Members of the Yale community learned of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in bedrooms, classrooms and on the street. James Jones heard the news from an airline pilot while cramped in a coach seat about 35,000 feet above Alabama.
Jones, the head coach of the men’s basketball team, was on board a Continental Airlines flight from Houston to Raleigh-Durham Tuesday morning as part of a recruiting trip. But when the hijacked planes devastated the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jones’ flight made an unscheduled landing in Birmingham, Ala., following federal orders requiring planes across the country to be grounded.
“Knowing that [my family is] safe and sound at home and that I am safe and sound is most important,” said Jones, who called his wife as soon as his plane touched down in Birmingham.
Jones, who was still in Birmingham as of Wednesday night, said it is not easy to spend this difficult time without his loved ones, but stressed that his family’s safety was all the comfort he needed.
“I am a realist and I understand the situation — it is only a matter of time and distance before I see them,” Jones said.
For Jones, Tuesday morning started routinely enough. Basketball coaches are extremely active on the recruiting trail in September, making in-home visits with high school seniors. Jones had just finished two such visits in Houston.
As he was flying to North Carolina for four more visits, Jones’ plans suddenly changed.
Jones said the pilot’s words over the intercom were brief. “I have some bad news” is how he began his somber statement informing the passengers of the attacks in New York City.
Jones said the pilot also announced the plane would have to land at the nearest airport, Birmingham International Airport.
Fifteen anxious minutes passed between the pilot’s brief message and the plane’s touchdown in Birmingham. In that time, while most Americans were inundated with tragic information and surreal and horrific television footage, Jones and fellow passengers knew nothing more than shock, confusion and fear.
“I first thought about a friend of mine that works [in New York],” Jones said. “Then I thought about my own safety.”
As soon as the plane landed, Jones, and many people around him, instantaneously began using their cell phones, trying to reach loved ones and put together what had happened.
Jones first called his wife at home in Connecticut and learned that she and their five-year old daughter were all right.
Jones also tried to reach a friend who works in the World Trade Center.
He got his friend’s voice mail — for many people a troubling indication — but for Jones it was a relief. The friend’s voice mail message said he was out of the office until Sept. 14.
Jones was also able to reach other family living in New York and make sure they were safe.
Ime Archibong ’03, captain of the men’s basketball team, knew his coach was making recruiting visits but had no idea he was in the air at the time of the attacks. He did not learn of it until Tuesday afternoon when assistant coach Curtis Wilson told him the news. Wilson said Jones had been on a flight that had to make an emergency landing, but that he was OK.
“Like everyone else, he is going to remember where he was when the news broke,” Archibong said.
Jones said he called all of his players to reassure them that he was alright and tell them he would be back in New Haven as soon as possible. He said he talked to them about Tuesday’s tragedy, but will hold a full team meeting when he returns.
“I want to be able to look my players in the eye,” Jones said.
As of Wednesday night, Jones was still in Birmingham, awaiting information about the continuation of his flight to Raleigh-Durham. He said there was possibility he could have flown out last night.
Once in Raleigh-Durham, Jones said he will most likely have to wait for his scheduled flight to New Haven Friday morning. He does not intend to make his scheduled recruiting visits.