Reporter's notebook: An extended Alaska stay

Travel Weekly associate editor Margaret Myre and her husband, Bill, were boarding a flight from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Seattle the morning of Sept. 11 when the FAA imposed an immediate ground stop on all U.S. flights. Her report follows:

e were finishing up a Celebrity cruise and Royal Celebrity rail and bus tour that unseasonably balmy September Fairbanks morning. The weather had cooperated splendidly throughout the trip, which began with an overnight in Vancouver, continued with a cruise of Alaska's Inside Passage and ended with a tour to Denali and Fairbanks.

Those among our group of 18 journalists who had visited Alaska many times marveled that we had had nearly 11 days of cloudless skies. This day was dawning to be no different.

As we gathered our carry-ons to prepare to board Alaska Airlines Flight 108 from Fairbanks to Seattle on the first leg of our trip to Newark, we had no way of knowing that one hour earlier New York had become the first target of the worst terrorism attack in the nation's history.

We were at the gateway when an attendant announced the flight had been canceled because of terrorist attacks against the U.S.

It was a blunt statement suggestive of so many possibilities that we couldn't wrap our minds around it. A TV in the lounge gave us the horrid details.

Our son takes the subway into the World Trade Center every day. It was hours before we knew he was safe. Thus began Day 1 of a seven-day layover.

Within minutes, Anita Healy took control. Healy, the media event planner for Royal Caribbean, parent of Celebrity and Royal Celebrity Tours, accompanied us on the press trip to ensure we had a good experience and a smooth trip home. Now she was leading us out of the airport and back into the bus.

Pike's Waterfront Lodge served as the perfect At the same time, behind the scenes, Nancy Scholl, supervisor of Royal Celebrity's Fairbanks support office and a 20-year industry veteran, was trying to find rooms for all her groups. There were a number of buses in town, and more were coming.

Another 240 people were grounded when a Tokyo-Chicago United Airlines flight was diverted to Fairbanks. "United sucked up all the rooms," Scholl said.

Scholl sent us back to River's Edge, where we had spent the last two days and where we could stay until 11 a.m. From there, she moved us to Pike's Waterfront Lodge. The front of the hotel overlooks the airport, which was now eerily quiet.

"The first thing we had to deal with was getting rooms for everybody," Scholl said. "We must have altered our plans 20 times."

The rail tour does not include lodging, but beginning Sept. 11, Royal Celebrity and Princess picked up the cost of hotels for all its guests. Holland America housed its guests at a reduced rate.

United paid for its passengers' rooms but would not let them have their luggage. Alaska Airlines also intended to store our luggage on board.

"I went to the airport, gave them the names of our guests and said, 'Give me the luggage,' " Scholl said. Our bags arrived within an hour.

With hotels overwhelmed, tourists without a travel agent or tour operator to assist them were in trouble. At the visitors center downtown, we met two couples who had driven from Anchorage and had nowhere to stay.

Also in a less-than-desirable situation were Celebrity guests who had made their own air arrangements. People for whom Celebrity had booked the air had no legwork to do. Those who booked on their own were provided with airline phone numbers.

We met a guest whose agent had saved her $500 on a three-day, precruise stay in Vancouver by booking through United. Now her husband was among those at the airport trying to reschedule.

Day 3, Sept. 13, was our granddaughter Jamie's 4th birthday. We wanted to go home.

We weren't alone. Sandi Bower, assistant manager at the support office and the point person at our hotel, said most guests "wanted to know where they are and how to get out."

One couple tried renting a car to drive some 6,000 miles back to Virginia but were told they could not take it out of Alaska. Others considered taking Amtrak from Vancouver. Aside from there being no way to get to Vancouver, Amtrak was booked through Sept. 19.

Healy brought us all back to reality. "Trust Celebrity to do all it can to get you home quickly and safely," she said. "If you leave now, you're on your own."

On Day 4, she gave us the option of taking the motorcoach to Anchorage, where the airport had reopened.

She advised against it, with good reason. The cruise lines were disembarking in Seward and busing passengers to Anchorage to meet flights that no longer existed. More than 1,000 travelers had already been stranded there for several days.

Holland America and Royal Caribbean brought 3,000 into Seward that day; Princess brought another 1,950 the next. Those who no longer had flights were put up in hotels.

Anticipating Fairbanks Airport's reopening, Healy booked all of us to fly to Seattle on Sept. 17. My husband and I had a connecting flight to Newark.

On Day 5, the National Day of Mourning and Remembrance, buses took us to our choice of two church services. At both, firemen in overalls with red suspenders stood out among the worshippers.

Day 6: Our Continental flight was canceled, but we were rebooked on US Airways into Baltimore. We would drive home from there. One of our group, a woman from Manhattan, also had been shifted to Baltimore, and we volunteered to take her home.

Day 7: At Fairbanks Airport, movement was slow as employees examined randomly selected bags of checked luggage on tables set up near the counters. Wearing surgical gloves, they unpacked clothing, opened every boxed item and ran their hands along suitcase linings.

At 8:15 a.m., we were in the air -- where most Americans least wanted to be. We arrived safely in Seattle and made our connection. Driving home from Baltimore, we talked about work, our lives and what our nation's response to this horrific act would be.

We arrived at the Lincoln Tunnel at 3:30 a.m., where we were greeted by police with flashlights. After a cursory look inside our rental car, they waved us on.

It was difficult to look at the skyline. We didn't have to search for the hole in the sky; smoke and work lights filled the gap.

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