David Collenette on 9/11

The former transport minister on deciding who to ground and who could fly on Sept. 11, 2001

Up in the air

Lorenzo Ciniglio/Sygma/Corbis

“Wind up your speech. There has been a tragedy.” This hastily handwritten note, placed on the lectern as I delivered the keynote address at a conference of international airport executives, heralded the longest day of my political life. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

I had gotten up at 5 a.m. to take a Transport Canada Citation jet to Montreal, a groggy start to another long ministerial day. The conference should have been routine. But just after 9 a.m., the audience became restless. This was not unusual for a politician giving a speech; still I was puzzled. For the most part, people had appeared quite interested.

I continued to speak while reading the note, which instructed me to talk to assistant deputy minister Louis Ranger and avoid the media. I feared the worst, probably a serious accident, which Louis did confirm: at 8:45 a.m. a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. I immediately sensed some type of terrorist act had occurred, since passenger jets just don’t crash into tall buildings if they are in trouble. There are all kinds of emergency procedures for pilots: landing at the nearest airport or ditching in water around Manhattan.

I left the hall and was besieged by journalists. Then I gave one of the most incoherent media scrums of my career. I groped for words because I did not have the facts and could not say what was really going through my mind. I managed to excuse myself, saying I had to catch a plane to Toronto.

As we made our way to the van waiting to take us to the airport, we learned from our deputy minister in Ottawa, Margaret Bloodworth, that a second plane had hit the other tower. Before too long there would be confirmation of two more crashes, at the Pentagon and a field in eastern Pennsylvania. Departmental contacts in Washington said all airports may be closed. We knew this was a crisis and agreed to head back to Ottawa, about a two-hour drive.

Within a matter of minutes we heard again from the deputy: my U.S. counterpart, Norman Mineta, had grounded all flights. Those in U.S. airspace were required to land at the nearest airport, and any planes attempting to fly across the border would be forced to land, or possibly shot down by the U.S. Air Force. Within minutes an aerial wall had been erected around the United States of America, and Canada found itself on the front line.

This was unprecedented, and I had a sinking feeling. Should we follow the American lead? What should we do about the flights in international air space that were now approaching Canada? It was a logistical nightmare: Mineta’s order was issued at 9.45 Eastern Daylight Time—“rush hour” over the Atlantic. More than 500 planes with an estimated 75,000 people on board were en route to North America.

The U.S. decision was made, naturally, with great haste, and was apparently oblivious to a key fact. The International Civil Aviation Organization allocated jurisdiction over the western portion of the North Atlantic to NavCanada, our air traffic control organization, and over the eastern section to the U.K. The United States actually has no jurisdiction over the area most transatlantic flights traverse; it only controls the 12 nautical miles directly off its coast.

Nevertheless, there was no time to ponder the finer points of aviation jurisdiction: every 90 seconds an aircraft was entering Canadian airspace seeking clearance to land. Under the Aeronautics Act the transport minister is the only person with the statutory authority to issue emergency orders, but I was in a van barrelling along Highway 417 toward Ottawa, alone except for Louis and my assistant, Marie-Helen Levesque. There was fear in their eyes, and I knew then I had to set the tone and provide leadership. I was a political veteran with a lot of cabinet experience and at that point had been minister of transport for four years, yet nothing had prepared me for the ordeal we now faced.

We could only communicate with Ottawa via the three mobile phones we had between us (the BlackBerry was still a future technology), which meant that Margaret and others at headquarters were forced to come up with options, explain the ramifications to me, then get my decision, all within minutes. Under the authority of the Aeronautics Act we agreed that I would order a number of measures. All flights that had yet to take off were grounded, but unlike the U.S., we granted permission for all flights already in the air to proceed to their final destination. This provided minimum disruption to passengers.

But what about flights over the Atlantic, most originally destined for the United States and now approaching Canadian airspace? We instructed NavCanada, in conjunction with the British Civil Aviation Authority, to ascertain the geographical position of each plane to determine how many could be ordered to return to Europe. Evaluations were made with astounding speed. In little more than five minutes, more than 250 planes, most at 40,000 feet, were ordered to make a U-turn mid-ocean. But this still left another 224 that were past the point of no return.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had decided they were too risky to allow into American airspace. We had no way of knowing who was on the planes, although we had started to receive intelligence reports of the possibility of terrorists on board some of them. In addition, as news of the attacks in New York was broadcast, there were bomb threats at Canadian airports. Were these real, or just coming from those playing sinister games? We could not assume anything other than the worst. Accepting these aircraft might put Canadian lives at risk, but the alternative was unthinkable: planes running out of fuel and crashing. Canada had to accept them and the risks.

As the van sped along the highway, we had to decide where these planes would land. In the east, Montreal and Toronto were the largest airports with the best infrastructure, but the possibility of more terrorists on board raised the spectre of crashes into the downtown towers of Canada’s two largest cities. Another concern was that once planes were given the direction to land at Montreal or Toronto, any hijackers on board could easily take them off course and approach nearby American cities such as Boston, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland or Detroit before fighter jets could intercept the planes.

Our only option was to land most flights at designated airports in Atlantic Canada, where the security risk was lower. Throughout the Second World War, the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador, then a British colony, were major staging areas for troops and supplies going to Britain. There was an abundance of airports with long runways ideal for receiving a large number of planes.

We also had to deal with the Pacific. The volume of air traffic at that time of day was not as high but there were still 90 flights en route to North America and many did not have the fuel to get back to Asia. There was significant risk to landing planes in Vancouver, given the population density and the proximity of the airport to the downtown area. But other West Coast airports had relatively short runways and minimal infrastructure. Vancouver that day took in 33 planes, the third-largest number next to Gander and Halifax, which received 38 and 40 respectively.

The decisions I took that morning were arbitrary and without reference to my colleagues or the prime minister, an extreme oddity given the normally turgid “machinery of government.” The context was bizarre, to say the least—thousands of lives were being turned upside down by the one person with authority to act, who was communicating these decisions via cellular phone while travelling past the gentle foothills of the Laurentians! At one point I looked out at the beautiful countryside and thought, “This is surreal, what is going on here? Who was behind these attacks, and why?”

when i arrived in Ottawa, I was briefed by the deputy, who asked me to meet with the crisis team. At the time, Transport Canada and National Defence were the only two government ministries with operations centres. In 1994, Transport Canada also opened a state-of-the-art Situation Centre to provide emergency communications and coordination of disaster response. It had been deployed after the 1997 Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia and the ice storm of 1998. Usually “Sit Cen” had minimal staff, but within the past two hours Margaret had seconded a number of key officials from the aviation and security branches of Transport Canada. They were joined by staff from NavCanada, National Defence, the RCMP and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. Telephone links had been set up with Immigration and Citizenship Canada, the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, and the Federal Aviation Authority in Washington. An observer from the U.S. Embassy was present. The Sit Cen’s mission had quickly been named Operation Yellow Ribbon.

As I entered the room, I was amazed at the orderly, efficient buzz of activity, yet there was tension, too, and strained looks. My message was brief: we were all part of one team facing an enormous challenge, the government counted on their professionalism, and they had my full support.

Just before 1 p.m. I went back to my office. My executive assistant, Sue Ronald, said I should watch the news. As the first crash appeared on the screen, my chest tightened at the sight of the impact, followed by the unbelievable belching up of fire and smoke. Then the second tower was hit, followed by the image of both towers crumbling in one last gasp to the ground. I looked out the window of my office toward the Parliament Buildings and the majestic Peace Tower and tears welled up. I abruptly switched the television off. It would be wrong to be caught up in the emotion. I needed to make dispassionate, reasoned judgments. There would be time to grieve later.

We had closed Canadian airspace to all but emergency and humanitarian flights, but officials in the Sit Cen were called upon to authorize exceptions. In most cases, such as enabling medivac flights or those required to transport federal government personnel to Atlantic communities to assist with the processing of thousands of stranded passengers, the decisions were straightforward. Others were not. The head of a Chicago-based company whose responsibilities included supplying grief counsellors to those affected by aviation tragedies, was grounded in Newfoundland. Canadian permission for his company plane to fly was granted, but the U.S. was making no exceptions. Flights crossing into American air space would be shot down, no questions asked. So we cleared his plane to Sarnia, where he took a car to Chicago. Later we learned 200 of the company’s staff in its World Trade Center office had died in the attacks.

A number of requests ended up on my desk. Some were from those in the business community trying to work political connections. Others were from colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons who wanted to get back to Ottawa using chartered aircraft. One senior Liberal wanted permission for a chartered jet to land at Montreal; it was carrying the body of a close family member from New York City who had died unexpectedly in Israel. The Americans refused permission to land at Newark and my friend wanted to take the casket by car from Montreal to New York. Despite the family’s anguish, I had to say no.

But I also made some exceptions. Foreign minister John Manley, who was on an Air Canada flight en route from Frankfurt to Toronto, would be needed to deal with the wider issues that were coming into play.

Robert Milton, CEO of Air Canada, was stranded in London at a critical time, when more than 300 of the airline’s planes were grounded, many overseas. My instinct was to grant permission.

At about 1:20 p.m., the prime minister called. He was supportive of the difficult decisions we were making, but did surprise me with his assumption that flights could be running later in the day. I told him it was going to be no easy task to restart things. First, we had to examine all of our safety and security measures to determine if the calamitous events warranted immediate rule changes. Second, we would have to reopen the skies in concert with the U.S. A number of Canadian aircraft were locked down at American airports; in addition, some long-haul domestic flights to Eastern and Western Canada routinely fly over U.S. territory. I am not sure the PM liked my answer, but said I should do my best to return to normal schedules.

I asked if he was going to have a cabinet meeting. He said no. Events were moving too fast and I had the authority to continue making transportation decisions. Besides, there were not enough ministers in Ottawa to have a quorum, something he was not too happy about and something that he would deal with in the future. I told him I had approved John Manley’s return as well as that of Lawrence MacAulay, the solicitor general, who was coming back to Ottawa from Nova Scotia on an RCMP aircraft. Jean Chrétien was always businesslike, so he ended the conversation quickly, saying I should get back to work.

At about 4 p.m. an emotional Norman Mineta called. He and his colleagues, including president George W. Bush, were acting with lightning speed. The stress was easy to detect in his voice. He thanked me for the efforts of the Canadian government and was deeply grateful to the thousands of Canadians who had turned their lives inside out by welcoming so many strangers stuck at our airports. I felt an immense pride in what Canada was doing to help our American friends.

But the stranded passengers, many of whom were confined to aircraft for up to 16 hours or more, created a huge logistical challenge. They could not be allowed off the aircraft until normal immigration and customs procedures were followed; given the security concerns, this entailed more stringent screening, including more extensive interrogation and searches. Large numbers of immigration, customs, RCMP and security intelligence officers had to be transported to Atlantic Canada—in most cases via DND and Transport Canada, which had the largest fleets. The stress placed on communities and on various provincial governments forced to accept thousands of unexpected visitors was enormous, yet no one complained or argued about financial compensation. Canadians were pulling together in a remarkable way.

As the afternoon wore on I became concerned that there had been no official reaction from the government. When the prime minister did give a news scrum he expressed sympathy to our American friends for the horror that had taken place, but the situation was evolving so quickly that questions became more technical than he was briefed to answer. Unfortunately, the general nature of his comments drew unfair criticism from some quarters.

At Transport Canada, we were being inundated with calls from media outlets. We argued with the communications people in the Prime Minister’s Office that someone needed to give a detailed response not only to the media but to families of stranded travellers. There was considerable push back. By 6 p.m., we had received more than 225 requests, and we needed to get answers out. Finally, we told them we were going ahead and sent out a news release in time for evening newscasts and morning newspapers.

Looking back at the Canadian response, I continue to be amazed at how the behemoth that is government acted so nimbly. Experts, notwithstanding their rank, gave orders to top brass and were obeyed. In a culture that invented the “paper trail,” we adopted a paperless model. Nothing was written down. All briefings were oral. We relied on personal relationships to get things done. Everyone shared knowledge. No one held back. The informal relationships and comradeship developed and nurtured over the years carried the day.

At the time of the attacks, Transport Canada had a solid organizational structure, with well-tested rules and reporting relationships. Yet within minutes we were in unknown territory, where decisions had to be made quickly. To paraphrase former U.S. president Harry Truman, the buck on that day did stop with us.

Thank God we got it right.

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