Smith on 9/11 experience: “That’s the first moment I was truly fearful.”

Addie Smith (center in red) was a Continental Airlines attendant in Newark, New Jersey during 9/11. (photo by Malcolm Butler)

by Emma Stone

Addie Smith graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology. However, she made the last-minute decision to become a flight attendant her senior year.

Little did she know, this decision would impact her life forever.

Smith experienced 9/11 as a young flight attendant 22 years ago after accepting a position for Continental Airlines right after graduating from Tech.

“I had only been on an airplane one time when I was 16,” said Smith. “(Continental Airlines) flew me out to Houston to complete the final interview. The next day, I walked across the stage at Louisiana Tech.”

After graduating, she was assigned to work at Newark Liberty International Airport where she shared a two-bedroom apartment with fifteen other flight attendants.

“You have about 12 days off in a month and most of us put those days together to go home or travel,” said Smith. “You did get to fly for free. If you were married, your spouse and children flew for free. And if you weren’t married, then you could select a travel buddy.”

For Smith, she and a friend planned a backpacking trip to hike Mount Ranier in Seattle, Washington. Before they could go, Smith had forgotten to buy a backpack.

On September 10th, 2001, they visited the World Trade Center to find just that.

“That was really how I would get to the heart of the city was to take the train into the World Trade Center,” said Smith. “Once you get off the train, you would go up a pretty steep escalator, and then you were in the mall in the large underground floors.”

They shopped for the rest of the day until leaving at 4 p.m.

“We had no inkling that anything would happen,” said Smith. “My friend made the comment ‘Wow, doesn’t it look like you could just get in a car, and drive right up the side of the building into heaven’. It was kind of an odd thing for him to say, but it was one of those moments that was prophetic. That moment really helped put into perspective how impossible it felt that those buildings could collapse.”

The next morning on September 11, Smith was assigned to work a flight. She had just finished going through the safety dance when the pilot called all the flight attendants into the cockpit.

“I remember our captain saying something about navigational area errors or that air control had messed up with flight plans,” said Smith. “He was trying to explain it from an accidental perspective. Tragic, but accidental.”

Smith’s flight was told that all airplanes must be grounded, but they were completely in the dark of what had happened.

“Obviously whatever had happened was a tragedy, because we could see that smoke was billowing out of the World Trade Center,” said Smith. “I remember passengers were concerned. There were a lot of businessmen on that particular flight that worked in the World Trade Center.”

Soon, the crew and passengers were ordered to return to the airport and evacuate the plane. Finally, Smith found a television where she learned the truth.

“It really wasn’t until we got down into the crew room, and of course everybody was glued to the TV,” said Smith. “I remember standing in front of it, and that was when the next plane hit the Pentagon. I got chills up and down my body when the news announcer said, ‘America is under attack’”.

The hijackers had boarded planes that came from the Newark International Airport, the same one Smith was standing in.

“That’s the first moment that I was truly fearful,” said Smith.

As citizens and employees were rushed off their flights and out of the airport, Smith recalls feeling disconnected.

“I don’t remember how I really got home,” said Smith. “I remember getting to the parking lot. They had employee buses that were for anybody. You didn’t have to be an employee. Anybody that could get on the bus was getting on the bus. We were piled as deep as we could, because they were taking us as far away from the building. I think the concern was that they didn’t know. I mean, obviously it was a crime scene at this point. They knew that, but we just didn’t know.”

When Smith arrived back at her apartment, she was the only one there.

“I was by myself, and I could see the smoke coming from the World Trade Center, from my apartment balcony,” said Smith. “As far as a mass casualty occurring on television, they played it over and over again. It was difficult. They talked about secondary trauma as a result of that 24/7 news coverage.”

Continental Airlines laid off 2,000 employees after the attacks due to security. Smith was one of them.

“I remember when I got laid off, I just felt like it was so unfair because I hadn’t done anything wrong,” said Smith. “It was such a silly thing in comparison to be upset about because compared to the tragedy that had just occurred, that was such a small thing. But I had never experienced anything like that.”

It wasn’t until the late afternoon that Smith was able to get a hold of her family and tell them she was safe.

“It was probably six weeks before I went back to the site of the World Trade Center. At that point, you could still smell jet fuel,” said Smith. “There was a thick covering of ash everywhere. I think what impressed me the most was just the number of people that were looking for their family members.”

Smith went on to work as a unit director for the Boys and Girls Club in Lafayette, Louisiana. She even came back to Louisiana Tech to graduate with her master’s in counseling.

“There were American flags everywhere (in New York),” said Smith. “They were flying them in their homes, their apartment windows. If you wanted to buy an American flag, you couldn’t find one. When I finally did get back to Louisiana, it was the same here. It wasn’t just in New York. Whatever your differences were, they didn’t matter.”

Now, Smith continues as a mental health counselor for Lincoln Parish Schools. And on Monday on the 22nd anniversary of the attack, she shared her story at A.E. Phillips Laboratory School’s annual 9/11 program honoring local first responders.

“May we all never forget the tragedy and may we never forget how special it is to be an American,” said Smith.