Then St. John’s airport heads recall 9-11 response

‘It was the most wild time of my life,’ Rex Ledrew says

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on September 10, 2011
Jets belonging to Continental Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines sit on the tarmac at St. John’s International Airport, some of the 27 planes diverted to St. John’s as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. — File photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Rex Ledrew was sitting with airport executives from around the globe when terrorists hijacked planes and attacked the U.S. 10 years ago.

Then CEO of the St. John’s Airport Authority, he witnessed the staggering reaction of his peers, who were attending a convention in Montreal.

He remembers the scream of a woman near him — “My husband is working in the Pentagon!”

“To see the panic that morning that went through that hall was something to behold,” Ledrew says. “It was so new, so different, nobody knew how to react.”

The Telegram has been running articles on 9-11 memories with a Newfoundland and Labrador connection.

Ledrew and Jim Roche, then general manager of the St. John’s airport, have unique stories because of the situation they faced.

The skies were closing and planes bound for destinations across North America were being diverted to airports in Newfoundland. Ledrew had to deal with it from Montreal via phone for the first two days.

“It was the most wild time of my life,” he says.

Twenty-seven unexpected planes would land in St. John’s, carrying 4,300 passengers and crew.

The big unknown was whether or not any of the arrivals were part of the hijacking plot and posed a threat.

In fact, Roche says intelligence led to one plane being isolated.

He remembers the biggest issue that day was providing information about what had happened.

“(People on the planes) had no idea what was going on. When the aircraft landed, flight crews had basically messages saying, ‘Airspace is closed. You have to land at the nearest airport’ ... Trying to explain (what had happened) to passengers and crews was a huge challenge. We kept getting questions and questions.”

There were many other issues to deal with.

The airport terminal was under construction. Ledrew says there were only two toilets and a few phones, so they had to get porta-potties and a bank of phones brought in.

And, of course, the passengers had to be housed.

Roche, who left the airport in 2002 and is now general manager at Marine Atlantic, figures that was probably the easiest thing that transpired.

“The people from Fire and Emergency Services St. John’s, they were able to turn on that switch quite fast for us that day. Within an hour, they were moving people to Mile One. It certainly happened without a hitch. It was delightful to see.”

No one knew how long airspace would remain closed.

Issues arose from this, because the passengers weren’t allowed to take anything when they deplaned.

People had left medications and other essentials behind.

Ledrew remembers one man demanding prayer materials that were in an overhead baggage compartment.

“He had to have this stuff for Friday night to pray, and if he didn’t, he’d commit suicide,” Ledrew says.

“He was frantic.”

An engineer climbed into the man’s plane with a flashlight, found his seat and retrieved the bag.

The community helped make the stranded travellers feel at home — as it did in the other towns that hosted the passengers.

Businesses and citizens donated things such as toiletries, toothbrushes, food, blankets and toys for the children.

As well, Roche notes there was a great co-operation between the airport, city, law enforcement agencies and other organizations.

Everything appeared to go smoothly and the local efforts got rave response.

“I am totally impressed with the people in St. John’s, with the way they are handling the situation — how they are doing it is beyond words. Thank you,” Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Levi Garelik of Brooklyn, N.Y., told The Telegram the following day.

“It was a great coming together of the community,” says Ledrew, who retired from the airport post six years ago and is now with Allied Domestic Moving and Storage.

The airport faced more challenges when the skies re-opened Sept. 14 and planes were preparing to leave.

Roche recalls a big departure setback.

As one diverted Continental Airlines flight was ready for take off that evening, he thought everything was in place and went home to shower.

He got in the door and the phone was ringing.

A voice at the other end suggested he get back to the airport ASAP. A plane had crashed.

“Every bit of blood in my body went to my feet,” Roche says. “All I thought of was this Continental aircraft.”

The plane turned out to be a Skylark Beech 1900 en route to Gander. Neither the pilot nor co-pilot —the only people onboard — were hurt, but the aircraft suffered moderate damage.

Because of the crash, winds from an approaching hurricane, and because staff were so tired from a long week, Roche says a decision was made to close the airport until the next morning — much to the chagrin of passengers now forced to disembark from the Continental flight.

“A lot of those people weren’t very happy with us that evening,” he says.

Ledrew remembers another obstacle as planes were leaving.

The passengers of one flight were refusing to fly with two men of Pakistani descent.

The pilot told Ledrew to break the news to the men.

“I said I’m not here to judge or explain, I’m just telling you I have to move the planes. These people are not going to travel with you.”

He says the men were pretty upset, claiming they weren’t terrorists but passengers like everyone else.

Ledrew says no other airline would take them, and he believes they ended up driving to Nova Scotia to get a flight.

Another plane’s takeoff was delayed because the pilots were nowhere to be found.

They turned out to be golfing at The Wilds, Ledrew says with a laugh.

There were other humorous events during that stressful week.

Roche remembers one of the stranded people was an aircraft engineer named Mohammed. He worked for the airline he was travelling with and was expected to help get its planes in the air.

But his nametag caught the attention of security and he was interviewed every time he moved.

Frustrated, he went to Roche and stressed “I can assure you I’m not a terrorist.”

“From that period on, this guy was known as Tommy Murphy,” Roche chuckles.

Ten years later, both he and Ledrew say there was no rule book to handle such an event.

Roche says it was gratifying to see airport staff work long hours and meet the challenges without one.

Ledrew says a big lesson from

9-11 is that when an event like it happens, “don’t take out the rule book, because nobody ever wrote the rules for a situation like this.”

Click here to read the original stories from The Telegram in the days following 9-11.

To share your memory of 9-11, or read others, go to “Remembering 9-11” in our "Featured Links" at www.thetelegram.com.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: bartlett_steve