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Fateful day for flight passenger

PUBLISHED: 12:38 11 September 2002 | UPDATED: 12:37 03 March 2010

IPSWICH grandfather Leslie Cater will today join the nation in marking the tragedy of 9/11, but for him the date symbolises a remarkable story of drama and fear on board a diverted aircraft in the heart of the United States.

IPSWICH grandfather Leslie Cater will today join the nation in marking the tragedy of 9/11, but for him the date symbolises a remarkable story of drama and fear on board a diverted aircraft in the heart of the United States.

Exactly one year ago today the former mechanic boarded a flight from Heathrow bound for his sister's home in Pittsburgh.

It was a journey that would take place in the midst of the terrorist attacks on New York's Twin Towers and would unexpectedly change his life forever.

Today, as the world unites to mark the first anniversary of the World Trade Centre collapse, he revealed his amazing story - and the deep emotional impact that the day's events have had on him ever since.

"For several weeks I'd been planning a trip to my sister' home in Pittsburgh. I'd been having personal problems and had separated from my wife. It seemed the perfect trip to help me get away from things for a while," he said.

Leslie's flight left Heathrow around 11am bound for America, but within about three hours the route was very clearly being adjusted.

"I remember being told we were diverting to Newfoundland for fuel. That just seemed very odd because it's not such a long flight.

"We waited and waited but it never seemed like we were actually descending - and then they told us a new story. This time they said there was a problem with the flight control system at New York and that when we landed we would be stuck there for at least 10 hours."

So nervous were passengers at this stage that many began picking up their mobiles and calling home to try and find out if there were airway problems.

Of course - as they were to discover - there was.

"Eventually we established that the World Trade Centre had been hit and that we'd been diverted because all incoming planes were considered a risk.

"The pilot gave us a quick speech and then was told by control to remain locked in his cockpit - with us still on board - for the next 24 hours."

For the next three bizarre and emotional days, Leslie became emerged into a community of devastated and nervous fellow passengers.

For the first 24 hours he was forbidden to leave the plane - which now stood on the tarmac at a military base in Newfoundland - and for the latter two he was taken to a lakeside camp where he would live in huts with the rest of the 147 passengers until their belongings had been fully inspected.

"It was a really remarkable period of my life and something that I'll never be able to forget," said Leslie. "There were times when people would break down and cry and others when people would literally get down on their knees and pray for their life.

"I'm still in touch with many of the people from that flight because our fear and our sadness brought us so close together. I've spoken to many of them in the last few days and we're all planning to have some special moment of prayer on the anniversary as a means of reflecting on what we went through - and on our luck at still being alive."

Today Leslie claims he is a much changed person since his experience. He is back together with his wife and more focussed than ever on his priorities.

"Something like that really puts your life into perspective and forces you to see what's important. I feel maybe I was there for a reason. It was meant to show me what life is about."

He added: "My outlook on life has been changed completely and now I cherish my family and my time with them more than ever. September 11 will always be a deeply emotional day for me."

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