Were it not for two canceled flights, a no-show cab, and directions to three wrong terminals, Ibrahim Sesay’s journey from Minneapolis would have ended up in the Brussels airport at the very time of Tuesday’s attack.
And the 44-year-old from Sierra Leone might very well have been checking in for his connecting flight to Freetown at a ticket counter that was within fatal range of a bomb.
As it was, Sesay missed his flight from JFK Airport in New York to Brussels by 25 minutes. He was in a Days Inn in Queens when the Brussels airport was bombed. He learned of the attack when he put CNN on the TV in his room.
From the news footage of the smoke-filled departures area, Sesay deduced that were it not for a seeming curse turned to a sudden blessing, he could have been standing just about where one of the devices detonated. The video showed the legs of a downed victim protruding from behind abandoned luggage. The legs were not moving.
“I would have been there,” Sesay later said, chilled long-distance by the maniacal iciness of ISIS.
He logged onto Facebook so his presence online would reassure everybody who knew of his original itinerary.
“They saw me on Facebook, so they know I’m OK,” he said.
In the late morning, a hotel shuttle bus took Sesay and his suitcases back to Terminal 1 at JFK. He stood in a tweed cap, living proof of the randomness that terrorists count on to be so terrorizing. Their message is that it can happen to anybody who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sesay’s new Brussels Airways flight was listed on the departure board, but there was also a word in block letters. The day before, this very word had signaled the start of what had seemed to be a traveler’s nightmare, a curse that would prove a blessing to which he may owe his life.
Monday’s tribulations had begun with the cancellation of Sesay’s 11:15 a.m. United Airlines flight from Minneapolis to JFK. The 1 p.m. flight to JFK was also canceled, and he ended up aboard one to Newark.
His original plan would have given him five hours in New York to make the Brussels connection, with another connection taking him home to Freetown. He was now cutting it close enough that he booked a non-refundable cab online to meet him when he landed at Newark.
But the cab was not there when he came out of the terminal. He waited 15 minutes and decided to suffer the additional cost of grabbing a Yellow Cab. The driver assured him that his flight would be departing from Terminal 8.
“I get there, they say, ‘No, Terminal 7,’” he recalled.
He headed for Terminal 7.
“They say, ‘No, Terminal 4,’” he recalled.
He headed for Terminal 4.
“They say, ‘No, Terminal 1,’” he recalled. “I was so tired.”
At Terminal 1, he dashed up to the Brussels Airlines counter at 6:45, still hoping he could make the 7:15 p.m. flight. He discovered otherwise.
“They were closed,” he reported. “They were finished for the day.”
The deadline had passed for passengers to check luggage and pass through security in time to board what was the airline's last flight of the day out of JFK. He said he was later told that he still could have made it if he had gotten there by 6:20 p.m. He had needed only 25 minutes, just the time lost going from terminal to terminal.
“If not for the confusion…” he later said.
He checked into the Days Inn and woke at 3 a.m. Tuesday, not long after he would have been landing in Brussels. He had every reason to feel himself to be the most unlucky of travelers until he put the on TV and breaking news came over CNN.
When he returned to Terminal 1, the departure board reported that flights were leaving on time for Riyadh and Beijing and Seoul and Paris and Istanbul and Monterrey and Moscow and Fuzhou. But next to Brussels he again saw that word, “CANCELED.” He nonetheless retained his new appraisal of his fortunes.
“Lucky,” he said. “I think lucky.”
He talked to The Daily Beast of the terrorists, who might have included him among their victims. He spoke as someone from a country with a Muslim majority.
“I don’t know why these guys are doing this,” he said. “Why? Why?”
The Brussels Airlines counter was open again. The clerks told him that all flights in and out of Brussels were canceled. They booked him on a 9 p.m. flight to Morocco, with a connection to Freetown.
He was happy to come upon a luggage cart on which he could load his bags. He seemed to have stopped watching CNN before the Belgian authorities released the photo of the three terror suspects pushing luggage carts through the Brussels airport with markedly smug expressions.
If they were indeed the bombers, they seemed delighted to be unleashing violent death and destruction on these unsuspecting souls who just happened to be there at the wrong time. The unlucky ones included a U.S. Air Force officer who was with his wife and children.
Here at JFK, Sesay loaded the luggage cart. He fell into conversation with a Philadelphia woman named Tina Tower who had also hoped to be on the 2:20 p.m. flight to Brussels and who was also now going to Morocco and connecting to Freetown, in her case continuing on to Monrovia in Liberia. She was beginning a three-week vacation.
“I guess this is Plan B,” she said, holding up a printout of her new itinerary.
There would be a nine-hour layover in Morocco, but along with her job she is going for a master’s degree in social work, and she had studying to do.
“I can do homework,” she said.
Sesay told her of missing the previous evening’s flight and of seeing on CNN the destruction where he might have been standing.
“There’s a reason,” Tower said. “There's a reason for everything,”
“People died,” he said.
“Innocent people, too,” she said.
“We are lucky,” he said.
“With you, I would say yes,” she replied. “Say, ‘Thank the Lord.’”
One level down in the arrivals area, people who had just come off planes from Moscow and Munich and Mexico City and Istanbul were greeting and hugging waiting loved ones and friends, some of whom had flowers and Mylar balloons.
The welcomes took on an added poignancy in the absence of anybody arriving from Brussels. The Brussels Airlines flight had been due to depart there at 10:30 a.m., more than two hours after the attack. No doubt most of the passengers had been at the airport, some no doubt at the same check-in area where Sesay would have been.
The Brussels Airport had been closed immediately, and “CANCELED” had gone up at JFK next to the Brussels Airlines flight due in there at 2:20 p.m. Maybe the Air Force officer and his family might have come off the plane at that time and passed through the arrivals area with its happy embraces.
In that unabashed love repeated anew with every arriving flight at every airport in the world is the very opposite of terrorism; life such as the death-loving terrorists seek to destroy.
Love still wins even as blindest luck determines who lives and who dies.