ANCHORAGE -- Three elderly passengers boarded a China Air Lines flight from New York City to Taipei early Tuesday as perfect strangers.
Later that morning, each of the three would learn to their horror just how much they had in common -- as their scheduled refueling stop here evolved into an agonizing vigil, one that left them stranded in their plane, then later in a Red Cross shelter in southeast Anchorage.
In an extraordinary coincidence, each of the passengers had an adult child who happened to be working Tuesday on one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center when terrorists hijacked four planes and demolished the center's twin towers in a succession of horrific explosions.
None of the three knew anything about the attack, or the fate of their children, when their passenger jet landed in Anchorage about 7:30 a.m., almost three hours after the initial explosion.
Along with about 180 other Taipei-bound passengers, they wondered about the delay on the tarmac when they landed. As they waited, their Chinese-speaking flight attendants learned what had happened in New York and at the Pentagon and told the passengers.
Johnson Chin, 84, a retired accountant born in Shanghai who now lives in the borough of Queens, was frantic at the news.
His son, Michael Chin, a 43-year-old architect employed by the New York Port Authority, worked on the 73rd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Chin had heard that the first hijacked plane tore into the 110-story tower's 80th floor, just seven stories above his son's office.
So when he reached the concourse at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Johnson Chin hurried to a pay telephone and called his wife in New York. She had good news. She'd spoken to their son and he was all right.
"He was very scared," Chin said.
After the first explosion, his son hurried out of his office to find the elevator broken. His son's watch said 8:45 a.m. Entering the chaos of the stairwell, he began running downstairs. Eighteen minutes later, he reached the ground floor, just about when a second highjacked airliner slammed into the World Trade Center's south tower.
Michael quickly called home to tell his mother to tell his dad not to worry. He didn't want him to alter his plans of returning to his homeland in China to visit the Yangtze River before it's dammed.
"He said to tell Dad not to worry. To have a good time," Johnson Chin said.
Sitting next to him at a table in Grace Community Church, 78-year-old Yu Pien Tien had a similar story.
His daughter, Lin Cheng Tien, a 44-year-old investment banker who worked on the 50th floor of the same tower, didn't answer the phone when he called her from the Anchorage airport. Later, he phoned his wife in Taiwan on a borrowed cellphone.
"She said, 'Our daughter is safe. She got out of the building.' "
When he reached the church, Tien took advantage of a phone bank with free long-distance lines to allow shelter inhabitants to call members of their families. Finally, he got through to his daughter.
She told him she had reached work Tuesday at 8 a.m., Tien recalled Wednesday, speaking in Chinese to Anchorage translator Tina Heiser. His daughter felt the explosion like everyone else, but had no idea what happened. Then she saw bodies dropping past her office window and started running downstairs too.
Her clothes caught on fire as she ran, he said, but for some reason she was still clutching her water bottle and doused her burning clothes with mineral water as she ran. She lost her shoes but reached the street barefoot, her father said, just two minutes before the building collapsed.
The third parent, Fong Yu, a 63-year-old Chinese woman who'd been visiting her daughter in New York for the past two months, had the most difficult story of all to tell.
Her daughter, Mandy Chang, a 40-year-old senior manager for First Commercial Bank of Taiwan, worked on the 78th floor of the south tower. The second airliner tore through the building at about that level.
When Fong Yu reached the Red Cross shelter, she called her daughter at her apartment. No one answered the phone.
Earlier that same day, her daughter had accompanied Fong Yu to her airport bus and asked another passenger, a man named Yang, to look after her. Later, when Yang learned that Mandy was missing, he tried to help. Speaking Chinese to translator Heiser, Yang related the following story:
"Yesterday, she had just arrived here, and she tried to contact her daughter, and nobody answered the phone," Heiser quoted Yang as saying. "And then she called her house in Taiwan. And her son there said they'd heard the news. And they had contacted the First Commercial Bank of Taiwan and they said they had got hold of everybody (in the New York office) ... as if everything was fine.
"This morning, she tried to call her daughter again. Still, nobody answered the phone in the house."
Yang called her son, again, and asked what was going on.
"And the son said he called his sister in New York and nobody answered at her apartment. So he called First Commercial Bank and said What's going on? Have you heard from my sister?' And they said, so far, they are missing two people at their New York office -- and one is her daughter."
On Wednesday, Fong Yu walked to the phone bank at the Anchorage Red Cross shelter one more time. She called her daughter's apartment again, Heiser said. But no one answered.
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