“I saw the flight attendants in the galley crying. Then the pilot came on the intercom and said, ‘New York and Washington are under attack. All hell has broken loose, we’re going to Canada’.”
This is how a passenger on a Continental flight from London said she learned about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Two hours later this flight landed at Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ) and was immediately surrounded by armed police with dogs. For the next nine hours passengers sat cut off from the world on the runway at a place they didn’t know. In this pre-digital era, mobile service to much of the Northeast was cut off by the collapse of the towers, leaving diverted travellers unable to access news or reach family or friends.
When North American airspace suddenly closed, 17 airports across Canada became the fallback destination for 255 US-bound flights and their 44,000 passengers and crew. That time of day is when most European flights are approaching North American airspace. The flights closest to North America landed at Charlottetown, Halifax, Gander, St. John’s, Saint John, Sydney and Moncton. Halifax received 42 aircraft, carrying 7,558 passengers and crew.
Early in the evening of September 11th, my then 77-year-old mother, who was a long-time Red Cross volunteer received a call asking her to help with Operation Grounded. I went with her to make sure she didn’t kill herself volunteering. That evening, we were part of a six-person team which drove across Nova Scotia from our homes in the Annapolis Valley to the Red Cross Citadel in Halifax. The building was pandemonium. The hallways were filled with people and boxes of office supplies and personal care items ready to rush and be rushed to wherever needed. Every desk seemed encircled by people, like dozens of mini-command centres. It was movement and voices and ringing telephones and hands waiving papers at whoever would snatch it and run. It was the type of the scenario I imagine took place when the stock market crashed in 1929.
About 10 pm our group was assigned to open the Dartmouth High School as a reception centre. We dashed over the MacDonald Bridge spanning Halifax Harbour and began our work. It was inspiring. It made us proud of our fellow Nova Scotians and the province. There was a need and everyone stepped up. A team from the phone company installed a phone bank so passengers could call anywhere in the world for free. The military arrived with hundreds of cots and quickly converted the gym into a large dorm. Caterers delivered hot, cold and kosher foods. Students came in to open up the computer lab and, working with custodians, move big screen TVs into the cafeteria so when diverted passengers arrived they could watch what had happened. Then residents began showing up demanding to take home stranded passengers. These stranded travellers hadn’t yet arrived, but Nova Scotians were ready. They told us they cleaned their guest rooms or pulled rec room sofa beds open, and/or sent the kids to stay with neighbours, friends or grandparents so they had room for these strangers. Everyone felt it was important that these uninvited guests knew they had a friend.
When the diverted passengers began to arrive our first task was to process them. We had half a dozen tables lined up on the gym’s stage. Passengers filed on stage, not to receive a graduation certificate, but to provide the International Red Cross with basic information: name, address, nationality, any medical conditions, travel details (flight number, departure point, destination) and permission to give their details to anyone searching for them. Somewhere, someone or some group were compiling all this information so frantic family, friends and colleagues around the world could learn the fate of their loved ones.
In the cafeteria I saw one 50-something New Yorker tightly gripping her sides as she rocked back and forth, staring at the TV. She couldn’t stop watching the planes fly into the towers. Eventually we learned she lived five blocks from the Twin Towers and what was on television was basically the view from her living room window.
She was so traumatized by these images she couldn’t be alone. We discretely arranged for another woman to accompany this lady to the washroom and stay at her side.
Members of the clergy – ministers, priests, a rabbi – also came by, walking the walk of the basic tenant of all faiths, ‘do unto others …’
That first night none of us knew anything, we assumed that the next morning the visitors would be back on their planes, continuing their journey. Volunteers were told passengers had to be on-site for an 8:30 am situation update. This deadline discouraged passengers from taking private accommodations too far away.
Just before dawn our group of volunteers handed over the school and visitors to another Red Cross team and returned to the Valley. We arrived home at 6:30 am. At 8:30 am, we learned no one was flying that day and were asked to go to Camp Aldershot, a local militia base pressed into service as a reception centre for 1,500 diverted travellers.
My mother, who was an extraordinarily organized person, worked the office, fielding incoming calls from around the world, coordinating volunteers and keeping in touch with the Red Cross command centre, managing appointments for those with medical issues and dealing with other requests from the diverted. Medical teams were on-site, here and all host communities, to check passengers. Those who didn’t have their meds were provided with free prescriptions. Some were transferred to hospital for more detailed diagnostic tests and treatment, and their doctors informed.
Volunteer firefighters came to the camp offering tours of the area. Local women delivered food, offered laundry services and took people shopping. I overheard one young woman telling a new-found friend among her fellow passengers, “This woman, a complete stranger, took me shopping for underwear!” “Nooooo!” said her suddenly jealous friend. “YES! Can you imagine some stranger at home taking you shopping for panties!?!” “You are so lucky.”
One who wasn’t so lucky was the young mother who suffered a miscarriage due to the stress.
It was only when I saw Michael Moore’s movie, 9/11, I learned people were told not to remove anything larger than a purse from an aircraft. On the ground at the time, volunteers didn’t know this. We didn’t know that officials were checking all luggage on all flights or that the reason it took up to 14 hours to deplane passengers was because every flight manifest had to be checked for more terrorists. Consequently, like all the host communities and reception centres, we had thousands of people without basics like toothbrush, toothpaste and comb.
In response to these needs CFB Greenwood sent truckloads of towels and linens to Aldershot. Local stores, like Sobeys, Lawton’s, Zellers and many small independents donated towels, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant and personal care items. My role at the school and camp was to act as a type of quartermaster, dispensing these items to our guests. I learned there is a weird practically to disaster. And that people have greater patience and empathy if they can shower and brush their teeth.
One woman housed at Aldershot told me she woke up that first night to find a man crawling across the floor of her room. He immediately identified himself as a soldier, apologized for startling her and explained she had been given his bed. He was just reaching for his wallet in the nightstand.
On the second and third days a couple of people got a tad ‘shirty’. Mostly in response to stress and having to share things like shampoo and conditioner. An American businessman on a one-day business trip flying from his base in London to New York was surprised that we were all volunteers and that all the personal items, food and entertainment was donated. He said, “You should put up a sign asking for donations. Let them know you’re volunteers, that this is donated stuff. They think the airlines or government are paying for this. They’re not used to kindness of this scale.” Whether or not they were used to it, that’s what they got. We were happy to be useful.
In a way, it was like a delayed returning of the favour for the way Boston and the people of Massachusetts came to our aid after the December 6, 1917 Halifax Explosion.