Hundreds of Britons and Americans began the agonising journey across the Atlantic yesterday. Among them was Jo Letley, 39, from Greenwich, London, who was standing on the plaza between the World Trade Centre towers after the first plane crash.
"I can't believe I'm alive. It was surreal, awful," said Ms Letley, who was in New York on a business trip for her employer, Deutsche Bank. "The first crash had come and we thought that meant it was all over, finished. We decided to go up to the 20th floor to have a look out of the window. Then there was a huge bang. We were ordered to get out and away from the window as fast as we could.
"People were screaming and the lifts weren't working. People were streaming out of the building. There was dust and rubble everywhere," she said. "You could hardly see, it was getting in your eyes."
Both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways gave special priority yesterday to passengers from Britain who urgently needed to reach the disaster zones in Washington and New York.
Among them was Eric Redheffer from north London, whose wife, Sarah, is still unaccounted for. "It's just the not knowing and feeling so frustrated at sitting here watching scenes of devastation over and over again and not hearing from Sarah," he said.
He was joined by more than 100 people whose loved ones work for Cantor Fitzgerald, a London broker which had offices on floors 101 to 105 of the north tower.
"Dozens of people have stepped aside because of their compassion for the grieving relatives," a Virgin spokesman said. "Everyone has been really good because they have been so moved by what has happened."
Virgin said it was offering discounts on compassionate grounds, but British Airways admitted it was not.
BA Flight 114, which landed at Heathrow at 6.05am, was the first plane to bring stranded passengers back from New York after four days' suspension of transatlantic flights.
Most airlines were providing a reduced service, which combined with higher security levels (some passengers had to wait up to three hours) to create delays at airports across Europe and Asia.was adding to delays.
At Heathrow, a queue of several hundred formed outside Terminal 4, which is used by BA for international flights. Luke Rippy, 32, an IT manager from Los Angeles, said: "We are thinking about having a passengers' union here. I don't want to stand here in a queue if when I get to the front they tell me I can't go."
A BA spokeswoman said the airline was doing all it could and some staff had given up their weekends and volunteered to help, handing out food and drink to people in the queue.
About 20 US-bound BA flights were scheduled to leave Heathrow and Gatwick, compared with 36 normally. Two were due to arrive from New York. Virgin said it planned to operate an almost full schedule out of the 17 daily return flights. American and United Airlines resumed flying to the US on Friday night.
A spokeswoman for Heathrow warned of delays throughout the weekend. "There are still lots and lots of cancellations. Airlines are all running a limited service," she said. "Our advice is to make contact with the airlines before coming to the airport."
One flight from New York yesterday carried the Scottish singer Lulu. With tears welling in her eyes, she said: "I'm very fortunate. Words can't explain what it's like. I'm very relieved to be back."Reuse content