Eyewitness: Caught up in the Heathrow madhouse

Thousands of passengers stuck with no where to go in the wake of Thursday's foiled terror plot.

heathrow airport 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
heathrow airport 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
London's Heathrow International Airport was a madhouse in the wake of the foiled terror plot Thursday, as thousands of passengers were stuck with no where to go. As information on the planned attack materialized, flights were canceled, all passengers were required to re-check in and intense security measures were instituted. All this made for lines that were hours long; some passengers had to wait for eight hours to speak to an airline representative about rescheduling a flight. All those changing to connecting flights at Heathrow were forced to collect their checked luggage and to check in separately for the second leg of their journey - if it wasn't canceled. My flight, one of the last allowed to arrive Thursday morning, arriving at about 11:45 London time. Upon landing, the pilot told us there was a "security situation which had been dealt with effectively," and to expect delays and chaos in the airport. Puzzled passengers frantically called friends and relatives in an attempt to get some clearer information. Within minutes, rumors spread through the plane that terrorists planned to blow up three planes heading to the US in a September 11-scale attack. As we drove across the tarmac, it was an eerie scene. The normally bustling travel hub of Europe was impossibly quiet, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of planes parked around us, and no visible movement. The runway was silent. We encountered utter chaos as we entered the baggage claim area. Groups of people ran around, searching desperately for their bags. The walls were lined with hundreds of unclaimed bags and airport personnel scurried in a desperate, futile effort to instill order. A pregnant woman screamed, "I have a baby and can't push, so please, just give me a cart!" Some stole other peoples' carts, often resulting in verbal confrontations amid crying babies and flabbergasted passengers. Airline personnel seemed just as confused as the passengers. No one knew what to do, and all passengers were directed upstairs to either check in or to talk to a reservations representative about rescheduling their flight. The lines for the elevators to get upstairs were 15 to 30 minutes long, and once upstairs the mass of people was simply overwhelming. Media personnel swarmed the terminal, interviewing passengers and taking pictures of the eternal lines. Airline representatives and volunteers walked the lines, desperately trying to reschedule flights via cellphone. After waiting for over two hours, I was told that the first flight I could get to the US east coast would be on Tuesday - in 5 days time and simply unacceptable. Then flights to New York, Boston, and Washington opened up. Finally, after almost five hours of waiting, I was booked on a 7:40 p.m. flight to Washington's Dulles airport. I happily waited on line about another hour to check in. I checked in my carry-on bag because I had heard passengers wouldn't be allowed to bring anything on board. Security was intense. Police dressed in body armor and carrying large guns patrolled the airport, actively When passengers finally boarded, the pilot announced that the plane was prohibited from flying to the US until the US Department of Homeland Security ran a security check on each passenger. The pilot said this could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours; it ended up being about a two-hour wait.