By Brian Knox
Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2001
Darlene and Larry Kotlarich of Bridgeport were about to have lunch at a pub in Ireland on Tuesday, Sept. 11, when the unthinkable flashed across the television screen.
The CNN broadcast of the devastation that had just occurred to the World Trade Center in New York brought everybody in the pub to a standstill.
“The TV was on and we saw the plane hit the tower. Everybody was gathered around the TV, Irish and Americans alike. Everybody was crying,” Darlene Kotlarich said.
It was immediately evident that this tragedy affected more than just Americans.
“People would come up and put their arm around me and say ‘We’re with you.’ … I had a Texas hat on and people would come up and say, ‘Bush is from Texas. I hope he gets them good,’ ” Larry said.
“They were ten times more upset than we were, and we were pretty upset,” he added.
The couple was nearing the end of their 10-day tour and was scheduled to fly back to the United States on Thursday. Even after learning that all air traffic in the United States was shut down, they still thought they would be able to come home maybe as early as Friday.
As the week progressed, however, that hope faded.
“It feels really weird being locked out of your home country. When they shut down those skies, it felt really strange,” Darlene said.
Because the trip had been paid for in advance, no reservations had been made for any extra days. That meant no transportation and no place to stay.
Throughout their vacation in Ireland, the couple had seen and learned about the different places throughout the country from a chauffeur by the name of John O’Dwyer. On Wednesday his duty as tour guide was up, but when the Kotlariches realized they were stranded, they turned to him for help.
On his day off, O’Dwyer came in his personal vehicle to pick up the couple and take them to a friend of his who had a bed and breakfast in the town of Ennis. He told the owner the two were his friends from America and they were relatives, since Darlene is Irish-American. The owner let them stay free of charge until they could fly back to the United States.
“People were doing this all over Ireland. In any town that had an airport, people were going there and pulling not only Americans, but anybody who was stranded. … They were just taking people home and feeding them until they could get a plane,” Darlene said.
She estimated that there were probably 50,000 people stranded in the country.
Darlene said the importance of family and relatives was very apparent during this time of crisis.
“A lot of them had relatives who work in the U.S.A. at the World Trade Center. A lot of them have relatives on the fire department and police department in New York. It was quite emotional,” Larry said.
Priests told their congregations to “Go get your relatives out of that airport and bring them home,” Darlene said, but added that most people were already doing just that.
When they would go into a pub, Irish citizens would offer to buy them a drink or pay for their dinner.
“They were just totally awesome people. They deserve to be thanked for all that they have done,” Darlene said.
On Friday, the country joined America in observing a day of mourning for the victims. However, Larry said they took it a step further.
“They closed everything, even the pubs, and that’s unusual,” he said.
In every town the couple would see books for people to sign their condolences, including the American Embassy in Dublin.
When some flights again were permitted to fly back to the United States, only elderly people, people who needed medication or people who had family who were in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon were allowed to fly first.
“Everybody else was on standby. That’s what we did. I thought that was extraordinary,” Larry said.
The couple was then scheduled to fly back to the United States on Friday, Sept. 21. However, Darlene was running low on asthma medicine and they were allowed to fly back on Monday, Sept. 17.
They flew first to Boston’s Logan International Airport, the very place where less than one week earlier a group of hijackers had boarded a plane that eventually crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
What they found when they got off the plane was a different world from the one they had left only two weeks earlier.
“When we got to Boston, our airline was American Airlines, and that part of the airport had FBI agents and national guards with M-16 rifles walking around,” Darlene said. “They pulled two Pakistani men aside to examine their papers. They held up our flight for an hour wanting to know what these men were doing.”
Larry and Darlene said they didn’t mind the wait, or the increased security measures.
At one point, security forced Larry to hand over his cigarette lighter.
“They said ‘You can’t have that on the flight.’ I said, ‘No problem, take whatever else you want, I just want to get on that plane,’ ” he said.
When they flew the next leg of their journey to Chicago, only 17 other passengers were on the plane.
“Nobody wanted to get on American Airlines or United Airlines planes. We didn’t have a choice,” Larry said.
Despite seeing the heightened security and the public fear of flying, the couple say they are not deterred from flying again.
“This was our first overseas trip…and we would do it again,” Darlene said.
“This (increased security) is just something we will have to deal with,” her husband added.
The next overseas trip the two make could very well be to the place that treated them so kindly when they needed help.
“A lot of countries in the world said they were with us, but this was a country that really showed us through their actions. If you’ve got to be stranded somewhere, Ireland is the place to be,” Darlene said.
Look for more of WCMessenger.com’s special 9/11 tribute at www.wcmessenger.com/911.