Nova Scotia

Halifax airport worker describes outpouring of kindness after 9/11

Halifax Stanfield International Airport staff handled thousands of passengers from planes diverted there after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Passengers were remarkably 'calm and collected' despite the chaos, says manager

In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn after hijacked planes crashed into them in New York. (Reuters)

When Kelly Martin thinks of Sept. 11, 2001, she recalls scores of airplanes, congested runways, a sea of passengers and Nova Scotian hospitality.

The experience, which saw the airport tarmac turned into parking lot, was "unbelievable," the customer relations manager at Halifax Stanfield International Airport said.

Martin was surprised by the lack of panic shown by the 7,300 passengers, many of whom were kept on the planes long after they landed.

"The joy on their faces as they were coming in, it was just amazing to see how calm and collected people were," she said.

The diversions occurred after the attacks that saw two planes crash into towers at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, a plane crash into the Pentagon and one in a field in Shanksville, Pa.

About 3,000 people died that day.

Forty aircraft carrying 8,000 passengers were diverted to Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001. (Halifax International Airport Authority)

In Halifax, airport staff were called at 11 a.m. and told to expect 40 to 50 aircraft, Martin said, with the first plane landing a half hour later.

Marc Bernstein was on one of those planes, flying London to New York.

"I don't think there's a day that goes past when I don't think about it," he said on the phone from London Sunday.

'A sigh of relief'

The pilot announced mid-flight a terrorist attack in the United States had killed thousands, Bernstein wrote in a blog post this week.

At first, the pilot didn't know where they would go, but later said they were headed to Halifax.

"Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and then got out maps to find out where it is," Bernstein wrote.

Marc Bernstein was one of the 7,300 passengers stranded in Halifax. (Marc Bernstein/Facebook)

The mayor met them at the airport, and during the following days, the passengers bonded.

"It's something I hate to admit. There was just so many people from all over the world and there was nothing else to do, but just to talk to people and get to know people," Bernstein said.

"I made a friend who lived in Atlanta, and hopefully one day we'll get to meet again."

'Never be the same again'

Those connections must have helped, as passengers were patient despite long waits to board again several days later, said Chris Farmer, who worked as a manager at the Halifax airport. 

The line for security snaked the length of the terminal, as people turned over items they'd normally carry on.

"We knew that air travel would never be the same again," he said from the Greater Moncton International Airport, where he now works. 

"Of course the first thing that comes to mind is the increased security."

Chris Farmer was working at the airport in Halifax on Sept. 11, 2001. He's now the operations director at the Greater Moncton International Airport. (Radio-Canada)

'Calm and collected'

Martin said she will never forget one couple who were headed to New York on that infamous day.

"There was a couple who were going to New York to be married and they were travelling from different directions ... and so were their families. They were meeting in New York," she said.

"The boyfriend arrived in Halifax first and he was frantically trying to find out where his girlfriend was, as were her parents."

Kelly Martin says she will never forget the speed at which people at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport pulled together to handle the massive influx of travellers on Sept. 11, 2001. (CBC)

'I will never forget'

Communications were spotty at that point with cellphone service jammed with calls.

Martin said it took a few hours for the man to learn they both ended up in Halifax.

She also remembers the speed at which people at the airport pulled together to handle the massive influx of travellers.

"I think Nova Scotians are known for their generosity and welcoming nature," she said.

"I know as an airport community, it brought us so close together. It is an experience I will never forget."

With files from CBC's Amy Smith and Blair Sanderson, and Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc of Radio-Canada