Joy Ding's flight from O'Hare landed at LaGuardia just before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, and she hopped happily into a Yellow Cab headed for Manhattan.
"There's a fire in the World Trade Center," the cabbie said as they set out toward the city's skyscrapers, warning that he'd have to search for detours. Ding was frustrated. She's the marketing manager at R.R. Donnelley Logistics in Willowbrook, and this meeting was critical to the launch of a new product. Who had time for detours?
But out the taxi window, in the blue, late-summer sky, she spotted black smoke and red fire shooting from the silvery twin towers. Every route the driver chose turned into a roadblock. The taxi radio transmitted mostly fuzz, but one word was clear: terrorists.
Then the driver's cell phone rang. "Come home," his sister said. This was no time for bearded Pakistani Muslims to be in the New York streets.
The bearded Pakistani Muslim driver turned to his passenger. What did she want to do?
Raised in China and educated at the University of Chicago, Ding had never really known Muslims or Middle Easterners. She certainly didn't know this one.
"The story I'd heard about people in that area," she says, "is that they're mad, crazy religious."
But she obviously wasn't going to make it to her meeting. And her cell phone wasn't working. And she'd come to like the driver, Nadeem Quraishi, who was her age, 29, and who was, like her, an immigrant.
"She says she don't know nobody in New York," Quraishi says, recalling that Tuesday drive. "I say, `OK, you can come with me.'"
Soon, the cab was parked in a poor Bronx neighborhood filled with Pakistanis, Albanians and Hispanics, far from Ding's landscaped, lake-view planned development back in Romeoville. Ding and Quraishi rode a tiny elevator up to the one-bedroom apartment shared by his sister and brother-in-law and their three sons.
"I was happy my brother is helping some stranger," recalls Quraishi's sister. "We can help each other in these difficult times. And she was--How do you say?--upset."
For the next few hours--while the TV replayed the terror at the World Trade Center and a clock shaped like a mosque chimed intermittently to remind the family it was time to pray--Quraishi and his relatives lavished Ding with imported Pakistani sweets, grains and tea. They helped investigate flights out (none), rental cars (gone), train schedules (madness).
They were particularly distressed that, in addition to a husband, Ding had a 9-month-old baby girl at home, waiting to be fed.
"So," recalls Quraishi, "I say, `If you want, I can drive you there.'" So what that he had never driven farther from New York than Connecticut?
"She was my passenger," he says. "It was my duty to get her to her destination."
Money, both he and Ding say, was not the issue.
"They were really shy," says Ding. "Like, we just want to help you, we just want to make sure you're back home safe with your baby."
But Ding offered Quraishi around $1,000. He accepted. Printed a road map to Chicago from the Internet. Persuaded his brother-in-law to lend him his 1996 burgundy Dodge Plymouth van and to come along. Refused to heed friends and relatives who told him he was crazy.
"And around 4," he says, "it's, `OK, let's try to get out of here.'"
By then, the city was a vast maze of roadblocks and gridlock. Ding and her companions drove for six hours, weaving through all five New York boroughs, just trying to get out of town. In Brooklyn, bunches of kids spied the van with Pakistanis in the front seat and accosted it, screaming, "Terrorists!"
The smell and sight of smoke trailed them as they inched their way away from the terror. Finally, they crept into the free range of New Jersey.
"Wow!" thought Ding. "Back to life!"
It was 10 p.m. The Chinese woman and the Pakistani men--three Americans--were on the open road heading toward Chicago.