Sally Schilling/Daily Journal
USO volunteers Mercedes Riofrio and Yolanda Bonilla help military members get comfortable at the center in the San Francisco International Airport.
When a Boeing 777 crash-landed at the San Francisco International Airport late Saturday morning, travelers grappled with what to do while being stranded for an undetermined length of time. Hundreds of these displaced passengers were members of the military traveling with their families.
The USO center at the San Francisco International Airport — an affiliate of the national nonprofit that serves military families — typically serves about 75 visitors per day. On the day of the crash, the center — which provides a place to relax, food and Internet access to military members and their families — helped more than 200 people.
When USO volunteer Leann Thornton of South San Francisco read the news of the plane crash, she abandoned her leisurely afternoon of baking.
She immediately made some calls and prepared a shopping list for a Costco run.
“The first thing you do when there is a disaster is you know you’re going to need food,” said Thornton.
When she arrived at the airport with supplies for the center, it was surprisingly calm for a major airport on a holiday weekend since flights were grounded.
“It was just eerie, how quiet it was,” she said.
The USO center was already crowded when she arrived. Several other staff and volunteers had rushed in to help and direct visitors to two nearby conference rooms opened up to accommodate the overflow.
“There’s great satisfaction to give back a little bit to those who serve our country,” said Thornton, who has volunteered for USO for five years.
The scene was not chaotic, because military personnel are for the most part very calm and gracious, she said.
“They weren’t frantic as the other terminal would be,” she said.
When Thornton was giving out extra blankets, someone told her, “Oh, it’s OK, I’ve slept in worse places.”
“They don’t ask for much,” she said. “They’re just content with anything they have.”
Thornton returned to the airport on Sunday to find one man who was still waiting with his daughter after almost 48 hours, she said.
“He was very calm and said, ‘Ya, we’ll get out of here eventually,’” she said.
One member of the military who was headed for Japan was on the plane that was about to take off on the adjacent runway as the Asiana Airlines flight crashed and burst into flames, said Bay Area USO Director Jeff Herndon.
He was delayed more than 12 hours and stayed at the center, said Herndon.
Another military member who was on his way to Korea was delayed 24 hours, he said.
“They have a place to sleep and eat, so it’s no extra cost to them,” said Herndon, who heard that many local hotels had doubled their room rates after Saturday’s emergency.
The center, which served almost 27,000 people last year, allows for members of the military and their families to avoid extra expenses in the event of an emergency.
“Otherwise, you’re sitting down on the concourse, twiddling your thumbs, wondering what to do and paying $10 for a sandwich,” he said.
On Sunday, the 2,000-square-foot center served 185 visitors. Herndon expects to serve a higher than normal number of visitors through the end of the week. The USO center at the San Francisco International Airport is open 24 hours every day to all military and their family members.