The runway man: Air Canada worker recalls connections and compassion of 9/11

Sept. 11, 2001, remains etched in the mind of Air Canada worker Wayne d'Entremont, both for the professional challenges it posed and the effect it had on him personally.
Aircraft sit wing tip to wing tip on the runway at the Halifax International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001. (Halifax International Airport Authority)

It was a late summer day, but Wayne d'Entremont's mind was on the ice and snow of winter.

He and a few co-workers were meeting to talk about winter operations at the Halifax airport when events a few hundred kilometres away suddenly pulled them back to the present.

"When we were doing our training, our manager came in and he was white as a ghost," recalls d'Entremont, now a safety and regulatory auditor for Air Canada at the Halifax airport. "He said there are events unfolding in the world that require our immediate attention on the runway.

"He said: 'Grab your marshalling equipment and let's head out.' "

Wayne d'Entremont and his co-workers guided airplanes into place on the runway at the Halifax International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001. (Courtesy Wayne d'Entremont/Air Canada)

The date was Sept. 11, 2001, and the Halifax airport, along with 16 others across Canada, found itself the unexpected host of planes ordered to land after U.S. airspace was closed because of the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

For the next few hours, d'Entremont and his four co-workers — all training instructors — became the choreographers of an intricate dance, arranging more than three dozen jumbo jets wing tip to wing tip on a narrow strip of asphalt.

Ten years later, the day remains etched in d'Entremont's mind, both for the professional challenges it posed and the effect it had on him personally.

"Outside the birth of my two lovely daughters, there's no one day that's changed my life as much as 9/11," he says.

For d'Entremont, much of that reflection is on the "humanitarian story" of how the community at the airport in Halifax and in the surrounding area came together to help the stranded passengers.

But first, the planes carrying those 7,000 or so passengers had to land.

Herringbone pattern

The Halifax airport didn't know how many flights to expect, perhaps up to 100, which was the approximate number of planes in the air over Eastern and Atlantic Canada, and the North Atlantic Ocean.

But how do you fit that many jumbo jets on a runway? Especially if you have only 15 or 20 minutes to come up with a plan?

"We figured that if we put them in what's like a herringbone pattern, kind of wing tip to wing tip, that we could fit literally 50 per cent more aircraft in the same space," says d'Entremont.

"We just started parking them. They came one right after the other. The term I've used in the past is 'It's raining aluminum.' "

An aerial view shows the runway at Halifax International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001. (Halifax International Airport Authority)

There's an aerial view that shows the final arrangement of the 40 jets that arrived on the runway. It's a stunning scene, one that airport staff still talk about a decade later.

"That's my work, mine and my other colleagues," d'Entremont says, the pride coming through in his voice.

The arrival of the planes was only the beginning, however, of the unprecedented experience in Halifax and the other airport communities across Canada on 9/11 and the days that followed.

"What really amazed a lot of people was the fact that when these people did come off (the planes), they were grateful, thankful. There was no animosity, there was no anger. It was just an eerie, eerie, calm," he recalls.

One degree of separation

D'Entremont didn't have too much contact with passengers, but he did with aircraft crew members. One such contact brought the events in New York very close to home.

Air Canada staff were going from plane to plane helping other air crews clean their planes. On one United Airlines aircraft, d'Entremont remembers talking with a couple of flight attendants when the captain appeared and told them the name of a pilot from one of the planes that the hijackers had directed into the World Trade Center towers.

"His knees buckled. He fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes. We helped him up and the others started crying," says d'Entremont.

Suddenly there was only one degree of separation between d'Entremont and the tragedy in New York.

"The connection was a little bit closer between myself and one of the planes that hit the building."

D'Entremont also became a personal host, offering space in his "very small" home to two Air Canada colleagues. One was a training instructor from Newfoundland, someone he knew in passing. They've kept in touch with each other since 9/11.

"I see him every now and then, and we speak, have coffee, that type of thing," says d'Entremont. "There's no shortage of friendship between us, that's for sure. We went from mild, from barely acquaintances, to 'Call me, what do you need?'

"It's an amazing thing when a lot of people work together to accomplish a similar goal. It really is something else."