My Memories Of September 11

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This article has little to do with aviation security other than September 11 was an aviation security event and I was sent to New York to manage Qantas’ on-ground response. My experience was minor in the scope of the events and restricted to Qantas operations, but it was a defining time. This article is dedicated to Qantas JFK Airport Manager Joe Ward and the JFK Qantas staff on duty on September 11, 2001. They were all affected by the tragic events, but they worked tirelessly and selflessly to repatriate Australians.

On the 12th of September 2001, Qantas was expecting some industrial action around the network and I was sent to Adelaide to oversee security during the action. My family lives in Adelaide, so I was at my brother’s house. It was late in the evening on the 11th and my brother and I were standing in his family room telling jokes and chatting. There was a TV on in the background with a US breakfast show and I remember telling my brother to move aside because “an aircraft has just flown into that building”. The next morning, the industrial action was cancelled and I was on the first flight back to Sydney.

As soon as I got off the flight I went to my boss’s office and asked what plans were in place and what my function was to be. I think my actual words were closer to, “What’s the go”. His response was, “Sort your go bag, you’re off to New York.” I gave the professional reply, “Seriously, what do you want me to do?”. He turned slightly and said, “I am serious, you are off to New York as soon as we can work out how to get you there.”

Things became a little blurry after that. My tickets were arranged for me, my go bag (which is usually an overnight bag) expanded to a checked bag as I loaded things that could be needed on site. In any emergency, one of the first things you should do is secure accommodation, so I recall sending a number of faxes to the hotel that Qantas uses in Manhattan, only to realise that the hotel had two buildings in Manhattan – one off Times Square and the other next to the World Trade Centre. I had sent the first fax by mistake to a non-existent building.

Qantas had a number of aircraft stranded in Los Angeles (LA), so the plan was for me to fly from Sydney to LA and transfer to one of the stranded aircraft which would operate the LAX-JFK sector. However, the LA aircraft was supposed to depart before I arrived. The scheduling was odd, but I gathered that they had a number of passengers stranded in LA and limited arrival times (slots) in JFK, but they planned to delay its departure from LA pending my arrival. I was given two sets of tickets; one was normal operational staff travel and the other was the same but full commercial fare.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opened the US west coast airspace and I got a phone call from Operations Control asking if I could get to the domestic terminal asap because a B747 aircraft was going to depart from Melbourne to LA slightly earlier than Sydney and it meant that they could shorten the delay to the LAX-JFK aircraft.

They were holding a Sydney to Melbourne domestic flight so that I could join the B747 in Melbourne. I said that I did not have a ticket, but Operations Control said there was no time – the aircraft was waiting and they had blocked a seat. They called the Sydney duty manager who would be waiting; I was to give him my bag and get on the aircraft. So I went straight to the domestic terminal and ran to the gate. I chucked my bag to the duty manager and boarded the aircraft. That was the last time I saw that bag until I returned to Australia! It was the only bag lost in 17 years working for Qantas and 30 years in the aviation industry.

On arrival in Melbourne, the duty manager met me and gave me a Melbourne to LA ticket. I got through immigration in super quick time to the waiting B747 and into my favourite seat (4K) and waited. The aircraft was delayed, as was all traffic into the west coast of the US following a scare of an attack in LA. Then my boss, Geoff Askew, got involved and asked for the Melbourne aircraft to be launched, gambling that the airspace would open before we arrived – he needed someone on deck in JFK. It is unusual for airline staff to get a positive seat when travelling on duty, but I got a whole aircraft!

While we were in the air, the airspace did open and on arrival in LA I was met by our local staff and ushered through, only to find that the Qantas flight to JKF had been cancelled. Everything was not lost. My full fare tickets included American Airlines, so I was rushed to their counter, with no baggage. Unfortunately, paper tickets must be ‘pulled’ in order, but since my ticket for Sydney to LA was unused, I could not use the subsequent tickets and the Melbourne to LA tickets were not associated with my original tickets so they were useless. Basically, I did not have a valid ticket for LAX to JFK. All of this could have been fixed, but it would have taken too long and the first American Airlines flight LAX to JFK was ready. The customer service agent said that she had blocked the only remaining seat – it was in first class and I had to pay full fare. I tried my mobile phone to get permission, but there was no signal. There was a bearded guy next to me screaming that he wanted that seat and he was offering way above market. I figured that they launched a B747 on the off chance that airspace would open, so this was not an issue. I pulled my corporate credit card out, hoping that I would be forgiven and, to be fair, it was never even raised.

I got to JFK and started work as soon as I got off the aircraft. I will not diminish the effort, as it was hard work in the days immediately after my arrival. The Qantas staff worked tirelessly and the days were long.

The initial response by the US was a little chaotic. Remember that there was no Department of Homeland Security or any real coordination between the various departments back then. There was not a single ‘no-fly’ list – we got them from the FAA, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), customs and any other agency that thought it had a right. Our systems were not automated, so we had to consolidate and run the lists manually. We had to do additional security checks of the passengers at the screening point and the gate and even had to conduct random searches on the aerobridge just before they boarded the aircraft.

Then there were the little things. Around the 20th of September, the British Prime Minister decided to visit and, rather than park his aircraft on the other side of the airfield where they usually park VIP aircraft, they thought it best to block our aircraft. I recall a not very diplomatic conversation with British Airways about what they should do with the aircraft.

Probably the most frustrating thing was the ‘beefing up’ of the screening point. The FAA thought that more X-ray equipment and walkthrough metal detectors should be inserted into an already small space and that staff should stand closer to the walk through so that people “could not sneak through”. I had a conversation with the terminal security manager telling him that these actions would be less efficient than the FAA expected and that if he implemented them the lines would go onto the sidewalk in front of the terminal. He differed in his estimate (this is probably a more professional version of the conversation). The next day, the lines were out onto the sidewalk!

One evening, I took a walk and ended up close to Ground Zero. It was still burning, so obviously I could not get onto the recovery site, nor did I want to. I am still amazed that I was allowed as close as I got. I recall that near City Hall there was a small piece of grass and the ash looked like new snow, but grey, and there was a set of footprints across the grass. A little further, the ash was blown up against a building like small snow drifts. I remember saying in a phone call to Sydney that they should imagine what burning concrete would taste like for an idea of the air over Manhattan.

An enduring memory is of flags. The Americans are famous for their flags; every vehicle, every building, every food cart and especially every fire truck seemed to have huge flags. Yellow cabs had signs on their windows like “Proud American”, which was both inspiring and tragic.

I decided to get a flag and have it signed by the Qantas staff who were on duty on September 11 and take it back to Australia. I found that flags for sale in Manhattan had suddenly gone up in price and I do not like that sort of opportunism, so I went to a small store between JFK and Rockaway. I got two, one for me and one for Qantas. On my return, I found that Qantas could not accept the flag because it was defaced and there was a concern that in the climate of the time it could offend some US citizens. The US Embassy politely said that most people would be insulted; quite the opposite, but (tongue in cheek) their marines may think differently.

Perhaps the most emotional memory is Union Square, where people placed photos and memorials to loved ones lost in the attacks. I am not one given to tears, but that place did cause me to tear up. The next year I was in Bali as a response to the first bombings there; not a great two years.

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Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. As a security executive with Qantas, Steve held a number of senior management roles covering all aspects of aviation security from policy development to airport operations. He was sent to New York immediately following the 9/11 attacks to manage the Qantas response and undertook a similar role following the 2002 Bali Bombings. On his return to Australia, he was appointed Security Manager Freight for the Qantas Group. Since 2007 he has been a Director of AvSec Consulting in partnership with Bill Dent, a fellow former Qantas security executive. Today, AvSec Consulting provides consultants from the US, NZ, ME, Israel and Europe. Steve can be contacted via email at slawson@avsecconsulting.com or on 0404 685 103.

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