Atlanta airport outage made easier by acts of heroism small and large

Dec 18, 2017

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Virginia Waninger has seen a lot in her nine decades, but she still can’t believe how nice people were when trapped together on the tarmac for more than five hours Sunday. 

She is humbled that four men carried her in her wheelchair up a long escalator from the out-of-service Plane Train at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. 

And Waninger is shocked that so many strangers cared at all about a great-grandmother from Florida.

But it happened. Heroes came to her rescue. 

She and many others were the recipients of heroism — whether helping non-native English speakers navigate the world’s busiest airport or airport staff letting a professor use a computer to file the semester’s final grades or giving away pizza and chicken sandwiches. A lot of heroes came out when the lights went dark after an underground electrical fire shut off airport power.

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Mark Howell, a spokesman with the Transportation Security Administration, said TSA workers lugged more than 100 people up the non-working escalators. They worked in shifts to stay fresh.

Videos circulated online of all kinds of heroism, including one by former U.S. soccer player and TV analyst Kyle Martino who tweeted a video of TSA workers flanking what appears to be a man as they help him up an escalator.

Another video showed a Delta worker sliding down the middle divider of an escalator to aid travelers.

After about three hours in an unmoving small plane on the runway, Joseph Schum and his wife walked into Hartsfield-Jackson and found it blacked-out in an overcrowded scene that the husband figured could turn ugly at any moment.

At the escalators, which were halted without power, the couple found people in wheelchairs stuck, trying to figure out what to do. One woman tried to walk it, but made it only halfway down before she had to stop, causing a line to form behind her.

“All the sudden these first responders show up and they were so patient with her. They let her go a step at a time,” Schum, an Atlantan who was returning from a Christmastime trip to Montreal, recalled Monday. “They got her down and into a chair and everything started flowing.”

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While many travelers aired outrage after the world’s busiest airport shutdown, Schum said he and his wife lucked out every step of the way in interactions with their patient Delta flight crew to the emergency personnel and airport workers.

“They were great all the way to the street,” he said.

Waninger said she remembers the pilot saying they were No. 92 in line when they landed. She had flown into Atlanta from Sarasota, Florida, to be with family for the holidays. 

When her son-in-law James Flynn went to pick her up at 2 p.m., the power was off. 

“We’re going to be here a while,” Flynn, who retired as a maintenance manager with Delta after 20 years, remembers thinking. He was right. They didn’t get home to Acworth until 10:30 p.m.

Waninger’s phone had died, but a woman let her use her phone to message Flynn and let him know that she had landed. 

Next a firefighter texted Flynn to say that they had his mother-in-law. What he didn’t know was what had just happened: four Delta workers had gotten her up the escalator.

READ | Frequently-asked questions about Atlanta airport outage and its aftermath

James Flynn, of Acworth, finally got to his elderly mother-in-law Sunday afternoon after she was stranded on the tarmac for hours.  (Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

“I don’t want you men to carry me. I’m not a small person,” she remembers telling them. But they told her that they do this all the time. “They had to carry me up that whole thing … I feel so bad.” 

She said they took three breaks to catch their breaths. 

With the firefighter’s note to Flynn, he was able to find his mother-in-law. They both independently agreed that the first thing she said when they found each other was, “I’m getting too old for this.”

Staff writer Joshua Sharpe contributed to this story.

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