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9/11...Friends remember their scheduled place

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By Stephen Thomas

 SHEPHERDSVILLE - It’s the single-most remembered moment in recent United States history.

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Anyone old enough to comprehend it recalls the 9/11 attacks on America. Everyone knows where they were when the events unfolded.

Six local couples recollect the time more than most in Bullitt County, due to both travel scheduling conflicts and a chilling near-miss experience.

The couples include Butch and Teresa Canary, Jerry and Linda Mitchum, Ron and Karen Murphy, Omer and Betty Proctor. Owen and Helen Risk and Harold and Karen Smith.

All are Shepherdsville residents except the Mitchums, who now reside in Bardstown. All were members of a Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Sunday School class when they joined together for a Hawaiian vacation in September 2001.

Trapped in Paradise

A scheduled tour took the couples, along with a total of 42 passengers, on a three island tour of Hawaii, Kuaui and Maui. The couples flew to Hawaii Sept. 4, with a scheduled return date of Sept. 12.

It was in Maui where everyone on the tour learned of the World Trade Center attacks. The initial plane crashes took place about 3 a.m. local time.

“My daughter called at 5 (a.m.) to tell us,” Betty said.

Karen Murphy also received a call from her daughter.

“I thought it was a wake-up call,” she said. “I put the phone down, but it was my daughter and she called back and told me.”

On Sep. 11 the tour schedule included Mt. Haleakala in Maui. The tour was cancelled partly because an observatory on top of the mountain was used by the military.

After a long morning the couples gathered for an evening dinner. The next day the group rented a van and toured Mt. Haleakala area without a tour guide.

“We decided that, even after the tragedy, that we would still make the best of it and enjoy it,” Helen said of the situation. “We did that instead of watching TV.”

With all planes grounded for security reasons, everyone knew the Sep. 12 return wasn’t going to happen. The couples have all heard their share of feedback over the years about how wonderful it was to be stuck in Hawaii on vacation, but they always correct it.

“We were scared we weren’t going to get home,” Butch said. “When you’re on an island 6,000 miles away from home and everything is shut down, it’s scary.”

Though the group bought local food and continued to host “Kentucky Luahs” each night on the beach, the terrorist situation remained. On top of that, each couple had personal issues to deal with at home, and they couldn’t go.

“(Betty’s) mom passed away three weeks prior, and my mom was sick,” said Omer. “We started not to go (to Hawaii). Here we are, stuck. It was indescribable. As Americans, we’re used to doing what we want, then Bam! We’re stuck.”

“Ron’s brother was diagnosed with colon cancer on Sep. 10,” said Karen Murphy. “We thought about taking a plane to go back early, but Ron said to wait since it was just one more day. My Mom thought we were returning and on the plane (that crashed). Here we were stuck and we could not get back to them.”

What Could’ve Been

Five of the six couples had purchased travel insurance due to pending family and home situations. Each of those five couples had a legitimate enough reason to consider canceling their trip. None of them did.

“Half of (the Sunday School) class went,” Helen recalled. “Some of them changed their minds.”

The travel path to Hawaii included a flight from Standiford International Airport in Louisville to Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC. From there they would fly to Los Angeles and then to Hawaii.

The original flight date selected for the trip was Sep. 11. However, limited space on the flight from Louisville to Washington led to a change in vacation plans.

“They had enough to fly 10, and we had 12,” said Butch. “If we had 10 we wouldn’t be here today.”

The group agreed to move the trip up one week, leaving Sep. 4. Their eventual flight from Washington to Los Angeles took place on American Airlines Flight 77, the same plane that crashed into the Pentagon one week later.

“It was about a week after (9/11) when we realized that was the flight,” Butch said.

“That’s when we really knew God was in control,” Teresa added.

The group shared fond memories of their experience on Flight 77. Omer mentioned a flight attendant in particular who treated the group well, even asking him to give her a back rub.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles the flight team offered the group three bottles of champagne to help celebrate their vacation. To this day they all wonder if any of those employees were among the 9/11 casualties.

“We saw two first names we recognized on a memorial wall,” Karen Smith said of two flight attendants. “We don’t know for certain if that was our flight attendants. We only knew their first names.”

No Place Like Home

Thanks to the travel insurance, an extra week at the hotel didn’t cost too much. Everyone praised the hotel staff for their assistance in checking available flights once the air ban had lifted.

On the evening of Sep. 17 they finally confirmed a flight home for Sep. 18. It was one of the first planes leaving Hawaii following the attacks.

“We were told it was the safest time to fly,” Teresa said. “We were scared to get on the plane. We didn’t know where all the terrorists were.”

“We agreed to return as a full group,” said Betty. “We were not going to split up.”

“We were told it may be a long wait to get on the plane,” Karen Murphy said.

“They never checked my bag at all,” Owen recalled.

The return trip left Hawaii for San Francisco. From there was a flight to Dulles.

“That made us a little nervous,” Helen said.

“I noticed we had more empty seats on the way home,” said Betty.

“We were elbow-to-elbow on the way over (to Hawaii),” Omer added.

“Our travel agent was so worried about us,” Teresa remembered. “She met us at the (Louisville) airport.”

“When we returned home (to Shepherdsville) from the airport we saw so many (American) flags,” said Karen Murphy. “That’s the way it should be.”

In the 10 years following their trip the events of 9/11 have not hampered too many travel plans for the group. The Proctors and Canarys returned to the air in 2003 on a flight to Alaska.

Only Owen expressed any legitimate concern.

“I made a comment then: no more trips like that, no more feet leaving the ground,” he said. “That still holds true.”

“I’d go back to Hawaii in a heartbeat,” Helen responded.

Gathered together, a decade removed from the event, each member of the group continued to enjoy one another’s company, still swapping stories and photos.

One event they all remembered with a smile was during a prayer service they attended a few days prior to the 9/11 events.

“We were on a beach having a prayer,” Karen Smith recalled. “During our prayer two doves joined us. They just stood there with us. Then we saw a rainbow.”

They shared photos of the doves. They shared photos of the rainbow.

“God’s in control,” Karen Smith said.

“That trip I’ll treasure the rest of my life,” Butch said. “But there’s no place like home.”