Nfld. & Labrador

9/11 'intense operation': Gander controller

A man who helped sort out the chaos in the skies over Gander on Sept. 11, 2001 says he did not realize at the time he was playing a role in history.

A man who helped sort out the chaos in the skies over Gander on Sept. 11, 2001 says he did not realize at the time he was playing a role in history.

"It was an intense operation, it was like a knot that was tightening," said air traffic controller Don O'Brien who was working in Gander during 9/11 a decade ago.

"We watched what was happening on TV, of course. And as we're watching, the word comes down from Ottawa that all those transatlantic flights had to land at the nearest coastal airports. So we were facing a challenge, an unprecedented challenge."

O'Brien said he didn't realize that he was playing a part in the defining story of the time. He was just trying to get the planes on the ground.

Slowly but surely, O'Brien and his team guided 38 of the world's largest passenger planes to an unscheduled landing.

"You're talking to maybe Lufthansa, or maybe the Aer Lingus flight, and you're saying, 'You're landing in Gander.'  And they say, 'No we're going on to Atlanta,' and you say, 'No, you're not. You're landing in Gander.'"

Afterwards, O'Brien said there were no airplanes in the sky and the silence was both deafening and eerie.

O'Brien's job was done, but thousands of confused passengers were now stranded in a place they had never heard of.

When his shift as an air traffic controller was finished, he and the other controllers quickly mobilized and went to help the thousands of passengers who were stranded on the ground in Gander.

"We quickly mobilized and threw some money in a pot and the company, Nav Canada, threw some money in, and we went out and bought food and cooked for three days."

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