Good Samaritans in the SitCen

Among the tens of thousands of foreign nationals who suddenly found themselves stranded in Canada on September 11, Pat Ryan had an urgent need to get back home to the United States.

For Ryan, home was Chicago, where he served as head of a company whose operations include providing grief counsellors after air tragedies. Ryan's second largest office was in New York, at Two World Trade Center, which was home to approximately 1,200 employees. On September 11, his company lost 200 employees.

Decisions made in the SitCen included granting clearance for humanitarian flights.

On the day the terrorists struck, Ryan was in Deer Lake, Newfoundland, and although he had a company plane, he could not get out. With North American airspace sealed off, any unauthorized flight would run the risk of being shot down.

A company executive managed to get through to the Situation Centre on the 14th floor of the Transport Canada building. He explained the situation and appealed for clearance so that the plane could fly Pat Ryan from Deer Lake to Sarnia, and then on to Chicago.

Dale Lahey, Superintendent of Aviation Operations, remembers taking the call. He got off the phone and went up to John Read, who was directing the SitCen's response to the crisis. "I need approval [to let this plane take off]," Lahey said, explaining that Ryan and his team were among the best grief counsellors for aviation accidents in the world. "I think this is a really important case."

Under new emergency measures, Transport Canada was permitting a limited reopening of airspace for certain circumstances, including humanitarian reasons. John Read was told of the company's role in providing grief counselling after air tragedies. To the decision makers in the SitCen, Pat Ryan certainly qualified for humanitarian treatment and clearance was granted.

Just over a week after September 11, Dale Lahey received a moving letter from the company. It was a thank-you note that read in part:

"It was your thoughtfulness and understanding of our situation, and your timely response which enabled Mr. Ryan to reach Sarnia, then Chicago, to take control of our command center. When a company, as ours, experiences a tragedy like we did, you always want your leader at home on the ground and in control. You and your team helped make that possible and for that we are truly thankful."

One of Lahey's colleagues in the SitCen, Judy Rutherford, perhaps summed up this episode best. "There are things like this that went on that made us feel good, made us feel like we were making an important difference in the lives of some people far away."

This is Not a Test!






September 11, 2001 was Doug Mein's first day back after a summer on leave. The Director of Air Navigation Services and Airspace was in Edmonton, at a conference with other civil aviation executives.

From the shower in his hotel room, Mein heard his cell phone begin to ring and ring. He towelled off and checked his messages. Eight in all. His first thought was that a Canadian flight must have gone down somewhere; only something like that would have prompted such a flurry of calls.

After a few phone calls, he understood what had happened.

Mein rushed downstairs to a hastily convened meeting with his colleagues. On the way into the room, he felt as if he were walking into a wake. Sombre faces, no one exchanging pleasantries.

Transport Canada made arrangements to get Mein and his colleagues back to Ottawa as quickly as possible. A Cessna Citation 550 was flown into Edmonton from Yellowknife, and then took off heading directly for Ottawa.

An air navigation services veteran, Mein sat in the jumpseat for the flight back. He put on the headset and listened to the air traffic control, or ATC, frequencies. He was struck by something he had never heard coming out of the ether before — utter silence. During the entire flight, he heard only one other aircraft on the radio, a United Airlines flight out of Tokyo's Narita Airport on approach into Calgary.

Flying over Canada, listening to the empty airwaves, Mein felt the silence was surreal; it was as if the last people on Earth were on board this tiny Cessna Citation. Between Edmonton and Ottawa, the flight crew tested the radio four times, to see if it was working. The silence was eerie.

Then, over Yorkton, Saskatchewan, something happened that Mein never expected to hear in his life: an ESCAT call shattered the silence over the radio. ESCAT stands for Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic. With that call, Mein and his travelling companions knew that NORAD had taken control of the skies over North America.

Doug Mein had trained and practiced in his field to issue these calls in the event of war, but he had never really expected to deliver or even hear the real thing — particularly in peacetime. Yet, flying over Saskatchewan, the call had come. NORAD had been placed on high alert. This was not a test.

Stranded Far From Home

Jim Marriott believes that everything he learned and experienced since January 1986 — when he joined the security team at Transport Canada — had prepared him professionally for the events of September 11 and its shocking aftermath.

He signed on a few months after the 1985 Air India bombing, the worst disaster in Canadian aviation history. When he joined security, Marriott knew that he had chosen a career path that would lead him through the wrenching wake of Air India. In the years that followed, he would find himself having to address other threats to transportation security such as threats arising from the Gulf War.

But for all his experience and crisis management training, nothing could prepare Marriott for the sense of frustration he would feel on September 11 and the days that followed. While the terrorist attacks were taking place over New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, he was in Arundel, England, attending a meeting of the European Civil Aviation Conference.

He heard the terrible news from an American colleague, also an aviation security expert, who took a call on his cell phone. "I've known the man for 15 or 16 years and I have never heard this tone of voice or seen his face turn grey so fast," Marriott recalls. "I think that we all knew that the worst had happened."

His instincts told him this was huge, momentous and that he should be on the first plane out of Heathrow and back in the Situation Centre in Ottawa, where he could put all those years of training and preparation to good use. He knew that if he were back in the SitCen, he could contribute to "building a package of rules" that would allow aircraft safely into the skies again.

The problem was, nothing was flying to North America. Jim Marriott was grounded in London. "I felt useless, absolutely useless," he says. "You know you've got something to offer the system, you know you've got a role to play in public safety and security, you know the tools at your disposal and you feel connected to the event. But you can't do anything with it."

Marriott spent the next few days at the U.S. embassy in London, monitoring the world's response to September 11 and staying in touch with his security colleagues back home. Marriott finally did make it out of London and back to the SitCen. It took some time but on Friday morning — three days after the terrorists struck — he arrived at Heathrow to catch a flight home. For Marriott and his team, the coming months would bring many long and intense days at the office.

Whitehorse Tower, This is NORAD Calling

Whitehorse air traffic control specialist Dave White was glued to his television on the morning of September 11, trying to absorb the horrific events in New York and Washington just before heading off to work. As he watched, he reflected on the isolation of this northern community and his own sense of remoteness from all the activity down south.

That was about to change, and fast.

Soon after he got to work, White received a call from NORAD informing him that two Korean Airlines flights — one filled with passengers, the other loaded with cargo, both 747s — were headed to Whitehorse Airport and they were being escorted in by a pair of CF-18 fighter jets. In the maze of confusing rumours that day, there were indications that one of the Korean planes might have been hijacked.

Within 30 minutes of receiving the call from NORAD , the Korean planes were on the ground and taxied to a stop — as far away from the terminal as possible.

A Korean plane approaches Whitehorse Airport.

To suggest that Whitehorse had never seen such high drama and excitement would be an understatement. Nevertheless, White says the response to the crisis could not have been more orderly - everybody knew exactly what to do. He especially credits the RCMP for taking control of the situation. Police officers took up positions on the tarmac; snipers were on the roof of the terminal building. It was a good hour before they began letting people off the planes. The crew members were the first to deplane. The men were asked to open their shirts and keep their hands in the air, so they could be searched for weapons. The passengers followed.

It all went so calmly. However, there were more than a few jangled nerves inside the airport. A resource management supervisor, Marilyn Seaman, admitted being scared for the first time in her eight years at Whitehorse Airport.

A very different story was playing out in the city of Whitehorse itself. The downtown core was being evacuated. Schools were let out for the day. There was a traffic jam in the heart of town.

It took several hours to sort things out, but in the end, there had been no hijacking — just an unsettling communications mix-up at a very inopportune moment. Once the threat was defused, the passengers were quickly taken in as guests of the people of Whitehorse.

While the people of Whitehorse may always feel a bit isolated, September 11 will remind them just how connected they were to the outside world that late summer day.

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