I left my awful little apartment on Douglas Ave in Saint John, thinking what a nice day it was. I arrived at my job, taking reservations for an airline, at 9:30 ADT (8:30 EST).
About 45 minutes later, there was a bit of commotion at the console at the centre of the office. I was talking a call and got distracted as people kept running up to the desks trying to tell the lead agents something. A few minutes later, my friend Michel came over to my desk, took my notepad and wrote two words:
In my job, those are two words you dread seeing. Of course the first thing I though was – is it one of ours? Beyond your normal concern for the lives involved, you have purely selfish reasons to dread these events: the security of your job depends upon the travelling public feeling safe in your planes. A crash in an industry that was already feeling the negative effects of Nortel’s misfortunes could have been disastrous.
Of course, it was worse than just one plane crashing and my silly little job security. But at first, like many others, I thought some idiot in a Cesna crashed into one of the two towers. When I heard two planes hit, I knew this was intentional.
Then the information started coming fast, much of it confused: there were twenty planes highjacked, the Air Force shot one down over San Francisco, one was heading for the White House, the Towers were destroyed, Manhattan was burning. While the event was comprised of four distinct acts, and was over in about an hour, that day people really thought it was the beginning of a long campaign of violence against the US.
People called in to reconfirm their flights and we had to tell them that they were cancelled for the day and later were cancelled indefinitely. When they asked why, we had to tell them to turn on a TV.
“What channel?” someone asked.
“Any channel,” I’d reply.
The problem was, we had little internet and no TV in the building. On my lunch break, I’d go into the cafeteria and listen to the clock radio in the kitchen, just to get some basic facts.
Because I often read the Globe and Mail at lunch, I had something of a reputation of a guy who knew what was going on in the world (ha!). People asked me who I thought did it.
I thought at first it may have been some Tim McVeigh, domestic terrorist types. As unlikely as that was, deep down, I had hoped that was the case and not people from the Middle East because if it was, things were about to get very bad in that region, very quickly. Someone even asked if I thought Yassir Arafat had anything to do with it.
“Only if he’s completely lost his mind,” I replied. I sort of knew who Osama bin Laden was (some dude, lives in a cave, loves the Taliban, hates Americans and Jews) but until they mentioned his name on the news, I never made any connection. I’ve only been to one country where the majority religion was Islam and that place had bars and nightclubs so they weren’t terribly strict about it. Despite what people thought, my knowledge of radical groups in the Middle East was pretty limited. It still is.
We had electronic message boards that flashed us updates throughout the day so we would stop wildly speculating. As news came that all flights currently in the air were being re-routed to our region (Halifax and Gander, mainly), it never occured that there was a possibility these planes were also highjacked. I later learned then Minister of Transportation David Collenette (God, what a prick that man was) made the decision to have them sent to Atlantic Canada to avoid major cities. At the time, of course, decisions were being made on the fly.
By the time I got home, I had the TV on for several hours, just so I could finally see these events. CNN, being too close to the event, quickly proved to be unwatchable but and even the CBC fell prey to hyberbole and sensationalism but were eventually able to provide some distance.
In the following days, my job consisted of telling people to just wait until our planes were allowed to start flying again. Somehow people thought it was our decision to keep them grounded. Someone even asked if we would make assurances that no Muslims would be allowed to board our flights.
Things did get very dark, very quickly. The shock and horror of what happened soon gave way to a generalised disgust with how Westerners, or at least their governments, now viewed the Middle East: as something that can be “fixed.” The feeling has never really gone away.