A strange perspective on a terrible dayTwo years is not time enough to let go of the memories of Sept. 11, 2001. Park Sang-hoon has his own story to tell. It pales beside the stories of those who saw the horrors in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, but he can’t forget it.
Two years ago today, Mr. Park boarded Korean Air Flight 085, bound from Seoul to New York. The chief executive officer of a venture capital company specializing in artifical intelligence, he was no stranger to the flight. He made himself comfortable in his window seat in business class, mulling over his plans to attract American buyers.
After about eight hours, the plane was to stop over in Anchorage, then leave for New York. The plane was delayed for about 40 minutes in Seoul, then took off with its load of more than 400 mostly Korean passengers. After a while, he fell asleep.
He was jolted awake by the captain’s announcement that the plane would not land in Anchorage, because every single airport in the United States had been shut down. Mr. Park barely opened his eyes, and saw on a video screen that the plane’s route was bypassing Anchorage.
“Something’s wrong,” said a fellow passenger Mr. Park would later come to know as Choi Chang-sik. “Lockdown of all airports means only one thing: that there is a war.”
Mr. Park was no longer a bit sleepy. Mr. Choi made a brief phone call, turned to Mr. Park and said, “The World Trade Center tumbled down. A terrorist attack.”
Mr. Park didn’t believe it. But the plane had already changed course and was heading to Canada. Inside the cabin, uneasy silence ruled.
After a couple of hours, the plane landed at a small airport at Whitehorse, a town of 18,000 in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The one and only local airport had never seen a jumbo jet like KAL 085. (Townspeople later told Mr. Park that, because of the similarity of the logos, they’d thought the plane was owned by Pepsi.)
The runway was short and narrow, which made the landing dangerous. Once safely landed, all Mr. Park had in mind was to get off the plane. He got up, but then the crew told everyone to remain seated. They stayed in their seats for another hour.
Bored, Mr. Park looked out the window to see armed men in black surrounding the plane. Some of them were pointing guns at the plane.
To Mr. Park, it looked like a scene from a movie. After a while, the agents approached the plane, boarded it and told the passengers and crew to get off the plane and leave everything behind, including their jackets.
As the passengers filed off the plane, agents flanked them on either side in double columns. Some were videotaping the passengers; some still had guns at the ready. September in Whitehorse felt like Korea in the middle of winter, and the passengers were in their shirtsleeves.
Inside the tiny airport, Mr. Park looked for a TV set, wanting to know whether the unbelievable had actually taken place. But there wasn’t a TV in the place. The only available communication devices were four pay phones, which fell short of meeting the needs of more than 400 passengers. And to top things off, there wasn’t a decent cafeteria in the airport.
But Mr. Park put these annoyances into perspective once he learned that his plane could conceivably have been shot down.
Here is what had happened to KAL Flight 085, according to a crew member who told the story to Mr. Park:
After the terrorist attacks, and the ordering-down of all air traffic by the government, KAL 085 happened to be one of the four planes remaining in U.S. airspace. The passengers didn’t know it at the time, but while they were in the air, U.S. fighter jets had surrounded the plane, prepared to shoot it down if it turned out to have been hijacked. According to the story a crew member told Mr. Park, a miscommunication had taken place. (While not confirming the story in detail, a Korean Air official did confirm that an incident of this nature had happened.)
Listening to this story in the Whitehorse airport, wrapped in a blanket given to him by locals who had come to the airport to help the stranded passengers, Mr. Park felt like a refugee ― which, he was told, is legally what he was, according to international aviation law, since he was a passenger on a plane that had broken away from its course to make an emergency landing.
Every passenger and crew member had to stay at the airport until everyone’s identification was checked. This took well into the evening. Only then could Mr. Park and his fellow passengers retire to motel rooms. Mr. Park had a dinner of Chinese food and finally found a TV set. He saw the World Trade Center turning into dust. Most of the passengers stayed up all night, talking.
Prospects didn’t look good the next morning. No flights were being allowed in U.S. airspace. People from Whitehorse brought jumpers, sweaters and other necessities, which impressed Mr. Park, but did not help him feel better.
Then a townsman told Mr. Park that visitors mostly came to Whitehorse for mountain climbing and bear hunting. Neither was exactly his specialty. But he wasn’t ready to be idle, and he soon found that there were three golf courses nearby. He invited two fellow passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Dokko Joong-hoon, and they took a taxi to one of the courses, where they managed to borrow clubs and balls. On the course, the men were in suits, and Mrs. Dokko wore high heels. For two hours, they forgot about everything but hitting the ball. Mr. Park remembers the game to this day.
Back at the motel, there was good news: The plane would be allowed to take off and land in U.S. airspace the following day. Going directly to New York was out of the question; they flew instead to Anchorage, where they had to spend another day. Mr. Park wanted to go straight back to Korea, but that wasn’t possible because of the scarcity of flights. Advised to first go to New York, he finally arrived in the city he’d originally intended to fly to.
“I’ve never seen New York that dark and dead silent,” Mr. Park says.
His meeting with American buyers had, of course, been cancelled. He came home two days later.
“I was just so dumbfounded by the tragedy myself,” he says. “And I was so sorry that I could not even talk about it to my business partners.”
But he does talk about it with the people who were on that plane with him. He still keeps in touch with Mr. and Mrs. Dokko, his golf partners in Whitehorse. And Choi Chang-sik, the passenger who first told him that the World Trade Center had fallen, is now a close friend.
Mr. Park even wants to visit Whitehorse, where strangers were so kind to him.
Mr. Park flew to New York again, a month after the tragedy, on another Korean Air flight. The items he was trying to sell backthen never became a success. Mr. Park, however, does not complain, nor does anyone who still remembers that day’s most basic lesson.
“At least I’m alive,” he says, “I’m grateful just for that.”
by Chun Su-jin