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Remembering 9/11 in Richmond

Passengers stranded by air service being grounded during 9/11 found temporary shelter, thanks to the generosity of St. Paul’s Parish and many other volunteers who stepped forward.  - Mark Patrick file photo
Passengers stranded by air service being grounded during 9/11 found temporary shelter, thanks to the generosity of St. Paul’s Parish and many other volunteers who stepped forward.
— image credit: Mark Patrick file photo

Ted Townsend’s ears perked up that tragic Tuesday morning at news that a plane had crashed into the twin towers in New York.

The self-confessed newshound and former editor of The Richmond Review had only a year earlier been hired to head communications for the City of Richmond. So he listened closely to his radio after rolling out of bed, and then turned to his television.

“I saw in shock and horror what was happening, as everybody else did in the world,” he said, adding that he watched the live news feed showing the second plane striking the south tower of the World Trade Center.

But that was a continent away, and Townsend figured it had no bearing on his new job.

That was until mid-morning, when he got a call that the city’s emergency operations centre was going to be activated.

With four terror attacks involving hijacked airplanes in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, American airspace was being shut down and planes were being diverted to Vancouver.

But that wasn’t what triggered the emergency centre’s opening.

It was fears about a pair of passenger jets bearing down on Vancouver that weren’t meeting their communication protocols.

Officials were worried that those planes were no longer under the control of their flight crews, or that the pilots were working under duress.

“There was some question as to whether they might have been potentially hijacked,” Townsend said. “Hearing that, all kinds of things run through your mind about the possibilities.”

Not long after, it was learned that nothing was wrong with those planes, and there was no threat.

But then came the realization that many planes with thousands of passengers would need to be taken care of for an extended period of time.

So the emergency centre shifted from crisis to relief modes.

With planes originally scheduled to take off from Vancouver now grounded, and dozens more diverted from other destinations and landing in Vancouver, efforts were being made to find accommodations for as many people as possible in the hotel system.

It was initially feared there weren’t enough available rooms, Townsend said.

So the city activated its emergency social services plan, and in doing so opened a reception centre where passengers could register and be directed to local shelters.

Aside from beds and food, cell phones were being rounded up for passengers to contact loved ones.

In the confusion, many passengers who were originally headed elsewhere didn’t know where they were.

Some needed prescriptions filled, and many had no immediate access to their luggage.

In the days that followed, the chief role of the city and its team of volunteers was to provide support for the first responders at the airport who were dealing with crowd control issues.

Huge amounts of bottled drinking water were being shipped to the airport for passengers either sleeping in the terminal or waiting in unmoving lineups that snaked outside the terminal on what turned out to be a hot September week.

“I think one of the big lessons that we learned is certainly how reliant we are upon volunteers and community groups to step forward.”

Hail Mary effort

Vancouver International Airport Chaplain Layne Daggett got the first call early that Tuesday morning from a family thinking of ways to help as the local impact of the terror attacks was being realized.

The potential need for accommodations for stranded passengers was being widely broadcast by TV and radio news outlets, and locals shocked by what was happening were rallying into action.

Fortunately for him, two of his volunteers that day carried cellular phones, meaning that Daggett’s landlines could be kept free for people ready to open their homes.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook,” Daggett said. “It was like Charles Dickens...the worst of days, the best of days.”

Daggett also put calls out to local church groups, community centres and organizations, from Broadmoor Baptist to the local Salvation Army, St. Paul’s Parish and Thompson Community Centre.

In total, some 2,000 passengers who were unable to find accommodations in local hotels or preferred to stay in somebody’s home, were given a helping hand.

Even those without space to offer were moved by the images on the TV screen.

One woman took laundry home for people, did laundry and brought the items back. That was until her washing machine broke down. Then she gathered clothing and brought it to the laundromat.

The outpouring of help and stories from the days that followed 9/11 won’t be soon forgotten, Daggett said.

A group of people out of one of the churches in White Rock stepped forward and prepared 2,000 sandwiches.

Dozens of passengers spent the night in the gymnasium at St. Paul’s Parish, with volunteers cooking meals, collecting bedding, pillows, blankets and chairs.

Others were taken home by parishioners, including Jacquie Siemens, who provided shelter for one stranded passenger from China for 21 days after he lost his passport.

They were part of a group of men—she believes they were engineers—heading for Texas when their passenger plane as intercepted near Los Angeles International Airport by American fighter jets and escorted to the Canadian border. More than 150 passengers from that airliner were given lodging and food.

“They couldn’t believe people were doing this and not getting paid,” Siemens said.

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