On September 11, 2001, my mom and I were on our way home from an extended European vacation.
I remember sitting in the terminal at Gatwick Airport, re-living the prior two weeks in my head. My mom and I had visited Ireland, Russia, France, and England. I had the time of my life and was just disappointed that it was all coming to an end. I was headed back to Atlanta for another week of selling vitamins and gold cards at my GNC store that I managed in Buckhead. I recall wanting to be closer to home. Spending time with her made me realize just how much I missed Tennessee.
We loaded up on our Boeing 777 Delta flight 11, traveling from Gatwick to Atlanta.
As we made our way into the air, my mind drifted. I just felt something tugging at my heart. I put my headphones on and fell asleep.
I don’t recall precisely how many hours had passed. Still, I do know that we were over the ocean coming into United States airspace. The music in my headphones was temporarily interrupted. It was the voice of a noticeably shaken pilot. What happened next will be etched in my mind for the rest of eternity. “Ladies and Gentlemen….I need……you… to listen to me very carefully. There has been an attack on the United States. Two commercial planes have flown into the World Trade Center. We have been informed that US airspace is being close, and we are being diverted to another location.” The terror I felt over every inch of my body was intense. I thought I was going to die. I could see on the map that we were close to NYC. He mentioned two planes. Could our plane have hijackers on it? Was this a full-scale attack on America, and was I sitting right in the middle of it? If I died, what would happen? Could I survive a plane crash? These are questions that many people will never ask themselves. A few moments later, the pilot came back on and gave us some additional information. We were flying to St. Johns, Newfoundland, until further direction from the United States was given. I was scared.
We landed in Canada. This Canadian airport was an international airport that serviced one international flight per week. 27 international Jumbo jets were now sitting on her tarmac. How long would we have to be on this plane? The pilot only told us to try and relax. I had my video camera and videotaped fighter jets in the air and soldiers with machine guns guarding each plane. I am sorry, but relaxing is not what I was doing. Mom and I were on the phone with my sister Andrea, and she was really shaken up. We didn’t know what to tell her because we really didn’t know anything.
I was asking myself a lot of questions. I had a long time to answer these questions because the pilot came on the PA system and told us that they were going to unload one plane at a time. They had to search each plane and each passenger. This would take around an hour per plane from smallest to biggest, and we were one of the biggest planes that had been diverted there. Well, 19 hours passed before we greeted Canadian soil. We were carefully brought off the plane. Security was at high alert. We were greeted by armed guards, some with machine guns. After making it through customs, they loaded us on buses. They transported us to the local hockey arena, which they were using as the central transportation center for all diverted passengers.
When we walked into the arena, it was the first time any of us had seen it. There it was on the jumbotron. Over and Over again, it replayed those planes slamming into the building. Those planes that looked eerily similar to the one we just disembarked. Many around the world watched this horrific tragedy from their work or from their home. Mom and I were in a hockey arena in Canada, had not slept for two days, which included 19 hours sitting in a plane. At that point, we still did not understand the full extent of what had happened. My heart sinks every time I think of the people who lost their lives and the families that lost their loved ones.
Each plane was assigned a section of seats in the arena. We had time to get to know some of our fellow passengers. There was the Director of Communications for Coca Cola UK, VP for a Video Tech company in America, and a lovely couple on their honeymoon. There were countless others, but these were some that mom and I befriended.
Finally we were told that they would transport us to our Hotel. Actually, it was Holy Heart High School. Not really your typical bed and breakfast.
My mom and I were assigned to the Science room on the second floor. We were exhausted, so we decided to try and get some sleep. I was not able to fall asleep due to the snoring and the fact that I felt as if I had been thrown in an ocean after being skinned alive.
The community of St. Johns came together and put their collective arms around us. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for how they treated us. They brought us food, sang for us, and invited us into their homes. They went above and beyond what you could ever imagine making sure that we knew we were being cared for. They offered tours of their beautiful city, which several of us took advantage of. We learned that St. John’s was the easternmost part of North American. Part of the tour included a boat ride, which is where we found out the remains of the Titanic were only a short distance away. James Cameron was on-site shooting a documentary about the Titanic. The hit movie Titanic had come out only 3 years earlier.
I had several days in Canada to reflect on my life. What had I accomplished? I had found tremendous success in my career at GNC as a general manager, but I could feel God tugging at my heart. He had something in store for me, which wasn’t completely clear yet. My mind was overloaded, but I was trusting in the process, and I knew that I was not in control.
After four days, we were given word that we would be going home. I had mixed emotions. I really didn’t want to get back on a plane, but I really wanted to go home to my apartment in Atlanta. As we lifted off, there was thunderous applause. I felt relief, terror, and anxiety. The last four days felt like four years, and I knew that processing this was going to take a long time. We were the first diverted plane to arrive back into Atlanta. When we touched down, we all cheered and whistled as if we had just scored a winning touchdown. As we taxied back to the terminal, hundreds of airport employees lined our route, waving flags and banners that said, “WELCOME HOME” and “WE LOVE THE USA.” I could not help but cry, as did most of the passengers on the plane. Seeing those American flags and people cheering made me feel safe.
This was a significant moment in American history and was also a significant moment in Kevin’s history. I needed something to change in my life. Even though I had made some positive changes, there was something more that I needed to do, and God was showing me. I felt God calling me back home to Tennessee. I had lived in Atlanta for over 3 years, and I had my Aunt and many friends there. I needed time to collect my thoughts and to allow God to show me the way. I received a job opportunity in Knoxville. After seeking guidance from God and my family, I decided to jump on it. God was leading me, and I was following. I came home in April 2002 and started my new job on May 1, 2002. My future wife, Pam, started two weeks later. Pam and I started dating in August, and I proposed to her one year to the day after our first date, August 11, 2003. We got married on December 20, 2003, and found out we were having our first child on October 21, 2004. Olivia was born on June 6, 2005. We found out that we were having a little boy on June 18, 2007. Patrick Callaghan Rhea was born on February 22, 2008.
Everything I have, I owe to God. He had a plan for me. Part of His plan is for me to share with Olivia and Patrick, the love and grace that He showed me. I have problems like everyone else. I battle anxiety, loneliness, fear, and times of hopelessness. The difference today is that I have a purpose. That purpose is becoming more evident, but part of it is to share His love with others. I need to get out of my shell more often to let others know that God has a plan for you too!
September 11 is a day of remembrance for us all. It is a day that I reflect on my life. Where have I been, and where am I going. I regularly get off track, and I always need to be reminded that God loves me no matter what. It’s easy to let life take over and to forget what is most important.
My prayers are with all of the family members who are still suffering from the events of that day. I pray that they may find peace and understanding from a world that knows not these things. I pray for the salvation of a nation that does not see the truth. Not the truth about worldly things, but the truth that God loves them.
To all of my fellow passengers in life: I hope and pray that along this journey, I might be able to give something back to you. Maybe a kind word or encouraging smile is what you will need. Whatever that is, I hope that God, not me, is in the middle, and you have the window seat.