9/11 at KCI Airport
I serve as media spokesman for the Kansas City Aviation Department. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 I was driving by Kansas City Downtown Airport when I heard on the radio that a business jet hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I thought it was ironic that I heard this as I drove by KC’s hub for such craft. It reminded me of the accident when a World War II bomber flew into the Empire State Building. I was thinking it was a freak accident again. I continued driving and fielded a cell phone call or two from the local media asking what I knew, which was nothing.
I drove to my office at Kansas City International Airport and turned on CNN. By that time it had been revealed that the aircraft was an airliner. Media calls were flowing in, but I just didn’t know much as of yet. I contacted Federal Aviation Administration public relations personnel to learn more, but there was little available information. The second airliner hit the remaining tower before my eyes. I could not believe what I was seeing. This was no accident.
I was in my office giving a live phone interview with a radio station. The horror was playing itself out on the television before me with both buildings billowing smoke and fire. Then, the first tower collapsed upon itself, seemingly in slow motion! I could not register what I was seeing. Live, mid sentence, I paused. It seemed like an eternity, but the reporter maintained the silence. I had to say something. Somehow I was able to pick up right where I was, maybe with a bit more stammering than usual. The interview ended. I hung up and watched replay after replay. The building collapsed! Of course, more horror played out with the other tower collapsing, a direct hit on the Pentagon and a crash in a Pennsylvania field. Could this really be happening to us, the United States of America?
Realizing that terrorists were hijacking airliners and using them as missiles, the FAA grounded all planes. Those in the air had to immediately land at the closest airport that could accommodate them. Looking up, one could see dozens of crescent-shaped aircraft condensation trails (contrails) in the clear-blue sky. Those were planes diverting to Wichita, Salina, Kansas City and beyond. This meant that 80 aircraft not destined for KCI Airport were headed our way with upwards of 10,000 people on them!
The Aviation Department and the airlines had to plan quickly for how to deal with landing and unloading the additional aircraft, finding places for them to park and what to do with the stranded passengers. Ironically, our Director and several other leaders were in Montreal at an airport conference. With the grounding they, as well as directors from across the U.S. (including those where the 4 aircraft had originated), could not get back to their airports (A contingent from the region rented a bus when they could a few days later). Those of us present managers gathered, put our minds together and formulated a plan. I was proud to be a part of the quick thinking, poise and creativity in that room that day. Luckily, the KCI Overhaul Base had lots of pavement where the aircraft could be parked and we could use the east/west runway. Thousands of people would be deplaning with no idea why they are here and what to do next. KCI Airport Ambassadors, airline employees and others would be needed to help them. We called area hotels to block off rooms. We secured cots, ensured food concessions were stocked and staffed and we checked on rental car inventory. But none of this was needed. It was early enough in the day that travelers were able to find ground transportation to wherever they were going. There were even reports of rental cars cruising slowly through the terminals with people calling out city names so others might carpool with them. Locals reached out to help out-of-towners. Church vans and chartered buses arrived. Airport employees let people use their cell phones. People really banded together in a touching way. Soon the rental cars were all gone. And so were the people.
It was like the day the earth stood still on airport roadways and in the terminals. No stranded passengers. No cars. Few buses. Eerily, there were no sounds of aircraft taking off and landing! The circular contrails dissipated. All was still. This eerie silence would remain until Friday.
I fielded a few more calls and then realized I needed to stop, gather information and hold a news conference as soon as I could.
The only way to localize this huge international story was at KCI Airport. Amidst all of the unexpected aircraft arrivals, the media descended upon the airport, including many from outside Kansas City. While I could not talk about what was occurring outside Kansas City, it was my responsibility to talk about what was occurring here and the measures we were taking to handle nearly 100 unexpected aircraft and thousands of unexpected customers. While I had conducted my share of intense news conferences and interviews, this one had me rattled. Foreign terrorists had hit us at home. They had humbled the mighty USA.
Eventually, the media left. The phones stopped ringing. It was late, so I made the 30-minute drive home in silence. I thought about how tough it was that day for us. I could not imagine how hard it was to be a responder where everything had actually happened. It was not about us or me. It was about those responders, the thousands who had died or were suffering, and their families.
When I arrived home I held my wife. I let go of some of the emotion that had been pent up all day. I went in to kiss my sleeping year-old daughter good night. As I gazed at her I knew then that she and my future children would never know the world that I once knew. Everything had changed. It was the end of the age of innocence and the beginning of a new world order. A new normal.