Stranded until ash cloud clears, JFK passengers who bathed in sinks finally get showers

By Megan K. Scott, AP
Monday, April 19, 2010

JFK passengers stranded by volcano ash get showers

NEW YORK — During her first four days living in an airport, Dominica Zschiesche cleaned her body with hand wipes and used a public bathroom sink to shave her legs and wash her hair.

But by Day 5 at Camp Kennedy, she seemed almost at home, standing near the concourse barefoot and with her hair wrapped in a blue towel after she finally got to shower.

“It was wonderful. It was the best shower I ever had,” said the 29-year-old art student from Frankfurt.

Hundreds of passengers are stranded at John F. Kennedy International Airport while they wait for the volcanic ash cloud over Europe to clear and flights to resume. They were doing the best they could in the stuffy, smelly space.

A Belgian family sat on a terminal floor around a coffee table they built out of a cardboard box. And in a corner, two British tourists made light of their situation by scrawling a sign on a sheet of notebook paper: “JFK Squatters, Yorkshire Branch.”

They have set up mini-encampments, brushing their teeth and hair in public bathrooms, fending off boredom by constructing a big cardboard airplane, and sleeping on cots under fluorescent lights amid the din of televisions and the public address system.

“Time goes by slow,” said Laurence De Loosa, trying to get home to Belgium from a vacation to celebrate her 21st birthday with a friend. “The lights were on all night. “It was not so easy to sleep. The TV was still on.”

As homey as they tried to make it, the airport still presented a hostile environment for some.

Geoff Gilbert, a 57-year-old structural engineer waiting for a flight to Manchester, England, had his wallet stolen at an airport McDonald’s. Now, he said Monday, he’s completely out of money.

“It’s not very comfortable,” he said of the airport. “You’re indoors all the time. It’s hot in there, sticky.”

And the end — though in sight — is very far off.

“I still have a long wait. I don’t fly out until Sunday,” he said.

The cloud has paralyzed trans-Atlantic flights since Thursday, causing the biggest flight disruptions since 9/11.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the metropolitan area’s major airports, has set up 1,000 cots and blankets at JFK and Newark, N.J., served hot meals to the stranded and handed out essentials such as bottled water and baby wipes. The Red Cross and various consulates have provided some of the bedding and food.

On Monday afternoon, five days into the crisis, the agency opened trailers with a dozen showers at JFK.

The 500-some people camping out at the Port Authority’s airports “are being well taken care of,” said Chris Ward, the agency’s executive director.

Some passengers made JFK their home because hotel rooms were scarce, they had gone way over budget on their New York vacations, or they just thought that staying close to the airport was the smartest thing to do if they wanted to get home soon.

Around the world, hundreds of passengers were having similar experiences, resting on blankets spread on airport floors and relying in some cases on McDonald’s meal vouchers.

“We have one meal a day. At the moment a lot of people are not eating,” Andrew Turner, a graduate student en route to London after a vacation in Sydney, said from Incheon International Airport in South Korea.

The passenger experience was more pleasant at Frankfurt Airport in Germany, where spokesman Uwe Witzel said the hundreds of stranded travelers were getting three meals a day, showers, fresh clothing and more.

“We’ve set up an Internet lounge, we’ve hired people to entertain the kids, and we’ve also arranged a spot outside the terminal building where people can go to get a breath of fresh air and some sun,” he said.

At JFK’s Terminal 4, passengers were putting their personal touches on their homes away from home.

Andrew Jenkins and Tom Laughton scrawled, “JFK Squatters, Yorkshire Branch” above their cots. Jenkins, 23, from Yorkshire, England, was relying on Red Cross blankets and $10 daily food vouchers from the Irish airline Aer Lingus.

“We were expecting to be sleeping on the floor,” Jenkins said. “As long as we keep getting food vouchers, it’s not going to kill us, is it?”

For Johan Bombeke, wife Annemie Quintiga and their three children, being stuck in an airport was no reason not to have furniture. The family arranged the cots they were given in a square, and in the center, they put a coffee table, constructed out of the box that the pillows they received came in.

Alan Godfrey of London staved off boredom by using the boxes the cots were delivered in to construct a 4-foot-long airplane with the sign “Big Al’s Airways. Tickets Available! $1.” He drew windows on it and attached the wings with drinking straws.

Godfrey had been at the airport since Friday, marking the passage of time with little penstrokes on the wall, one for each night.

The “Welcome to Terminal 8″ announcement was playing over and over on the public address system all night, said Christien Lynen, 49, of Belgium. Lynen ate fruit, chips, croissants and soda provided by the Belgian Consulate to stranded travelers. At night, while she tried to fall asleep, she kept smelling the trash collected nearby.

“When you’re in a group you’re stronger. Luckily we are all together. Everyone is very nice. We help each other,” Lynen said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said community outreach workers have been sent to JFK to help stranded travelers.

“We love them and we want them to have a good time, but it’s kind of hard to do when you can’t get your luggage or have to sleep on a cot,” he said. “There’s no substitute for somebody that wants to get home — they’re not going to be happy no matter what you do for them.”

Associated Press writers Sara Kugler, Deepti Hajela and Karen Matthews and AP photographer Seth Wenig in New York; AP writer Juergen Baetz in Berlin; and AP writer Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.

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