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9/11 put Canada’s aviation network to the test

Sept. 6, 2011, Ottawa - Shortly after 1 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 - four hours after the World Trade Centre plane crashes - Prime Minister Jean Chrétien drove from 24 Sussex Drive to Parliament Hill.


September 6, 2011
By The Montreal Gazette

He was surrounded by Mounties, who had increased security at the official residence because of the terrorist attacks in the United States.

Canadians were still reeling at the horrific images they had seen on TV – commercial jets flying into iconic buildings, desperate workers jumping from the burning towers and, finally, the structures themselves collapsing in a misty cloud of steel, concrete and human remains.

In Canada, a disquieting sense of fear was taking hold. America was under attack from an unknown enemy.

Was Canada also in danger?

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Chrétien had spent the morning huddled at 24 Sussex, calling cabinet ministers, consulting staff and, ultimately, deciding on a lowkey public approach.

Chrétien's office issued a statement saying the prime minister was "stricken" by the television images coming from the U.S. "It is impossible to fully comprehend the evil that would have conjured up such a cowardly and depraved assault upon thousands of innocent people," the statement said.

Now, as he spoke to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons, his only public appearance of the day, Chrétien was sombre.

"We said to everybody to remain calm. I would like to thank Canadians who have kept their calm in these last four hours and we hope that the situation will come to a little bit more normality," he said. Then he returned to 24 Sussex.

It was there Chrétien would make one of the most difficult decisions of his long political career – one that, if incorrect, would result in the violent deaths of more than 200 innocent civilians. They were aboard a potentially hijacked jet approaching the West Coast. Military officials needed approval to shoot down the Korean Air 747 in case it turned hostile and posed a threat to a Canadian city.

Sacrifice lives to save lives? Chrétien studied the options, knowing his conscience would be forever burdened if he made the wrong choice. In the end, he knew he had no choice.

The story of this incident – and other critical decisions on that historic day – was told to Postmedia News in extensive interviews with Chrétien, his senior ministers, aides and the military. Ten years later, their memories of that day – the frightening rumours and fog of war, the lessons it taught Canada's political leaders and how it changed the country – remain vivid.

Chrétien recalls his objective in those critical first hours of the crisis was clear: Stay rational, avoid alarming Canadians and make the quick decisions that were necessary.

"For me, panicking is always a big mistake. You have to remain calm," said Chrétien, adding that he was determined to not engage in public "grandstanding."

"You don't take advantage of death in politics. For me, it was terrible for the Americans and I didn't want to be on the air and be visible at that time. I think it was the day for the Americans to mourn and we were on their side. Some people said that I did not talk as much as I should have. But I disagree. I think the best way for a prime minister is to be very calm and not to exaggerate and to take things in good stride. Look calm. If you are calm, people remain calm. If you look excited, the people don't know what's going on."

There were no clues that morning of the impending storm.

In Ottawa, Chrétien's first appointment was with Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert. On hand were Calvert's deputy minister, Brent Cotter, and Chrétien's longtime senior aide, Eddie Goldenberg.

Shortly into the meeting, Bruce Hartley, Chrétien's executive assistant, interrupted. There had been a tragic accident in New York, he said. A plane had struck one of the twin towers.

"Thank you very much, Bruce," said the prime minister, who, like everyone else, assumed it was an accident.

Moments later, Hartley re-entered – visibly shaken. Another plane had struck the other tower, he said. Both were commercial jets.

Terrorism – unthinkable in its scope and audacity – had struck North America.

Calvert excused himself so the prime minister could get to work. As he left, the Saskatchewan premier was accompanied by an expanded security detail of four police officers wearing bulletproof vests.

Chrétien began making phone calls: to the chief of defence staff, Ray Henault, who was in Europe; to RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, who was also out of town; and to American ambassador Paul Cellucci, who was in Calgary. None could be reached, although Chrétien did get through to Steve Kelly, the deputy at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, to express condolences and promise support. He pondered whether to call U.S. President George W. Bush, but decided Bush would be far too busy.

Chrétien was under pressure, says Goldenberg, to make an immediate public statement that morning. But Chrétien didn't want to do this until Bush had spoken.

And besides, "We didn't know what was going on," says Goldenberg. "We didn't want to pretend."

Meanwhile, Gus Cloutier, the head of House of Commons security on Parliament Hill, called the prime minister. There was a car, with a package on the front seat, illegally parked on Parliament Hill. Cloutier recommended an immediate evacuation of the parliamentary precincts.

Chrétien mulled it over and rejected the recommendation.

"If I close the parliament buildings, every office building in the country is going to close," he told Goldenberg.

"And I don't want to send that signal."

As it turned out, the car was no threat, but had merely been parked by a tourist.

"I took a chance," Chrétien now says. "But in the public life, you make decisions."

Transport Minister David Collenette was giving the opening address at Montreal's Palais des Congrès to an international convention of airport officials.

About 20 minutes into his speech, he noticed the crowd had become "restless." An aide slipped him a note telling him to wind up his speech; there had been a "tragedy."

Assistant deputy minister Louis Ranger delivered more details. "He told me a plane hit the World Trade Centre tower, that they thought it was a small plane but they didn't know."

As they left, rushing down an escalator, Ranger received a phone call from deputy transport minister Margaret Bloodworth, who said a second tower had been hit. "We've got to go back to Ottawa," Collenette told Ranger.

Over the next 90 minutes, some of the day's most critical decisions were made. The first decision stemmed from a move by U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to close the skies in the U.S.

At that time of day, recalls Collenette, "it was like rush hour on the North Atlantic.

"We estimate that there were 500 flights, wide-bodied jets, in the air with more than 75,000 people in them when he (Mineta) closed the skies."

In addition to the Atlantic, planes were flying over the Pacific. Most were destined for U.S. airports, and now had no place to land. Collenette and Bloodworth quickly agreed on a plan. Canadian air traffic officials would work with British counterparts to assess the planes in the air – their age, their payload, how far they could fly and their fuel. Some would be sent back. Others would be allowed into Canada.

Eventually, 239 aircraft – most from Europe – were allowed to land in Canada.

But where in Canada?

There were rumours of terrorists on incoming flights. The prospect of another catastrophe loomed large.

Collenette suggested landing the planes in Mirabel. "But Margaret said: 'No, we can't bring them that close.' Our fear was bringing them into Toronto and Montreal.

"Once you give a plane the go-ahead to get past the East Coast of Canada, it's open season – whether it's Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia. All these cities would be vulnerable."

The solution? Land the planes on Canada's East Coast, at airports ranging from Halifax to Moncton to Gander. And so they began arriving, parking on runways and waiting to be cleared by customs officials.

Collenette cancelled all further takeoffs, and the airspace was closed. The only exceptions would be military, search and rescue, police, medevac and humanitarian flights.

When the minister arrived at about 11: 30 a.m. at his office, Collenette's executive assistant turned on the TV. Collenette saw the replay of one of the planes crashing into the tower. "Turn it off," he said. "I don't want to see that. We've got a job to do. We can't get involved in the emotions of what's happened."

Stay focused, stay calm.

The phone call came in the early afternoon to Angus Watt, a brigadier-general who was at the Canadian NORAD regional headquarters at CFB Winnipeg and, on that day, was the operations officer for the entire air force.

"We've got a problem," Watt was told by one of his American counterparts in Alaska. "We don't need your help right now, but we've got this airliner coming in and he's squawking hijack."

The threat was Korean Airlines Flight 85, then over the Pacific Ocean. The Boeing 747 jet with 211 people aboard had left Seoul destined for New York City, with a scheduled refuelling stop in Anchorage, Alaska.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency and the American air force were alerted and before long, its pilots were asked to confirm the hijacking. They responded at 1: 24 p.m. ET by punching the specific hijack alert – 7500 – into the transponder.

American F-15 fighter jets now shadowed the jet. The plane was told it could not land in Anchorage, but officials ruled out directing it to a remote Alaska runway because of poor weather. So within an hour, Watt received another call from the Americans.

"I need your help because I don't have any more options," Watt was told. The plane was starting to run low on fuel. The only nearby airport was at Whitehorse.

Suddenly, the ball was in Canada's court. Might this plane now be a threat to Canada? The biggest, closest target was Vancouver, about 90 minutes away.

None of Canada's CF-18s was close enough to track the plane. If it was going to be shot down by a military jet, the action would have to be taken by one of the U.S. F-15s still shadowing the airliner. But this could not happen without the consent of the Canadian government.

In Ottawa, the message had been relayed to Chrétien for his permission.

The prime minister considered the horrible options, then made a decision

"I said, 'If we have to, we will.' You know, if a plane like that was to crash in downtown Vancouver it would have been terrible. So I said: 'Get ready, if it's needed.' Probably before pushing the button they would have called me."

In Winnipeg, Watt and his staff faced conflicting warning signs. The plane was following the orders of air traffic controllers. There was no cause for alarm in conversations with the pilots. And yet the transponder was still squawking 7500.

The plane was told to land in Whitehorse. With barely 30 minutes left before touchdown, officials evacuated schools and large buildings.

The U.S. F-15 pilots, fingers close to the trigger, were ready to seek final permission to shoot down the plane if it suddenly appeared dangerous. In Ottawa, Chrétien waited by the phone. Finally, 90 minutes after the crisis had begun, the jet landed, uneventfully.

The whole ordeal had been caused by the pilots, who mistakenly believed when speaking to air traffic controllers that they were supposed to switch on their hijack code.

Later, in his memoirs, Chrétien described it as a "heavy responsibility, with hundreds of innocent lives at stake and possibly on my conscience."

But in his recent interview with Postmedia News, Chrétien said he had "no choice."

"It's not very complicated. In my mind, you cannot expose the downtown of a city of Vancouver with thousands and thousands of deaths. And the people on the plane were not my responsibility. They were the responsibility of the pilot and the airline. It was not a Canadian airline."

In later weeks, one Canadian – Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley – would emerge as this country's reassuring voice of leadership. But Manley spent much of 9/11 trapped in an aircraft – frustrated, anxious and worried.

He had begun his day in meetings in Berlin, then boarded a flight in Frankfurt to return to Canada.

It was aboard the Air Canada 747 that flight attendants told him a plane had hit the World Trade Centre.

Theirs was the last flight allowed to continue its flight to Canada, and they still had several hours to go in the journey.

"It was totally frustrating," Manley recalls.

"I remember very distinctly going into the lavatory and looking at myself in the mirror and saying, 'This is a big problem. The world has changed today.' The second thought I had was, 'Oh my gosh, I hope they didn't get in from Canada.' "

Within days, Manley would become the head of a special cabinet committee tasked with three major challenges: Improve airport security; draft a new law to give police more powers to fight terrorism; and devise a "smart border" plan with the Americans to ensure Canadian exports would not be blocked.

By the end of the autumn, Canadians were living in a new world order.