Sunday, July 07, 2013

The San Francisco Plane Crash

I had a wonderful, but exhausting week, in South Korea. I was invited to teach through Paul's Epistle to the Philippians on Jeju Island just off the coast of mainland South Korea. I would be speaking to about 25 college-aged students from South Korea, Japan, and the United States at the Word of Life Bible Institute. Saturday began with a drive to the Jeju airport, followed by a quick 1 hour flight to Gimpo Airport in Seoul. After a bus ride across town, I arrived at the Incheon Airport in Seoul for my United Airlines flight to go home. We were flying through San Francisco.

I actually went to high school in the Bay Area (Foothill High School in Pleasanton, CA) and received my M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley. So the area brought back a lot of fond memories, including the first apartment my beautiful bride and I lived in: a one-bedroom coming in under 500 square feet. This planned layover at SFO would be short: about 2 hours. No time to visit friends.

Our plane arrived about 20 minutes early. The pilot joked at how rare that was and asked us to excuse them for the next time we traveled when they would be their typical 5-10 minutes late. So at 11:05am we touched down, a very rough landing that the pilot tried (in vain) to joke about ... not very funny. Regardless, I needed to get through immigration, get my bag, and get rechecked in and go through security in under 90 minutes. So I rushed through everything and in record time, getting to my 1:00pm flight gate at 11:45am.
As I approached the gate, I saw a crowd at the window looking outside taking pictures and video. I wondered: "Haven't these people ever been to an airport?" It was odd to see them so fascinated with the plane that I figured was pulling up to the gate. As I smirked I looked out the window and saw this ...
Picture from my phone at SFO on 7/6/13

Cancellations for incoming flights
 That was when I noticed: everyone was silent and serious. After a minute or two, I asked someone what happened. The first of many pieces of misinformation I would receive that day: "The plane was taking off and it crashed." In fact, the plane was landing, but I didn't find that out for some time. We all were just staring out, waiting for the inevitable: the cancellation of our flights. And then they came ...

We all were told to go re-book our flights. The problem was, the airline had no idea when the airport would re-open. So I quickly rescheduled my flight for 10:15pm that night.

While waiting for the 10:15 flight, I went in to a restaurant to grab a bite to eat and watch the news. When I saw the picture on the screen I started to shake: the plane that crashed took off from South Korea at the same time as mine and was one of the options I had looked at for flights. If our plane had not been early, we would have been landing at right about the same time. I don't know exactly what I was feeling, except a sense that I had been close to death. In reality, I was safe in my Heavenly Father's arms. But that (truer) reality didn't kick in for a few minutes.

Rumors circulated that the plane had done cartwheels, that no one had died, that 60 had died, that 2 had died, that an engine had failed on descent, that no planes were leaving SFO until Monday, etc., etc. Eventually my 10:15 flight was cancelled. So I got back in line again. This time I was told that all flights from SFO, Oakland, and San Jose were book for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. It might not be until Friday until we all can get out of the Bay Area. I quickly called the phone number given to me and took the first flight out of Oakland: Monday at 6:00am.

Now I needed a place to stay. I asked the airline if they could provide a voucher since I was getting a connecting flight (most people around me were flying out of SFO, not connecting). They said that since the situation wasn't there fault, I was on my own. So, my precious wife got on Facebook to reach out to friends around San Fran. An old friend, Brad, called and invited me to stay at his house. He gave me directions on how to take the shuttle to his place, but at that point I had been up for almost 24 hours straight (I can't sleep on planes). I found my way to the shuttle. After driving for about 25 minutes I asked the person in front of me: "Please tell me we've been here before" (I thought my exhaustion finally got to me!). She informed me that we were driving in circles, around and around the airport until the shuttle filled up. So, after about four circles, we finally left the airport. In all, it took almost 2 hours to get to the end of the line where my friend lives.

On the way we passed Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, where I had studied from 1997-2000. From the freeway I could see the first apartment my wife and I lived, a restaurant where we had a date (right next to the Ferrari dealership), and many other places of memories past. Every 2-3 minutes I would smile large and sigh as I had a memory of a place. It had been 13 years since I had seen this area, but there were a lot of good memories.

I went to bed rather quickly and woke up over 11 hours later. We talked for about four hours, enjoying great conversations about Exodus International (he had been on staff there in the 90s), Rob Bell, spiritually abusive churches, the emerging/emergent church, his writing projects, my writing projects ... all stuff from the past 13 years we wanted to catch up on! However, we didn't have a way for me to get to the Oakland Airport Monday morning, until a high school friend of my wife's called.

C.J. is a fireman in San Fran. He was actually on a boat at the airport the previous day searching in the water for any survivors. He came to Novato (25 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge) and took me to his house near Oakland to stay for the night. Now I'm preparing for bed for an early (4am) taxi ride to the airport. If tomorrow goes well, I'll have started my trip in Jeju at 9:45am and it'll (Lord willing) end in Columbia, SC tomorrow at about 6 or 7pm. I think that's like almost 70 hours, but the time zones are rather confusing for me!

Please pray for a safe, quick trip tomorrow. I really miss my family.

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