Justin's Links

about - RSS - donate - search:

Friday, 15 August - link

Camped Out in Terminal 8

On a trip from San Francisco to Finland, my New York layover coincided with a major North American power blackout. This is my account of sleeping over night in John F. Kennedy International Airport.

I am camped out in Terminal 8, an international terminal. Most of the terminal is dark, but there's one middle stripe with flourescent lights powered by an emergency generator. People are attracted here, to the American Airlines counter with few answers. To a wall-side refuge, clumps of families laying down survey people walking by, mostly aimless.

There's lots of idling. Not much power and not much to do. Questions don't get answers. One woman wants medicine from her checked baggage for her kids. A beleagured man losing his voice walkie-talkies to an unseen ally to find her bag in the darkness on the floor below.

This is the floor with the ticket counters and access to the gates. Below is the baggage claim - the first floors to get dark. Even while the sun was still setting upstairs, the darkness down here was already so thick as to be frightening - I wondered if I could be mugged in the airport. The only light came from flashlights, from groups of people clustered together waiting for family and friends to come through immigration. All mired in darkness.

Upstairs, at the far end of this building the food court stands transformed into a temple of tranquility. It sits dark but for pale night light leaking in through the broad frosted skylight. Three vendors are here, selling bananas, water and sweet bread by candle light. Tables lay scattered, pale white surfaces with a few bodies strewn between.

You can hear someone's low snoring from nearly anywhere in Terminal 8. And the squak of walkie-talkies from various officials. I've been handed raisins, apple juice, water and blankets by airport staff. A man with a brassy accent, came through to announce that buses were coming to take us to Terminal 1 or Terminal 4, where there were lights, and power, and AC - which was good "because you people smell." He said he would come back and tell us when the buses arrived. He never returned.

There are many rumors. There was a terrorist strike. There will be power by 9pm. Power has come back to LaGuardia and Newark. The other terminals have power. Power is 15 miles away, in Rockaway. CNN says that our airport has power. So does Ted Koppel. Planes are taking off from other terminals.

I waited in the FinnAir section for my flight. The FinnAir staff refused to give up hope. They said they had the plane ready to lift off, with our luggage aboard, and a flight crew. But the TSA airport security refused to function without power, unwilling even to perform an old-fashioned hand frisk or search! FinnAir seemed to be our allies, as eager to leave as we were. There was only one FinnAir flight stranded this night; we were a relatively tight knit group compared the the hundreds of American Airlines castaways wandering the airport looking for any sign of future passage or alternate routing.

Frida from FinnAir made a speech finally after 1am to let us know that Helsinki wanted their plane back, so they would be trying to leave in the morning, power permitting. In the meantime, there wasn't any chance for us to fly for ten hours. Many bridges and tunnels were closed for entering New York city, meaning that most of the people she was addressing were likely to remain at the airport for the duration. Frida pointed out that the hotels were booked. Even if we could find a hotel room, hotel lobbies were filled with guests that couldn't open the electronic lock systems of modern hotel rooms.

In her crisp Scandinavian-inflected English, she added a personal postscript to all this information: "You will remember the hardships of your grandfathers, what they went through, when you have gone through this evening. At least you are all well fed!"

We Finland flyers had accumulated there near the ticket counters for over eight hours. The FinnAir section of JFK terminal 8 is like a Splinter Cell level - you're blinded or invisible, depending on obstructions between you and the two massive klieg light installations outside the window. At 3am there are still a few stragglers sleeping or chatting in the FinnAir lines, between ropelines that have long ago come down. The rest of the room is dark.

The giant atrium here boasts a giant, gaudy Rolex clock stuck at 4:10. I leave to get better reception on my mobile phone - outside wee hours smokers and talkers congregate near cars that are parked, empty, or standing and running. In ten minutes of standing outside, I don't see a cab or car move or drive past. People are parked, people are staring off at the horizon, some are sleeping in skycap carts.

The smell hits me when I re-enter the airport - it's the same smell as the homeless shelter I worked at in high school. Prolonged human stink. A low sheen of sweat from a New York summer coats my skin. In the single lit part of this terminal, you can see all manner of people slumped over sleeping in wheelchairs or golfcarts, passed out together in couples on blankets on the floor. One woman looks about eight months pregnant. Another girl lays with her leg in a cast. You can see all these people in the light here, but there's many more in the rest of the airport- outside of the backup generator lights, they're only illuminated by an occasional stray flashlight beam.

There are a few stores here; most are shuttered. One store couldn't close its metal gates; employees sat in the foyer - to prevent looting? Au Bon Pain has its metal gate half-way lowered, the jolly lady from Saint Kitts distributes 6$ ham sandwiches and 2$ bottles of water to beseeching patrons approaching on their knees.

I found my way into the bathroom by the light of my mobile phone screen. A few lumens in a pitch black piss cavern is enough to find the urinal. The phone slips from my mouth as I'm relieving myself and I find myself groping around blindly on the floor through wet and sticky to find my critical device. I finish my bathroom visit with a long session at the sink, washing my face and hands and phone without light.

The few illuminated portions of the terminal have working power outlets. People camp out near them - universally to charge their mobile phones. One man in the FinnAir section used the battery life on his laptop to show some kids a James Bond movie. But everyone in the light seems only concerned with staying connected, not with computing. I found a power outlet disguised behind an Accenture advertisement; I punctured the sticker to take over both sockets for my laptop and phone.

I talked to my brother Colin because I knew he would offer me up-to-the-minute news and he would be eager to call friends and family. He posted a note on my website and emailed my hosts in Finland - I'm sleeping at the aiport tonight. Near the defunct elevators up to the Admiral's Club, there's a nice cool two-tone granite floor with low lighting and working power outlets. It's a cul-de-sac, few people walk in here.

I'm bedding down near an older gent on his way to Orange county, his mobile phone works well with unlimited minutes so he's routinely asked to share it by the older ladies sitting outside on an airport go-cart. A middle aged woman named Jane sleeps face first on a red American Airlines blanket, across from a young woman working on her fiction masters degree, who was supposed to be meeting her mom at an airport in Poland in about three hours.

Posted on 15 August 2003 : 00:39 (TrackBack)
Read Comments

February 2005 - comments are closed on Links.net. Thanks.

email a link to this page

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Justin's Links, by Justin Hall.