The Yukon Story
On the morning of September 11, 2001, like the rest of you, I was
mesmerized by the scenes shown vividly on my Television. I could hardly
move as one terrible image after another played out before my eyes but I
had to drag myself away and drive to work in downtown Whitehorse. I was
barely there an hour when the building manager strode along the hallway to
my office to tell me and everyone else to go home. Not only was the building
being evacuated – so was the whole city core!
A mere glance out of the window showed me this must be true as an unusual
stream of traffic was heading away from downtown.
Whitehorse is a small city with a population of about 24,000 people and
a very small downtown core. The Yukon River curls around 2 sides of the
8 block wide flat that reaches back to a 100ft high escarpment. I joined
the stream of traffic while letting the car radio fill me in. A Jumbo Jet was
heading our way issuing a hijacked signal. All schools were evacuated and
children bussed to their emergency evacuation site under the Emergency
Measures Act. The second headline of the day was “Panicked Parents”, where
is my child?
As I turned off the highway and down my street I stopped in the middle of
the road. There was a Korean Jumbo Jet flying right over my house! I could
see and hear the fighter planes escorting it. My stomach did a flip and I felt
anxiety rising in my chest.
I was home! But was I safe? The sound of fighter aircraft circling in the sky
was eerie. Something I could only relate to war movies.
Once more I sat in front of the television and let my mind become trapped in
the unfolding events 3500 miles away.
An hour later I was startled by the phone ringing. It was the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police. They were calling in all their Victim Services Volunteers to
assemble at the airport. About a dozen of us were available and needed
something to do. Not only that, we needed to know what was happening.
We were there in minutes and gathered around our assigned officer. He
informed us that the United States had closed off its airspace. All the planes
that had been heading for the lower 48 were either able to turn around and
go back or land in the lower half of Canada. But a few planes heading for
Alaska had already passed their point of no return. With so little fuel their
landing options had been reduced to one place, Whitehorse.
One plane, a Korean Jumbo Jet on route to New York via Anchorage carrying
about 300 people was emitting an emergency signal that could mean it had
been hijacked. It had to land soon and we had the only runway long enough
within its fuel range.
Even though it was being escorted by military planes they would not be able
to change the Jumbo’s direction if it decided to veer a few degrees off course
and, if it had indeed been hijacked and New York was any example of an
outcome, missing our airport on top of the escarpment by a few degrees
would have the plane crashing into and destroying half of our downtown
core. No wonder we had been evacuated.
So what was our job? Every person on the plane was a suspect until they
were cleared. The 300 or so passengers were being evacuated 20 at a time.
They could bring nothing but themselves from the plane. No purses or
baggage. No diapers or formula. No toys or activities. No personal care items
Whitehorse is not a well stocked airport. Its one restaurant was forced to
close and there were no stores in the immediate area. But the passengers
needed help. Little groups of passengers started entering the terminal and
we had to improvise. Some volunteers went home and made sandwiches.
Some drove to local stores for crackers, juice and cookies while others
returned with paper, crayons and toys, all things they desperately needed.
Babies needed changing and feeding. Children needed distractions. People
were hungry and thirsty. But most of all they were scared and confused.
There was no media outlet for them to see or hear what was happening so
they had to take our word for the events of the day. What shock! One person
with a family member working in one of the towers was immediately taken to
the airport manager’s office to make a call. Thankfully all was well at home.
The day dragged on. Small groups of people were cleared to enter the
terminal until the room was quite full. Our volunteers moved from person
to person, family to family offering what word of comfort and answers to
questions that we could while distributing the acquired meager rations and
helping out with tired and bored children.
Eventually busses arrived to take everyone to a nearby visitor centre where
food arrived and the Red Cross could register people in need of medication
and other necessities. A few televisions had been set up so that passengers
could see what we had tried to explain to them. On viewing these images for
the first time, to say they were shocked would be an understatement.
We moved to the auditorium where travelers, Emergency Measures
personnel, translators of about 8 languages and everyone else involved found
seats and a synopsis of the events was given.
I spoke briefly to the Captain and congratulating him on his crew. They had
all shown such decorum and patience through their 12 hour ordeal. I did not
learn until later just how brave the flight crew had been.
We learned that the pilot had sent a text message to his airline and included
the letters HJK, the code for Hijacked. Worried that the pilot was sending
a coded message the airline contacted NORAD which promptly scrambled
2 F-15s from Alaska. Passenger plane pilots are trained in specific codes
and when asked coded questions by air traffic control the pilot appeared to
confirm a hijacking by changing his transponder.
The F-15s from Elmendorf AFB ordered the Korean flight crew to divert to
Whitehorse. Unknown to us the Whitehorse airport did not show up on the
Korean plane’s data. As far as the crew was concerned, Whitehorse Airport
just did not exist. This captain and crew were being forced to take their plane
with low fuel and over 300 passengers off course and into the mountains
to an unknown destination, information on which did not show on their
computers. That must have been a frightening journey for them.
The incident set into action a series of events of which few have heard. In
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens ordered government buildings and large hotels in
Anchorage to be evacuated. In Valdez the US Coast Guards ordered all fuel
tankers to leave the port and head out to sea. Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz was
prepared to shoot the plane down if it did not follow directions and before it
could attack Alaska. On the instructions of NORAD, Korean Flight 85 was told
to land in Whitehorse. NORAD also sought and received authorization from
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to shoot the plane down in Canadian
airspace if necessary. Between the transponder change and the safe landing
in Whitehorse barely 90 minutes had passed.
By 9:30 PM on September 11th passengers were able to leave the auditorium
with as much information as could be provided and were bussed to local
hotels, but nothing we could provide would take away the trauma of that
day. To the best of our ability we ensured that everyone, no matter their
language, understood what had happened and that, until the airspace was
reopened, they were guests of the city and its people.
When journalist interviewed us some weeks later they remarked that several
passengers had commented that they were hugged by police officers.
Naturally none of the men fessed up to hugging but we expected that.
The dark navy jackets worn by our volunteers stated in large gold
letters, “POLICE” and underneath in much smaller letters, ‘Victim Services’.
It was the volunteers doing the hugging. We hugged anyone who looked like
they needed a hug.
But yes, many people were indeed hugged by police officers that day too
but not until their longest shift finally ended and they could, unlike many
colleagues in New York, return home to hug their families.