Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 13th, 2001

It's coming up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and the media are running all kinds of retrospective stories about that day. I was in Vienna at the time, where I was serving as Canada's Immigration Control Officer (ICO) for Central Europe and the Balkans. It was afternoon in Vienna when I joined several of the Embassy officers in a board room to watch the live images on CNN, rooted to the spot and stunned, as were most TV watchers around the world, as the 2nd plane was shown crashing into the World Trade Center.

The ICO was at that time the gatekeeper of Canada's overseas immigration program, as opposed to the much more numerous visa officers whose job it is to facilitate the movement to Canada of immigrants, visitors, international students and temporary workers. I use the past tense with respect to the term ICO, as things have changed since I left the foreign service, and there are now new and different positions overseas today. The ICO's responsibilities varied according to the posting and region. All ICOs typically performed interdiction work - that is, working with airlines to prevent improperly documented passengers from boarding flights to Canada. In some places, the interdiction work was primarily to train airline staff, but in others the ICO might be at the airport monitoring flights on a regular basis. In some locations, ICOs might also liaise with local law enforcement officials on movements of organized crime. In countries with active terrorist groups ICOs might also be involved in security screening in some way; similarly, if there were war criminals in the area, the ICO might be involved in preventing their movement to Canada. In still other regions, the ICO might work on countering the trafficking of women and children. In Central Europe and the Balkans at that time, the ICO portfolio included all of these.

On September 11th 2001, North American airspace was closed immediately after the attacks. Vienna Schwechat airport was a significant hub for passengers traveling from the Middle East to North America, with daily flights coming in from places like Beirut and Tehran. Many of these transit passengers found themselves stuck in the airport because they lacked visas to enter Austria, and had to sleep on the floor for a couple days. Also stuck in Vienna was Al Gore, who had been in Europe given public lectures. There was great interest in getting him back stateside ASAP, so it was decided that one of the first international flights to be allowed to enter North American airspace would be Austrian Airlines' Vienna-Toronto flight, with Mr Gore among the passengers. Once on the ground in Toronto, he'd travel by ground to Buffalo, New York.

One of my tasks that day was to oversee the security screening of that flight. As you might expect, it was pretty chaotic at the airport generally, and the Toronto flight was a particular headache. A large chunk of the passengers were in transit from the Middle East, and their luggage was being searched with a fine-toothed comb. There was also a large group of Austrian hunters on the flight, their luggage including a fair number of firearms. Fortunately, ground security was being handled by a truly first rate airline security contractor, and was going along as smoothly as possible under the circumstances - I mostly had to stand back and offer advice and guidance.

I never met Mr Gore, and he isn't what I remember most from that day. Instead, it was one female passenger who sticks in my mind, who uttered words airline security staff don't want to hear at the best of times, and certainly not from a transit passenger who was en route from Beirut to Toronto on September 11th. When asked if she packed her luggage herself, she said 'no'. She said that just before she left Beirut, her brother-in-law had given her an extra suitcase to check in, saying it contained gifts. She had not opened the bag, and could not say what it contained. She was travelling alone with her three kids, they'd been stuck for a couple days, were exhausted, scared, and just wanted to get back to Ontario, where they were permanent residents.

Airport security did not know what to do with her. An x-ray was not sufficient under the circumstances to determine if the bag was safe, and staff could not open the bag to do a hand search for the obvious reason that if its contents were dangerous, their safety was at risk. They obviously could not put the bag on an airplane, nor under travel regulations could the woman be allowed to travel and leave her bag behind. What to do? The answer was actually straightforward. I asked the woman for her permission to destroy the bag and its contents, which she immediately granted, so long as it would enable her to get home to Canada. I then asked the airport police to treat the bag as if it contained explosives, and take it to the bomb disposal facility to be destroyed. So they did, and the woman and her kids joined Mr Gore on the plane to Toronto. So did the hunters, once we were assured their weapons were properly packed and stowed. Actually, for sake of clarity I should say that Mr Gore joined them on the plane. He was being kept out of sight in a private waiting area until the aircraft had pushed back from the gate and was out on the tarmac. At that point it paused, the front steps were suddenly lowered, and Mr Gore was hustled on board. The aircraft then resumed taxiing.

Why write this all down now? In the coming week Canadians will watch on TV reminiscences of how the people of Halifax, Gander and other cities hosted so graciously passengers whose aircraft en route to the US had to be diverted. Less likely to be recalled by the media are the many more people who spent the following few days sleeping on airport floors all over the world in their sweaty clothes, not entirely sure what was going on, desperate to get to their homes, but at the same time worried that the plane they'd be boarding might also be used as a weapon by some crazed lunatic. While it obviously pales in comparison with experience the victims of the attacks, their families, and of New Yorkers generally, I suspect there's a lot of people out there who will be glad to forget their air journey of a decade ago.

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