Aboard a British Airways flight back from England, Troy Bendickson passed the time by staring at the monitor in front of him that tracked the plane's progress across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Greater Atlanta Christian girls soccer coach, sitting alongside GAC boys coach Thom Jacquet, was nearly home. Both young coaches had left their wives and just months-old babies at home, so they were counting down after spending a week away.
As the plane's digital path approached the U.S. border, Bendickson immediately noticed it turning back toward England. Soon enough, he found out why.
The pilot's message was brief, startling and panic-inducing.
"All he said was that they had closed U.S. airspace and he had no further details," Bendickson said.
Welcome to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy from their view, as passengers on airplanes when terrorists struck the United States with unprecedented force.
They were in the dark about the events happening in their home country more than anyone, unable to access wireless internet or news like most passengers now can in 2011. The closure of airspace had to be something significant, whether it was terrorist attacks or a nuclear bombing.
"People panicked," Jacquet said. "Some people thought we were going to crash at first. One lady near us was sobbing, but there was just silence for a long time. After an hour or so, the pilot came on and told us about the terrorist strikes."
The coaches' journey, which they thought was nearly complete, had just begun.
They found out later that most flights from Europe were diverted to Canada, but since their plane carried British dignitaries, it flew all the way back to London. Armed guards and police dogs swarmed the airport there as passengers slowly filed back to their destination.
With nothing near the airport, they took a cab back into the city to the apartment where they had stayed previously. The taxi driver filled them in on the details of the attacks, which they saw for the first time when they got to the apartment and turned the NBC feed on TV.
"We couldn't even fathom what we were looking at, and this was so far after it happened, the coverage was much more extensive," Bendickson said.
It was roughly midnight in London, but they couldn't sleep. They watched hours of TV, catching up on what many Americans had suffered through the entire day. By then, their wives had gotten word that they were safe.
"I just felt sickness," Jacquet said. "When we walked in (to the apartment), the first thing we saw was a replay (of a plane striking the World Trade Center). It was a gut-wrenching feeling, just thinking about parents and children, just how many moms and dads were in that building."
With little sleep that night, they awoke to an almost surreal scene out their apartment window --a large battleship cruising down the Thames River. Turns out it had nothing to do with post-Sept. 11 security; it was simply bound for display alongside an older battleship in the city.
But considering what happened the day before, it's tough to blame them for wondering. Though they weren't in the U.S., they were joined in a state of mourning by British citizens grieving by the loss of 67 United Kingdom lives in the attacks.
The days that ensued were monotonous for Bendickson and Jacquet. Unable to access the airline or airport, they traveled each day to the airport with hopes of catching a flight home. Each day they were turned back.
They finally caught a break Saturday, four days after the attacks, and boarded a plane bound for Atlanta.
"We were happy because we imagined it could be weeks before we got home," Bendickson said.
They arrived back in Atlanta to an eerily calm Hartsfield Airport, which was virtually empty around the international gates because there were only arrivals and no departures.
Jacquet rushed to see his wife and young son, who were staying with family in Alabama, and Bendickson immediately jumped in a car for a drive to Corbin, Ky. That's where he was meeting his wife and months-old daughter, who were with family in Ohio.
He got pulled over by a Kentucky state trooper moments after crossing the border, but after hearing Bendickson's Sept. 11 story, the officer let him drive away without a ticket or a warning.
"He handed me back my license and told me to go see my wife and my baby," Bendickson said. "The anticipation of them coming through the hotel door, I've never had that feeling before. I was so happy to see them."
He wasn't alone.
"I've never been so happy to be back in the United States," Jacquet said. "It was hard being away from your family and thinking, 'How in the world am I going to get home to them?'"