Ten years ago on the morning of 9/11 I was working at Hartsfield/Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The morning “push” was over so I entered the break room and noticed about 20 of my fellow employees huddled intently around the TV. The image on the screen was of the World Trade Center with intense smoke billowing from the upper floors of one of the towers. I thought to myself “it is as clear as a bell up there and that looks like too much smoke to be coming from a small plane.” I remembered the scenario of a large military aircraft that had slammed into the Empire State Building many years ago but I remained unconvinced that this could be an accident that we were all witnessing on the TV. It was approximately 9:00 AM, EST. Suddenly, the south tower was struck by a large airliner which came in at a deliberate angle and at a high rate of speed almost passing through the structure entirely. I’ll never forget that moment. Everyone in the room immediately leaped to their feet and began to howl and shout with many interjections of profanity and an emotional tumult ensued. We all instantly comprehended what we had just witnessed with great clarity: We were being ATTACKED! My thoughts went immediately to my wife who was working in a high-rise in downtown Atlanta. I tried calling her but could not get through. The management team instructed employees to move outside and monitor our planes that were on the ground and at gates. At approximately 9:30 AM, air traffic control ordered a nation-wide “ground-stop” of all departing aircraft. 15 minutes later, the FAA ordered every civilian aircraft to land immediately at the nearest airport. We watched in wonderment as waves of aircraft landed simultaneously four- across on Atlanta’s four parallel runways, a sight that will probably never be seen again.
My son-in-law, who worked as an air traffic controller, later told us the FAA had ordered them to warn all aircraft they communicated with to “land immediately or be shot down.” It was a testament to the professionalism and competency of our air traffic control system that airspace over the United States was cleared in less than one hour with no further loss of life or property!
The next day, Hartsfield/Jackson Atlanta International Airport was ghostly quiet and eerie with a total lack of aircraft noise, either in the air and on the ground. I closed my eyes and could have been out in the middle of a wilderness instead of at the world’s busiest airport! There were so many aircraft on the ground they were parked up and down the taxiways all over the airport.
I reflected with great anger and sadness that morning following 9/11 that terrorists had exploited the greatest transportation system the world had ever seen as a weapon of mass destruction. Our employees were subdued and mourned for the crews, passengers, and all the victims as though they were immediate family, because in a way they were. Initially, many of us thought this might spell the decline and end of our great industry but like other obstacles we have overcome in our history, we have recovered, fought back, and succeeded once again.