Desperate to fly home, the families who fear they have lost loved ones

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Michael Andersen arrived at Heathrow airport just before 7am yesterday, more in hope than expectation. For three hours he tried in vain to find some way of getting back to New York. "It's my daughter," he said quietly. "We don't know what had happened to her. She's not answering her phone. She was in Manhattan."

Mr Andersen and his wife, Liz, were just two of hundreds of Americans stranded in Britain in the aftermath of the attacks. They had watched the horror unfold before them on television and were now struggling to cope with the growing fear they have lost someone close.

"Our daughter, Kerry, worked – no, works – as a paralegal, not very far from the twin towers. It's just that she's not answering the phone and we are very, very worried," said Mr Andersen, a college teacher from Albany. "We just need to get there somehow. Liz is back at the hotel calling all the airlines. I came here just in case something was moving."

But nothing was moving to the US . The long queues were told priority would be given on grounds of compassion. "It is done almost on a scale of their loss," a British Airways official said. "That may be callous but we feel this is the only way."

Astonishingly, some passengers were deeply annoyed that their travel plans had been interrupted. One couple bitterly complained to Air Canada staff about their expensive holiday being "ruined". They would never fly Air Canada again, they threatened.

Around the airport, there were small huddles of Americans looking exhausted and depressed. Many had been on flights that were turned around as far away as Greenland, while others never got off the ground. In many cases, they said they had been starved of information. In others, they said they had been starved of food, but they did not complain.

"How could we? We're the lucky ones," said Jo Anne Shellman, 62, from Los Angeles. "That could have been us on one of those planes. It was a little like a refugee camp here last night but the airport staff did as best they could."

Mrs Shellman was planning to return on an Air New Zealand flight after a holiday in Scotland. "We had been about to board. I had handed over my boarding card when they suddenly asked us to go into a big room and made an announcement. We couldn't believe it, but then we saw the pictures. It was horrific. I couldn't believe it - I still can't. I can only imagine what the people back home must be going through; I feel lucky, I don't really have anyone in New York, but it would be awful if I did. I want to get home real bad but I think I'll be going home to a different country."

Laureen Kartsoonis, due to return home to Boston last night with her family after a 12-day holiday in Greece, said: "We know we are here for the night, but it's irrelevant after hearing the news of the disasters back home. Our inconvenience is nothing and we'll spend here as long as we have to."

There was a sense of unease among some staff, aware of a heightened presence of armed police with dogs patrolling airports. One airline official said: "I don't feel safe somehow. Being at an airport makes you feel like a target. Terrorists try to terrify people, and there's nothing more frightening that the prospect of a plane crashing."

Throughout the day, flights remained grounded until, at lunchtime, Air Canada began checking in passengers in the hope that it would be given permission to fly.

Many passengers were expected to have to stay a second night at airports and, once hotels were full, they faced the prospect of another attempt to sleep in chairs or on the floor, some without blankets or food.

Nathan Thorne, 28, from Brisbane, was heading for LA en route home after two years working in England. He said: "We were over Greenland on a Virgin flight when the pilot announced that we would have to turn round. He said there had been some terrorism problems but he was not specific. Some people were pretty scared, especially when he told us he would have to dump some fuel.

"We didn't find out what had really happened until we were on the ground, and I think I'd prefer it that way. A lot of people could have been very scared indeed if they'd been told about the hijackings while still airborne. I don't like to complain, but it's been pretty miserable here. They told us we'd be given food and drink and blankets, but I've been here overnight and none of them have come my way."

Jim Allen, 54, and his wife Pat, 58, from Alberta, Canada, said they were furious with airport authorities.

Mr Allen said: "We've been stranded here and forced to sleep in chairs overnight, other families some with babies and young children just pulled up mats and had to sleep on the floor here. We've been told we'll be on the first flight out to Canada, but have not been informed when that will be."

All the airlines involved apologised but said the scale of the problems may have resulted in some passengers being overlooked by British Airports Authority staff, who were doing their best to cope.

Delays to destinations other than the US and Canada were kept to a minimum at Stansted in Essex, where the New York service of US carrier Continental was cancelled.