Monday, September 12, 2011

On 9-11, Where The Planes Landed

Diverted Aircraft in Halifax
 We all know that after the terrorists used commercial jets to strike their targets in the United States, all airline traffic was grounded. Planes were landed in airports as quickly as they could get on the ground and those airports were not necessarily their intended destinations.

Doug and Sherry Lindsey were passengers on one of those flights, inbound from Europe and this is their experience as Doug related it to me shortly after 9-11.

"After a couple of days post-cruise from R7, our Amsterdam to Philadelphia return flight was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia on 9-11. Our flight crew claimed we were diverting because of "weather," but wouldn't say ANYTHING else. We knew from "popping" ears that we'd been descending for at least 30 minutes before that and we knew the "weather" story was baloney and started to get scared. What could be so bad that they'd lie to try and hide it? A bomb or a hijacker on board? Literally minutes later we pop out of the clouds and land seconds after that.

As our jet taxies, we count almost FIFTY aircraft, including maybe fifteen Boeing 747s parked nose-to-nose on every available inch of concrete (Halifax is a VERY small airport.) Virtually every international carrier has a plane or two. Our Boeing 767 is one of the smaller aircraft. It looks like a wartime evacuation. We later learn that over 200 flights inbound to USA are diverted to Eastern Canada.

We're told we'll be put up in Halifax till everything is sorted out. We sit on the plane for 10 hours (this is after a 7 hour flight) while the city of Halifax scrambles to accommodate over 9,000 people in emergency shelters. Eventually we get off the plane and are escorted to the terminal. It looks like every cop, fireman, EMT, soldier, sailor and reservist in Nova Scotia has been mobilized. There is an army of people maintaining very tight security and shepherding passengers. After maybe an hour at the terminal, we're bussed about 30 minutes to our shelter, the "Park Exhibition Centre." Inside is a TV room filled with [donated] large-screen monitors tuned to CNN. Several welcome desks filled with Red Cross volunteers register us, inquire if we need anything special including medications, show us where temporary phone banks have been set up, and guide us to our beds. There are huge tables set up with beverages and hot food. It's obvious that every fast food joint in Halifax has been cranking all day to support this.

Part of the Centre is a very large communal room where bedding for about 1,500 people has been set up. We find out later that volunteers have gone door-to-door in Halifax to get pillows, blankets and linens. At least one local mattress outlet has cleaned out its warehouse and delivered it here. The Salvation Army contributes what they have; at least 1,000 wool blankets. The hot food is welcome and the beds feel good. We're grateful to be safe and amazed at the degree of mobilization and support that's materialized in a few hours on our behalf. Most of it is done by Halifax citizen-volunteers.

The next morning we wake up and go into the sports arena, which has been set up as a dining hall, with more big monitors tuned to CNN, FoxNews, etc. A hot breakfast is catered by the staff of Halifax's own World Trade Centre. There is unlimited hot & cold food & beverages during our stay. We spend most of the day reading newspapers and watching CNN, as the media assembles the story. We see the photos and footage of the destruction, the victims, the rescuers, and hear the stories of survivors and heroes alike. We listen to dozens of talking heads attempting to analyze and interpret.

By afternoon a trailer with field showers is setup. Internet access is available nearby. A "Stunt-Dog" show is performed in the parking lot. There's also a free shuttle van to the shopping centers so we can buy clothing and other "necessaries" (we never gain access to our luggage). Each night there's live music of all sorts. Just about everything imaginable shows up within a few hours of somebody thinking of it or requesting it.

There are maybe 10 planeloads of people at our facility (there are 17 other hosting facilities, most much smaller). Aircraft start leaving on the second day, but all of these are returning to Europe, or continuing to Canadian destinations.

Thousands of Halifax families offer to host travelers in their homes. We'll never know how many; the Red Cross stopped accepting offers after it reached 4,000 on the first day. So many Haligonians, as they call themselves, come into our shelter that they're almost a nuisance; to offer a place to stay, a restaurant meal, a private tour around town, anything they can think to help make our stay more pleasant. We witness hundreds of acts of individual kindness during our stay.

Lots of Canadians stop by to say hello; military, police, Mounties, catering staff. Many offer sympathy, but I think they mostly want to get a face-to-face "take" on how we Americans feel. Canadians with "Therapy Dogs" also stop by many times. The pilot of our plane stops by each day to say hello and see how everyone's doing. He's a bright, decent, caring fellow.

We hear the same things many times on Canadian TV, in the Canadian newspaper letters and editorials, and from dozens of individual Canadians. The message is worded many different ways, but it comes down to this: "The destruction may have taken place in NYC and Washington DC, but they attacked us too. You suffered the blow for us, but this is our fight. We'll help anyway we can. We'll fight back too."

On the first day, we take advantage of the shopping shuttle. On the second day, we use the field showers and take a 2-hour bus tour of Halifax. The sights are pleasant but not particularly remarkable. But everywhere we turn we meet open, generous, giving people. We realize that we too, can at least make a gesture.

On the second and third days, we set up a table in the dining area, with a sign that says "'THANK YOU HALIFAX'-Sign Up Here" and start off with our own thank you note. At least two planeloads of people are gone by the time we start, but in a day and a half, at least 500 people stop by. Their contributions range from a name and address, to full page 'Thank You' notes. We read through them. Most are quite touching. Some of our Canadian hosts cry when they read them.

Our plane is called on the morning of the third day, and we leave a copy, at least 75 pages, with the volunteer staff.

We get to the terminal, and a few minutes later the flight crew shows up. Everyone starts clapping; they're not merely our ticket home, in three days they've become our friends. With many delays for heightened security, we reach Albany, NY late that night. It's never felt so good to be home."
I have nothing to add to his narrative, except to express my gratitude to our Canadian friends and neighbors. Your support and kindness will never be forgotten.

Halifax International Airport Staff Photographs©, used with permission

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