BANGOR, Maine — Guess who’s coming to dinner?
Waylaid in Bangor by bad weather farther to the north and east, a political who’s who of high-profile travelers greeted troops at Bangor International Airport on Friday night and livened up the local downtown scene before flying out early Saturday.
En route to an international security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mark Udall of Colorado found themselves stranded at Bangor International Airport late Friday afternoon because of high winds and overcast conditions in Halifax.
The six senators were the first to straggle in to BIA, landing in a private military plane shortly after 3 p.m. after their pilot attempted twice to land in Halifax.
They didn’t know how long they would be grounded in Bangor, so they did what anyone would do — they contacted a friend.
“I looked at my e-mail and there was a message from Barbara [Mikulski],” said Sen. Susan Collins on Saturday. “She said, ‘You’ll never guess where I am.’” The group, accompanied by an entourage of aides and security staff, was in the coffee shop at BIA, waiting for the weather to clear.
Collins was at her home in Bangor, anticipating a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I was in kind of a quandary,” Collins said. “I didn’t want to miss her call, but I had six friends stranded at the airport.”
Collins forwarded her calls to her BlackBerry and drove out to the airport. She parked in the short-term lot, which proved to be a mistake.
“They thought they’d be flying out shortly,” she said, but the 4 o’clock weather report called for continued poor visibility and conditions in Halifax until well after midnight. No one was going anywhere.
Shortly after Collins arrived at the airport, the group of senators was joined by airport manager Rebecca Hupp, Collins said.
“She told us they were expecting two planeloads of troops shortly after 5 p.m.,” she said. “She asked if we would be willing to wait at the airport and greet them.”
Collins filled her guests in on the city’s storied troop greeters program.
“In all kinds of weather, Christmas, holidays, in the middle of the night, they’ve never missed one flight,” Collins said she told her colleagues. Since the first Gulf War, the group has welcomed more than 1.1 million troops into the Bangor airport — nearly the equivalent of the entire population of the state of Maine, she noted.
“The senators were really blown away by that,” she said. “I knew John McCain would likely be most interested in greeting the troops, and I knew it would be a special thrill for the troops to see McCain in particular.”
McCain served in Vietnam and spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war. He enjoys wide popularity within the military.
The senators decided to take part in the ceremony, stay overnight in Bangor and fly on to Halifax in the morning.
“Then, who comes in but Janet Napolitano,” Collins went on. Napolitano, who was traveling to Halifax on a separate flight, also had been diverted to Bangor by the weather. She, too, agreed to greet the troops and stay overnight.
As the troop greeters arrived and prepared to welcome a flight of U.S. Marines bound for Afghanistan, the VIPs lined up alongside them. As the Marines deplaned, Collins said, the first few walked through the double line of greeters without recognizing McCain or the others.
“So I started yelling out, ‘Senator McCain is here to greet you,’” Collins said. That brought the troops crowding around. “Everyone was taking pictures with their cell phones,” she said.
The second troop flight brought in another large crowd of service members, Red Cross workers and civilians. All in all, Collins said, the group spent about three hours at the airport. She stayed with them as their staff located hotel rooms and made dinner reservations, but left before they had dinner to keep a social obligation of her own.
At Thistle’s restaurant in downtown Bangor, co-owner Santiago Rave said the phone rang at about 6 p.m. Someone was looking for a table for 15 people in 10 or 15 minutes.
“We were having a busy evening,” he said. “Our function room was booked and we had two big parties in the dining room.” He apologized to the caller and said he might be able to accommodate the party later in the evening.
A few minutes later, he got a second call.
“They said, ‘We’re in a bit of a predicament,’” he said.
When he learned more about the identities of the guests, Rave said, “We just scrambled around to get everything going.” The party of 15 grew to 24, he said, and had to be seated at several different tables.
“They were a wonderful group,” he said. “I think they ordered one of everything on the menu.” McCain, he recalled, ordered Spanish paella, a pungent dish of rice and seafood.
“He said he wanted to speak to the chef, who is my father,” Rave said proudly. “He said the paella was excellent.”
The VIPs stayed the night at the Hilton Garden hotel near the Bangor Mall, booking about 30 rooms for themselves, their staff and the pilots, said manager Renaud Nadeau.
“It was exciting,” Nadeau said, but the group attracted little attention and hotel staff didn’t make a big deal about it. “They deserve their peace and quiet just like anyone else when they’re staying with us,” he said.
The group flew out of Bangor headed for Halifax early Saturday morning.
“I was extremely proud,” Collins said, “and also delighted for my colleagues to recognize what a special place Bangor is. … I know this is one layover they will never forget.”