The airport host: 9/11 emotions run high for Kelly Martin

Emotion runs deep for Kelly Martin when she recalls working at the Halifax International Airport in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Passangers wait in line to go through security at Halifax International Airport on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. A United Airlines plane was the first to take off from Halifax for the U.S. (Mike Dembeck/AFP/Getty Images)

Even 10 years later, the tears come each time Kelly Martin tries to tell her story.

Martin was the terminal services co-ordinator at the Halifax International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, when U.S. airspace was closed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Canadian airports suddenly become impromptu hosts to jumbo jets from around the world.

On one of the planes that landed in Halifax was a frantic groom-to-be. He had been on his way to New York for his wedding, as was his fiancée.

But she was on another plane, also bound for New York, the main focus of the attacks.

Kelly Martin remains deeply moved by how the Halifax International Airport and the community responded to the unprecedented situation after 9/11. (Courtesy Kelly Martin)

After he was allowed off his plane in Halifax, the prospective groom was able to get in touch with his and his fiancée's parents, but he had no idea where she was, or if she was safe.

"He was very upset," Martin recalls, her voice choking up.

Martin has told this story many times since, but the effect on her is always the same.

"I start crying when I start talking about it," she says. "I always get really emotional because, as a mother, you can picture that happening."

A happy ending

In this story, there is a happy ending, and great relief. The man's fiancée also ended up at the Halifax airport.

Martin doesn't know too much more of the story — not even the names of the couple. Such was the way of the world around the airport at that time: people helping stranded passengers in any way they could without asking names or expecting anything in return.

Remembering the unexpected guests

"I will never forget the humbleness of all the crews, especially the American airline crews, as they went through the security area. I received hugs, handshakes and choruses of "thank you" from too many to count. Some left with tears in their eyes and many of the pilots wore the Canadian flag on their uniform, either as a full flag or a pin on the sleeve of their jacket. September 11th will forever hold a place in my heart as in the days to follow I saw the hearts of many on their sleeves, as they passed before me."Tartan Team volunteer Linda Wyllie, who lives more than an hour from the Halifax airport.

"I remember people from all over the world, how they could not believe the hospitality we showed. People coming in through customs shaking our hands. It made me feel proud to be a Halifax Stanfield International Airport Volunteer. I will never forget September 11 - 15, 2001.Tartan Team volunteer Gerry Roberts

Gander, N.L. is well known for the role it played in hosting stranded airline passengers. But international flights also landed at 16 other airports across the country.

In fact, the airport in Halifax hosted the largest number of aircraft: 47, carrying about 7,300 passengers.

The runway became a highly co-ordinated parking lot for jumbo jets, while inside the airport, staff and members of the volunteer Tartan Team that helps welcome people were marshalling whatever resources they could.

"We realized we needed diapers and baby food and bottled water," recalls Martin.

Sandwiches, snacks, water, fruit and juice were gathered up, too, and there was something for passengers to eat once they finally left their planes.

The phone company brought cellphones for people to make calls, and airport payphones were enabled to be used for free.

Working around the clock

Service clubs, local residents and others welcomed the unexpected guests into Halifax and nearby communities.

For 24 hours, Martin and others worked around the clock. Then they realized the situation was going to go on for a few days. Shift schedules were set up.

"It was quite an emotional time," Martin recalls.

And it clearly left a mark: passengers flooded the airport (and the local newspaper) with letters of thanks, while the airport itself beefed up its emergency resources in case anything like this came up again.

"We've learned a lot here since 9/11," says Martin.

"We now keep a pallet of water on hand at all times.

Deeply moved

"We were able to get the supplies we needed back then, but you don't want to waste valuable time in trying to get those items at the time. So, we always keep diapers and baby food and formula on hand."

The airport also has sleeping mats at the ready, along with blankets, which are utilized more often than you think.

Earlier this summer, for example, thunderstorms put off takeoffs and landings for several hours, and the sleeping mats came in handy.

Martin remains deeply moved by how the airport and the community responded to the unprecedented situation after 9/11.

"It's just something I will never, ever forget, and I hope we will never have to go through it again. But I was very proud of how we handled things," she says. "I think Atlantic Canadians are pretty special."