Author's Military Service, North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), Colorado

Author's Military Service, North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), Colorado Springs, Colorado

I was serving with North American Aerospace Defence (NORAD) HQ, at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado Springs, Colorado, from 1999 to 2003, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon took place.

On that day, four passenger airliners were hijacked in the skies over the eastern United States; two were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York, a third struck the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, resulting in the death of 2,977 people.  On duty inside the mountain for a NORAD exercise, we watched the second aircraft crash into the tower, then heard our colleagues on line at that time with us in the Pentagon telling us they had to evacuate because of the crash on the building they were working in.  It was an interesting time to be part of NORAD, to say the least.  

The direct result of these attacks came shortly after my posting back to Canada.  I was serving with Land Forces Atlantic Area (LFAA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as the Area Intelligence Officer, when I given orders to deploy overseas.  I was tasked to serve as the Deputy Intelligence and Chief Assessments Officer with the Kabul Multinational Brigade (KMNB), in Kabul, Afghanistan, from Jan to Aug 2004.

How it began - journal notes:

11 Sep 01 Tuesday.  I was working on a NORAD exercise on shift work, 0600 hrs inside Cheyenne Mountain.  Went into the mountain to the operations centre for a briefing at 0700.  Shortly afterwards, terrorists crashed an airliner into the World Trade Centre in New York.  We all looked up at a pair of giant screens in the operations centre that were displaying CNN, and about 18 minutes later watched the second airliner hit the second tower.

(FBI Photo)

A third airliner hit the Pentagon.  We were in contact with Major Terry Doly-Harper who was participating in our Exercise Vigilant Guardian (VG 01-2) on the far side of the building when the aircraft hit.  They weren't aware the plane had hit until the fire alarm forced them to evacuate the Pentagon.  A fourth hijacked airliner crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.  Both Trade Towers collapsed, followed by the collapse of a nearby 47-story building beside it.  A battle in Afghanistan was underway.  All non-essential (exercise) personnel were evacuated either deeper inside the mountain, or off it entirely, and directed to wait for orders.  There was a miles-long traffic jam at Fort Carson just below our mountain work station, as all US troops were recalled.  All of us stood by, watching in shifts, watching the news, pondering the consequences and did more shift work.

The following is an article I wrote for our Intelligence Branch history.

11 September 2001, the View from NORAD

The Canadian Intelligence Branch personnel serving with NORAD in the fall of 2001 were engaged in the largest exercise of the year centered on the NORAD Command elements in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs.  Maj Harold Skaarup, Lt (N) Debra Mayfield and WO Mark Kelly were on duty in the main operations centre, just preparing for a morning briefing with the Commander when one of the duty officers said, “look at that,” as he pointed to one of the two wide screen televisions up front.  CNN was broadcasting the smoke drifting away from the first of the two strikes on the World Trade Center towers.

The world as we knew it in North American changed dramatically on Tuesday, 11 September 2001.  The events of this day have come to be known as the 911 terrorist attacks.  Between 7:45 a.m. and 8:10 a.m. EDT on that date, four airplanes were hijacked from east coast airports in the USA.  At 8:46 a.m. EDT, the first hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre in New York City, tearing a gaping hole in the building and setting it on fire.  At 9:03 a.m. EDT, a second hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre and exploded.  At 9:40 a.m., the FAA halted all flight operations at U.S. airports, the first time in U.S. history that air traffic nationwide had been halted. At 9:43 a.m. EDT, a third airplane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, sending up a huge plume of smoke. Evacuation began immediately, followed at 9:45 a.m. with the evacuation of the White House.

At 10:05 a.m. EDT, the south tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed, plummeting into the streets below. A massive cloud of dust and debris formed and slowly drifted away from the building. At 10:10 a.m. EDT, a fourth hijacked airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh.  At 10:24 a.m., the FAA reported that all inbound transatlantic aircraft flying into the United States were being diverted to Canada.  At 10:28 a.m. EDT, the World Trade Centre’s north tower collapsed from the top down as if it were being peeled apart, releasing a tremendous cloud of debris and smoke.  

At 11:18 a.m., American Airlines reported it had lost two aircraft. American Flight 11, a Boeing 767 flying from Boston to Los Angeles, had 81 passengers and 11 crew aboard.  Flight 77, a Boeing 757 en route from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles, had 58 passengers and six crew members aboard.  Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre.  Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.[1]  At 11:26 a.m., United Airlines reported that United Flight 93, en route from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, California, had crashed in Pennsylvania.  American officials said the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania could have been headed for one of three possible targets: Camp David, the White House or the US Capitol building.

At 11:59 a.m., United Airlines confirmed that Flight 175, from Boston to Los Angeles, had crashed with 56 passengers and 9 crewmembers aboard. It hit the World Trade Centre‘s south tower.  At 5:20 p.m. EDT, the 47-story Building 7 of the World Trade Centre complex collapsed. The evacuated building was damaged when the twin towers across the street collapsed earlier in the day. Other nearby buildings in the area remained ablaze.

Within hours, US officials reported Saudi militant Osama bin Laden, suspected of coordinating the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998, was involved in these attacks.  Bin Laden’s home base was known to be in Afghanistan at that time and in due course, Canadians would be on the ground participating in the hunt for him.  In January 2004, I found myself on a six-month tour in Kabul, Afghanistan with the Kabul Multi-national Brigade (KMNB) as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – a direct “personal” result of 911.

[1] In the spring of 2001, the NORAD Exercise Intelligence Staff had been directed to draft a training exercise designed to force the evacuation of the Pentagon and its staff to an alternate headquarters.  We compiled a scenario based on a commercial aircraft being hijacked after departing another country, en route to the USA, with hijackers who were scripted as dying of Aids and demanding to speak with officials at the UN in New York to have their grievances redressed.  En route, the aircraft was to dive into the Pentagon.  The senior NORAD operators turned down the draft scenario because they felt it was “too unlikely,” claiming the aircraft would be destroyed before it was allowed to strike the Pentagon or any built-up area.  The exercise team therefore developed an alternative scenario in which a subway train stopped in the tunnel at the underground mall station beneath the Pentagon where a terrorist bomb was scripted to be detonated, instead.  When the “911” terrorist attacks took place, many of us had an uneasy sense of déja-vu.