minute later, the public address system crackled alive once more with the additional–even more ominous–message:

“Chief Purser to the Cockpit!”

As you’ve no-doubt figured out, I was having my breakfast eleven eighteen years ago this morning while sitting on a plane.  In fact, I was sitting in the Business Class section of a United Airlines Boeing 777.  At that moment I and my fellow passengers were at about 35,000 feet flying from Miami, Florida to Denver.  I was headed to Denver to meet a connecting flight for the leg that would return me to my home in Los Angeles.

In fact, I was flying a day earlier than planned returning from a conference I had been attending in Miami Beach.  The conference I was attending was one I regularly attended, but I wasn’t too happy to be there that year.  On the spur of the moment, the evening of September 10th, I called United Reservations and changed my flight to early the next morning.  I’m sure that last minute reservation change received some federal scrutiny after the fact…

Right after the time of the Captain’s announcements, the seat-back GPS screen showed the aircraft to be approaching the western edge of the Florida panhandle, just where it meets the Gulf Shores area of Alabama, which was not recently subject to a hurricane watch.  Ahem.

Moments after the Captain’s twin announcements, the cabin crew reemerged into the passenger compartment. They silently started what can only be described as a frenetic meal service clearance and cabin preparation for what we all feared could be a crash landing. The flight attendants said they didn’t know what was happening. They had to do their emergency clear per the Captain’s orders.

About this same time, the giant plane began a series of less-than-gentle S-turns, first left, then right, then left again, and right again. While this was happening, the plane was also shedding altitude at a serious clip.

A few minutes later, while the plane was still making its sharp S-turns, the Captain (finally) came on the public address system once more, now directly addressing all of the passengers. The Captain told us that as we all suspected, our plane was going to make an emergency landing, but in the very same breath he made it crystal clear that there was no problem with our aircraft. The Captain continued, saying that ‘Air Traffic Control was going down all over the East Coast’ and we had only 15 minutes to get on the ground somewhere.


Anywhere turned out to be Birmingham, Alabama.  The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport to be specific.  That airport was some 200 miles from what was then our present position. If you do the math, to be on the ground 200 miles away in 15 minutes would require the plane to travel at faster than speed of sound, and as good as Boeing 777s are, they aren’t that good.  It was closer to half-an-hour before we landed in Birmingham.

Why Birmingham, Alabama?

The Birmingham airport had an unusually long runway at 10,002 feet (since increased by another 2,000 feet), and a shorter runway of 7,100 feet. Because our aircraft was carrying unspent fuel to travel all the way across the country (including the safety reserves), the aircraft needed a long runway to land with its heavy load.

When we landed in Birmingham and rolled to a stop, the first thing I did was to pull down my carry-on bag and call my wife on my cell phone.

As she started talking to me, I immediately repeated out loud to the passengers and crew around me everything she was saying:

Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers…

…another plane had just crashed near Washington, D.C…

…the Air Force is trying to shoot down two more planes…

I remember feeling disembodied while I was repeating what she was telling me. I was the observer of my own person. Never before, nor since, have I felt this nearly-indescribable sensation.

The cabin around me fell silent. The faces of the passengers and crew were drained of all blood. We stared into each others eyes not knowing what to say, what to do.

It turned out that we didn’t have much to say or do for quite a while.

September 11, 2001 was the first time a United Airlines Boeing 777 had ever landed at Birmingham. United had no way to actually get us off of the aircraft. All of their air-stairs were intended for much smaller aircraft, and every Jetway was already occupied by other aircraft of all types, sizes, and livery. We ended up parking on a taxiway away from the main terminal.

About 90 minutes after landing, United was finally able to secure portable air-stairs from the UPS freight terminal at the airport. We made our way down the air-stairs with all of our carry-on bags, but we were told that there was no way for them to unload our containerized luggage. We would have to do without our luggage for the duration, however long that duration might be.

Inside the terminal, there were no TVs in operation so we still didn’t know what was happening in the larger world.

United’s small cadre of ticketing staff was furiously registering arriving passengers and handing out hotel, food, and taxi vouchers. I was so impressed to see that United’s staff was being assisted by terminal ticketing staff from many other airlines who were helping out in the process. On that day eleven eighteen years ago, terminal staff worked for the airline industry and the public, not for any particular airline.

The airline hotel vouchers being handed out were for local airport-area hotels.

It occurred to me that the no one knew what was really happening, and it might not be the best of ideas to stay at a hotel next to an airport that also happens to be a major military base used by the Air National Guard.

Having worked in the Birmingham area over the years as a cable system inspector for local governments, I knew of a very nice Holiday Inn about 7 miles and several ridges away in Homewood, Alabama. Yeah, that would work just fine for me.

After a few quizzical looks, the ticketing agent issuing vouchers gave me one marked for the Holiday Inn in Homewood.

By this time, all of the ATMs inside the airport had their metaphorical dispersing needles all the way in the red area below “E” and I only had about $20 in my wallet.

With no luggage, and only with the cloths I was wearing and my carry-on bag, I took a taxi to the Holiday Inn in Homewood. (There were no rental cars left by the time we got into the terminal. Yeah, big surprise.)

From a cash perspective, it was a good election.

Upon entering the Holiday Inn, I spied an ATM machine in a corner of the lobby. Before even checking in, I drained the hotel’s ATM to my card’s daily limit. Then I checked in.

Finally, I entered my hotel room, turned on the TV, and joined the rest of the civilized world watching the uncivilized horror and carnage of that day play out over-and-over a hundred times; a thousand times.

Backtracking a bit, before leaving the increasing hot cabin on the 777, I exchanged mobile phone numbers with several other passengers.  We agreed to say in touch while trying to get home.

And back home to Los Angeles, I made, some four days later.

Early on Friday morning, I received several call from members of the phone tree, and one from the local United agent.  They all said to get to the airport as quickly as possible to get back on the Denver-bound flight.   I did get to the airport around 8:00 a.m.

And I waited…

And I waited….

And I waited…..

Around 9:00 p.m. Friday night they had the passengers walk out onto the tarmac and identify each person’s luggage.  Then the luggage was sniffed by a police dog.  Once the dog cleared our luggage, we were instructed to carry our luggage across the tarmac to the luggage conveyor at the foot of the 777.  Once our luggage was secured in the cargo hold, we all climbed the UPS steps back on to the 777.

Hours later, after midnight, we landed in Denver.  The through passengers were issued additional hotel and food vouchers.  Another city; another Holiday Inn.

Saturday morning after breakfast, I called the United Airlines 1K reservation line.  They said that there was no possibility of me making it back to Los Angeles that day.

I did the only logical thing.

I went back to the airport.

I registered in and hung out at the 1K Lounge on the second floor of Terminal C.

Hours later, I heard my name being called.

‘There’s one seat on the only flight operating to L.A. today.  It’s yours.  Go NOW!’

I went, and made it back to Los Angeles late Saturday afternoon, September 15, 2001.

Like I said at the beginning, I was having a quiet breakfast just four days earlier the morning of 9/11/2001.

Today is a another day of remembrance for all of us on a personal basis, and on the much larger basis of uniting all against evil.

Jonathan on 9/11/19


When Wireless Firms Hire Electeds

In my view, there is (at the very least least) a fundamental ethical disconnect when local government elected officials then get hired by wireless firms, and then use their elected position in connection with promoting the wireless industry agenda nearby jurisdictions.  This is not like an elected operating a local pharmacy, and being greeted with, ‘Hey, Mayor, can I get a refill on my prescription?’  This is more like an elected making meeting appointments with electeds and other senior officials in nearby communities, then going in and saying things like, ‘As a Council Member in (insert the City name here) I know what you’re going through, and you really should allow the wireless company I represent to build lots of cell sites in your residential neighborhoods.’

I’ve seen it happen in the past, and I’m seeing it happen right now.

No, Madam Council Member or Mr. Mayor, you’re not smarter than the average bear, but only luckier to have been elected so you can then seemingly market yourself and promote your wireless employer off of your elected position.

I can hardly wait for the California Fair Political Practices Commission Form 700 (Statement of Economic Interests) season to open next year.  It’ll be interesting to see what the going employment salary is this year for elected official who are then employed by wireless providers.




Ajit Pai: Loc Govs Delay Small Cell Sites

FCC Chair: Local Govs are Small Cell Problem

On August 28, 2019, FCC Chairman Pai spoke at the University of Mississippi Tech Summit, including about small cell installations.

Not so buried within his prepared comments was a window into the Chairman’s approach to perpetuating his role as chief wireless industry cheerleader, rather than the chief wireless industry regulator on behalf of the public.

Mr. Pai said:

Turning to our work on wireless infrastructure, the second part of the 5G FAST plan, we need to install hundreds of thousands of small cells for 5G—a huge increase in the number of antenna locations for our current networks.  Unfortunately, it’s routinely taken more than two years to get the regulatory approval for small-cell installations, which can only take about two hours to actually complete.  We’ve also seen excessive siting fees imposed by local governments.  Some cities charge $5,000 for the same approval that might cost $50 elsewhere.

That’s why the FCC set a reasonable shot clock for cities to rule on small cell siting applications and reasonable limits on the siting fees cities can charge.  There’s growing evidence that these reforms are working.  In 2018, the number of wireless small cells deployed in the United States more than quadrupled, from 13,000 to more than 60,000.

FCC Chairman Ajit PaiChairman Pai bare claim that “it’s routinely taken more than two years to get the regulatory approval for small cell installations” is pure fabrication from the wireless industry, which he (a former Verizon attorney) seems to have gladly swallowed without apparent care to independently verify that outrageous claim regarding small cells.

Yes, a percentage of applications can take years. A tiny percentage at best.

Chairman Pai’s statement that this is a routine time-frame is, to quote another member of the Administration, “fake news”.

From personal experience with thousands of wireless applications, a tiny percentage of those applications have taken more than FCC’s shot clock because of various reasons.  Those reasons most often lay at the feet of the applicants.

The reasons include (but are not limited to) poorly crafted wireless industry applications that miss material requirements needed to process the application to completion.  Some wireless site applications contain false or incorrect statement(s); some applications violate the sidewalk clearance requirements of the ADA; some applications would have the local government inversely condemn private property; some applications omit RF information needed to determine compliance with the FCC’s rules.  That list goes on.

Let’s move on to the next misstatement by Mr. Pai.  He claims that it “can only take about two hours to actually complete” a small cell review.  Of course he omits the source or basis for his claim.  It is outlandish and most certainly comes from the wireless industry; not from local government.  I’m just guessing here, but I’ll wager that the Chairman has not processed even one wireless application on behalf of a local government.  Again, the Chairman has taken us into the Administration’s land of fake news.

[Following paragraph added 9/3/19:] I’ve received some input suggesting that Mr. Pai’s comment about 2 hours meant that it only takes two hours to install a small wireless facility.  Ha.  That’s even more of a fantasy compared to the alternative claim that it takes two hours to process a SWF application.  Even strand-mounted SWFs takes days or weeks to install because of the steps required.  First, the installation of the power source, which may be local or remote; second, the installation of the back haul fiber (save for Sprint’s wireless back haul); third, the hanging of the radios and antennas; and fourth, the integration and optimization of the site into the network.  (At one AT&T small cell installed on a light standard a block from my L.A. office, AT&T has yet to bother to replace the concrete section of sidewalk at the pole.  It’s been nearly a year. AT&T, make the right choice and finish up your ground work.) Two weeks to two months is closer to the usual reality, and completely outside of any time frames set by a local government or the FCC on a local government.  If installation time is Chairman Pai’s beef, his is a “where’s the beef” comment disconnected from reality.  [End of paragraph added 9/3/19:]

As for the  Chairman’s third statement, that “[s]ome cities charge $5,000 for the same approval [for a small cell] that might cost $50 elsewhere”, that omits any basis in reality.  Even the Chairman seems to admit this when he says “might “cost”; not does cost.  Our third visit to Pai Fake News Land in just two sentences.

Let’s be clear: The small cell rules the Chairman speaks about have already been partially invalidated by the DC Circuit based on a lack of factual foundation at the FCC.  The various 9th Circuit suits by local governments to overturn the Small Wireless Facilities Order continue.

Verified facts trump fake news, and regulators should not see their primary role be industry enablers when their real job is to regulate those under its supervision.

Those are my opinions.  What are yours?