Damn, somebody got mesmerized looking at the fire and wasn't paying attention to where he was flying, I thought. But then—no. No one could be that distracted.
The captain and I looked at each other, but neither of us could find words. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the ground controller. "All right. Everybody shut them down. I just saw a 737 or an MD-80 hit the second tower. The World Trade Center is under attack."
Attack? I briefly though about the scene in Diehard 2 in which the terrorists reprogrammed navigation aids, causing airplanes to crash. No, couldn't happen. Too far-fetched.
I began to think about the safety of our passengers. I looked over at the captain. "Do we really want to be sitting here with our engines shut down if New York is under attack?" I asked.
"Hell no!" he said.
I looked at where we were in the lineup and saw an intersecting taxiway that would give us access to the runway. I immediately began pulling up data from the computer to see if we could take off with the amount of runway remaining. It was going to be close. We decided to switch to the tower frequency; if everyone in front of us was indeed shutting down, we wanted to see if we could back-taxi down the runway for take off.
The tower frequency was controlled chaos. Three aircraft on an approach were being sent around and handed back to approach control. We heard another captain, who had the same idea as us, ask if he could back-taxi for takeoff. The controller replied that Newark airport was now closed and all aircraft should return to the gate.
"Does that captain's emergency authority override that?" I asked.
"I don't know," the captain replied. We tried to decide just how badly we wanted to get airborne right then. Listening to the radio reports in the background, I had repeatedly heard the word "hijack." We decided that we really couldn't be sure of the security of our own aircraft.
We switched back to ground control and told them we would be pulling out of line and returning to the gate. It was a long, slow taxi back. Ground control frequency was strangely quiet. As we pulled into the gate and shut down the engines, the captain looked over at me and said, "I think we just witnessed history."