Yesterday, I put my 12-year-old son on a plane bound for, guess where, JFK airport, to visit his cousins and other family members. A few hours later, I see on the TV news, reports of massive blackouts in NY. We can’t reach anyone in NY, including my niece and nephew who are to pick him up at the airport.
We call the airlines and they are essentially useless. They have almost no information on the outages specifically and have no real-time links to the plane or airports; they essentially have the same tools I have: the web and flight status reports. They can leave messages on the computer screens, but they tell us “they won’t be ale to pick those up until the power comes back on.” That’s helpful.
One really weird thing is that the new rules of the airlines no longer classify kids 12 and over as ‘unaccompanied minors’. I have no idea how they can do that. There was talk of the flight being diverted to another airport. Do they think a 12-year old can just be dumped off in a strange city with no adults to collect him? I don’t get this new rule at all.
It is two hours until the flight is scheduled to land. The airline is saying the flight will land at JFK around 8pm as scheduled. I jump on #joiito and every IM system I have accounts on and start trying to locate people with local NYC knowledge. We still cannot reach anyone by phone.
Finally, I get a call from my niece. She is in her apartment in Hoboken with no power, with an infant and a toddler. Her husband, planned to pick my son up, but he is stuck in Manhattan. Phone service is very spotty for both cel phones and land lines. He managed to get one garbled call through where all she heard was that he was stuck at the ferry. A cabbie tells her the bridges into Manhattan are only open to let people out; there is no way to get into the city. We cannot tell from the news reports whether the bridges are open or not.
With the help of someone on #joiito IRC, I get a number for JFK security and manage to get through. After explaining to me that there was a power outage at the airport (thank you for that), the officer proves somewhat helpful. He takes down all the information and says to call back 15 minutes after the plane lands. He also says my niece should be able to make it into JFK by car if she comes by way of Staten Island. I have my niece on one phone and JFK security on the other.
My niece usually doesn’t do the driving, especially in the city itself, and she doesn’t know the way to JFK. We decide that, since we have no idea when her husband is going to get home, she should start for the airport. I look up directions and relay them to her. I’m not familiar with the local NY naming conventions, so there is some confusion, but we settle on a route that seems to make sense. She loads up the babies in their car seats, and starts on the way.
One problem. She only has 1/4 tank of gas and no stations are open (there is a power outage, you know). If she gets stuck in traffic, she could run out of gas on the way to JFK.
So we watch the real-time status of the flight on the web as it approaches landing. My son has his cel phone. As soon as the plane shows has having landed, we start calling. No luck. Finally, the phone rings, and Caller-ID reports my son’s phone number! My wife and I look at each other. We pick up. It is him. He says he is on the plane and the flight attendants are keeping him there. He says: “Dad, they won’t let me leave.” I told him that his cousin was on her way, but she might be very late and that he must stay with the airline personnel. “Don’t leave their side no matter what,” I tell him. He repeats, “Dad, you’re not getting it. They won’t let me leave.”
Our nephew calls. He made it home. It is still very difficult to get calls through. We end up assuming the role of relay because they seem to have better luck calling us in California than calling each other locally. We continue to have great difficulty placing calls into NYC, but we are able to receive a few updates to track the progress of my niece on her way to JFK.
Finally, she arrives at the curb at JFK. The tank is empty. There is no parking available. Thankfully, a couple of cops appreciate the situation and graciously offer to be her personal police protection, suggesting that she stay put at the curb until the power comes back on in a few hours. The baby is restless and crying.
Hours go by, but there is no sign of power being restored. The cops decide to give her a police escort to a nearby hotel. At the hotel, the lobby is a zoo. The hotel personnel are compassionate and let the mom with the three stressed out kids move to the front of the line. They get a room. There is no power, but at least they are secure and safe. The kitchen is of course inoperable, but the hotel staff provide snacks and cereal for the kids. Everyone takes a deep breath. We will all try to get some sleep and pick it up in the morning.
Morning comes, but still no power at the hotel. The hotel puts out coffee and donuts — better than nothing, and better than a lot of people still stranded all across the city.
Now everybody’s head spins as we struggle to develop a plan to get them home. To recap, her husband is home, across the river in Jersey, now with power, but no TV. The phone there seems to be working better now. He has no car and no rentals are available. Other relatives live a few hours away, but they don’t have a car either, and cannot locate a rental car. Officials have no definite schedule as to when power will be restored, but say it could be several days. We don’t want my niece to randomly drive around searching for an open gas station, with a near empty tank, and three kids. Her husband in Jersey could try to buy some gas and somehow try to get it to her, but there are a lot of obstacles in that plan. Think. Think.
Then, New York’s finest come through again. They scout out an open gas station, and provide directions, and a gallon of gas, to get there. And they say there is never a cop around when you need one.
At 10:15am Pacific time, more than 24 hours after leaving home, my son calls me from his cousin’s New Jersey apartment. They made it! Thank god. Everyone is fine.
So many things could have gone so terribly wrong. The plane could have been diverted to another airport. My niece could have run out of gas on the way to JFK. The cops might not have been there. The hotel might not have been so accommodating. We are indeed blessed to be able to now report that the potentially tragic ordeal has turned into simply an adventurous anecdote, one that I suspect our 12-year-old will remember for some time to come.