9/11/01: Flight bound for Seattle told to land at Willard

This story appeared in the final afternoon edition of The News-Gazette on Sept.. 11, 2001. 

SAVOY — The Airbus jet was cruising at 31,000 feet, just outside Champaign-Urbana, when Capt. Bob Smith got the order: land the plane now.

The suspension of air traffic after this morning's terrorist attacks abruptly grounded US Airways Flight 131 at Willard Airport in Savoy, stranding 89 passengers and six crew.

The plane, headed from Philadelphia to Seattle, was 30 miles east of Champaign when the pilot was instructed to land at the nearest airport. A startled Smith said he considered St. Louis, only 130 miles away, but was told to use Willard instead.

It took just 10 to 15 minutes to get the plane on the ground, a high-speed descent.

"I've never experienced anything of this magnitude," said Smith, who has flown commercially for 31 years.

Passengers were told only that the pilot had been told to get the plane out of the air because of an unspecified terrorist attack.

"They said there was some kind of catastrophe, some kind of terrorist attack," said Harriet Phillips of New Jersey.

"He was in a hurry," added Ken Fast of Stonington, Conn.

Passengers said the crew was calm and efficient after the captain's announcement.

"He did reassure us from the beginning that there was nothing wrong with the plane," Phillips said.

"Everyone was quiet. There was no panic."

Still, some passengers worried that there might be a bomb on their own plane.

"I was freaking out," said Jessicah Diaz, 19, a student at the American Musical Drama Academy in New York. "I'm scared of flying. I just had a bad feeling all day yesterday."

The plane left Philadelphia about 7:20 a.m. Central time a half- hour before the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York so stunned passengers didn't learn the full details until they landed.

"All those people working in those buildings....." said a teary Linda Fast, her voice trailing off.

Once they got inside the airport, most pulled out cellphones to call nervous friends and relatives.

"We're OK, Ma. We're on the ground. We're in Champaign, Illinois," said Harry Ulrich, Phillips' husband. "We love you. Be calm, be safe."

Smith, who lives 5 miles from the Pentagon, said he called his wife, only to find that the Pentagon itself had been hit by terrorists.

"She said she was awakened by a sonic boom," he said. "This is hitting pretty close to home."

Passengers and employees gathered in the airport coffee shop, glued to television reports of the tragedy unfolding nationwide.

"Unbelievable," Phillips kept repeating. "Unbelievable."

"We're in a war now," she said. "Something's got to be done."

Passengers were generally calm, but there was plenty of anger.

"We ought to shut them down like Reagan did to Gadhafi," said Bob Dana. "Hit them back hard and fast. It's the only language they understand."

Initially, airport officials thought as many as 12 planes might have to make unscheduled landings. But as of 11 a.m., the US Airways flight was the only plane forced to land at Willard.

"Where are we?" asked passenger Ann Dana after the plane landed. She and husband Bob were en route to Glacier National Park for a family reunion when the plane was forced to land.

"I'd been waiting all summer for my vacation," said Dana, an LPGA golf pro. The Danas obtained one of the last rental cars available and planned to drive the rest of the way.

Initially, Smith wasn't sure whether the plane would resume its flight. But by 10 a.m., the passengers and crew were advised to retrieve their baggage and make arrangements to stay over.

Jill Guth, from the Greater Champaign-Urbana Economic Partnership, and assistants were on hand to make sure passengers found accommodations, as was the Red Cross. The Mass Transit District had two buses available to transport passengers.

Despite the inconvenience, passengers were thankful to be safe.

"At least we're here on the ground," said Linda Fast.

Security was stepped up at Willard, with five extra UI officers and sheriff's deputies stationed at the entrance to keep out curiosity-seekers. People with flights scheduled to depart from Willard were being asked to stay away from the airport for the time being.

Judy Taylor of Park City, Utah, was supposed to fly home early today but after arriving at Willard found that all flights had been canceled.

Her sister-in-law, Mary Lou Williamson of St. Joseph, was relieved, given the hijackings.

"I didn't want her to go," Williamson said.

Taylor, who's been here about five days, was worried about her disabled husband back home alone in Utah. She also feared the terrorism might disrupt the Olympic Games scheduled next winter in Salt Lake City.

"It's gonna be war," Taylor said, choking back tears. "I've got a 26-year-old son. I'm scared to death."

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