Twenty years ago, on the actual 9/11, I was in Stockholm flying back to London via SAS after a long city break.
Funnily enough, I had delayed it by one week, because accommodation during the previous weekend was scarce; I found out later that there was a big medical conference in town, so there was hardly anywhere to stay on a Monday night. And I had to leave on a Tuesday, because Sunday night was going to be my highlight, and I expected to be non-functional next day.
You see, on Sundays, a buzzy club night was held on an old boat, Patricia, moored on Södermälarstrand: pop, disco and schlager in the land of Abba – what else could my twenty-year-younger self want? As it happens, I made a reservation at a B&B in Södermalm, so that I could walk to the ship and stumble back on foot.
And so I booked my return SAS flight to London on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at 5:15pm.
I spent the weekend being a tourist. I went to the Vasa museum and to a ‘special’ Abba exhibition opposite that later turned into a permanent one. I roamed in Skansen an open-air museum and zoo about the Swedish way of life and saw my first ever wolverine.
I visited the fin-de-siècle Hallwyl House, which the Countess of Halwyll donated to the Swedish state on condition that the interior be preserved exactly as it was when she died (1930); it was as fascinating as it was bizarre. I went to the Royal Palace on Stadsholmen and took the ferry to the royal summer residence at Drottningholm. And, finally, I discovered a wonderful second-hand bookshop, where I bought The South American Handbook (1966 edition) when travel to Latin America was mainly by steamship.
Sunday night came, and it was as boozy and as fun as I expected. Monday just drifted by in a drunken haze. On Tuesday, I arrived at 3:30pm for my SAS flight and found out that it was delayed indefinitely. In fact, most international flights were delayed.
Of course, 3:30pm Central European Time was 9:30am EST and, unknown to me, both airplanes had by then hit the Twin Towers (at 8:46am and 9:03am). But to me this was one of those days.
The first indication that something was really wrong was the admission by SAS staff that UK airspace was closed. At the time, I thought something had happened in London – maybe the IRA has started bombing again. As there were no smartphones and 24-hr news websites, a fellow passenger called home and told us that there was a terrorist incident in New York. New York? And the airspace in London was closed? It did not make sense.
An hour later, we were told that the airspace had opened. We would leave at 7:15pm CET, only two hours late. Phew!
But the family of a Saudi or an Emirati passenger was kicked out of our flight. I would have been furious but, strangely, he seemed to acquiesce when a uniformed policeman said something to him out of earshot.
It’s on the plane, after I approached the air stewards huddled and whispering among themselves, that I found out what had happened. Apparently, flights to Heathrow were limited to one landing every five minutes and restricted to short-haul only. Ours was one of the first ones that would be allowed in. Sweden was deemed a safe origin and SAS a neutral airline. Had I booked with BA, I wouldn’t have taken off. But why?
It was then, about half an hour before landing, that I heard the full story and my perspective on my stay in Stockholm changed. The Patricia party, Skansen, Vasa, Hallwyl House, Abba – everything seemed irrevocably tainted. How dare I have had a good time?
Heathrow was almost empty and I breezed through. While waiting for my luggage to arrive, I, too, finally called home to find out the details of what happened and tell mum that I had arrived safely. Mobile roaming charges in 2001 were vicious.
Once at home, I turned the TV on and watched in horror at what had transpired while I’d been waiting at Stockholm Airport. And watched. And watched again..
I never returned to Stockholm.