On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, which was 17 years ago, I boarded a flight at 6:00 am to fly from Calgary to Toronto. I needed to get home from a business trip as I was selling a sailboat the next day. Unexpectedly, our Air Canada flight was diverted to Winnipeg while en route to Toronto. As passengers we had no idea what was happening. We were told to disembark the aircraft and were simply dumped there. However, once we got into the terminal, we all saw the news reports from New York City and Washington, and we understood. The departure screens were all a sea of red from cancelled flights. Aircraft from all over the world were landing and unloading passengers. Air Canada was there of course, as were several airplanes from Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, and other international carriers using the route over the Arctic. Many were jumbo jets so the normally quiet, small Winnipeg terminal was in utter chaos and severely overwhelmed.
When the US closed its airspace, hundreds of planes carrying thousands of passengers were diverted to Canadian airports. As these measures were being imposed, some 500 airplanes from around the world were en route to the United States. Planes with enough fuel were told to return to their airport of origin, and the rest were diverted to airports across Canada.
Over the next few hours, more than 200 planes were diverted to Canadian airports. Transport Canada says 224 flights carrying 33,000 passengers landed on Canadian soil, while NAV CANADA says 238 planes landed. Flights originating from Asia were diverted to Vancouver and other airports in western Canada, while planes on the busy transatlantic route were diverted to airports in Atlantic Canada.
Seventeen flights were diverted to Winnipeg, carrying 1,500 travelers needing accommodation, information and comfort. With their whole community engaged, the people of Winnipeg came together to support those stranded on a day which forever changed the security, operation, and management of airports around the world.
I was able to secure a room at the Winnipeg Delta Hotel that one of my work colleagues was planning to use that same evening, but he was turned away at Toronto airport as his inbound flight was cancelled. Other travellers were bused as far away as Gimli, Manitoba to motels and hotels – anyplace that a room could be had was used. We heard stories of the Japanese and the Koreans not able to speak English, but all found food and a warm place to sleep due to the local hospitality and generosity of the people of Manitoba. So, to call these events bizarre is an understatement. For the most part, people all came together to endure the situation. There was very little conflict. For me, it was not very difficult as I had good food and a warm bed.
In those days, I worked as a systems integrator and services provider to the broadcast industry. So, on the Tuesday morning, immediately after landing in Winnipeg, I took a taxi directly to the Global Television Specialty Channel station located in the One Richardson Place office tower downtown. Like everyone else, I watched over and over again the events of the day. They are imprinted in my memory.
The local Global Television staff was kind enough to give me an office to work from and I helped to coordinate the movement of our satellite trucks from Canada down to Manhattan at the request of several American networks. I was the President of small broadcast services company called EBS – Ensat Broadcast Services – at the time. EBS had a small fleet of six trucks, with four satellite uplinks and two microwave trucks all designed to transmit news feeds back to TV stations.
Our Ottawa-based satellite truck was requested to New York City and cleared the border in less than 15 minutes. Normally the border process took about two hours to clear customs and immigration as it had a million dollars worth of equipment onboard. So, the expedited clearance was surprising. When the truck arrived at Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel connecting the lower part of New York City to Jersey City, the police steadfastly declined to allow it onto the island for any reason whatsoever. It was then rerouted to Washington, DC to the Pentagon site.
It operated from the Pentagon property for about ten days. The Ottawa truck had a large 3.7 metre tri-fold antenna for huge Ku-Band signal gain and could reach remote satellites as a result. The truck had to remain on the Pentagon property. The army provided diesel refills for the 15kW generator onboard. No AC power was available. The operator remained on site too and slept in one of the military tents erected for the soldiers and the emergency response staff. We did live news hits to 32 countries from the site during the ten days.
NHK Television from Japan requested a news hit from the Pentagon in high definition television (HDTV), which was emerging technology at the time. So, I quickly designed an installation configuration to permit the HDTV feed connection to transmit from the truck. I faxed the hand drawing to the cellular receiver in the truck so the operator could wire it in. Surprisingly, this ad hoc design worked and turned out to be our very first live HDTV news feed. It may have even been one of the very first live HDTV news hits from North America? I believe that the NHK Engineering team had already done HDTV test transmissions before that date in Japan, so it was not a world first. However it always amazes me what can be accomplished when under extreme duress. Innovation comes quickly when you are under pressure to be creative.
I was in Winnipeg until Friday, September 14th when flights took to the air again. When I got home on the Friday night, I was mentally exhausted. News is a very difficult business and taxes the mind heavily. Working around a giant wall of broadcast monitors that continuously replay the stories exhausts you and plays on your mindset and perspective. You can easily become immune to the visual horrors of life.
The need to get home to sell the sailboat was rendered insignificant as daily tasks all seemed to be unimportant in light of the attacks and the loss of 2,996 lives and injuries to 6,000 others. I am sure that untold thousands of others are haunted by these events and may still be troubled today. The events of Tuesday, September 11th are still fresh in my memories too.
I can still vividly recall each of my four days in Winnipeg. Mostly I remember the kindness that people showed to me. Do you remember where you were on 9/11?
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.
He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.