9/11 memories: Silence in the skies

I am a recent Colorado transplant to Utah. Twenty years ago on September 11, I was in charge of Denver International Airport while the rest of the airport’s leadership team was attending an aviation industry conference in Canada. It was an acting assignment that I will never forget.

The first emergency alert I received that morning was about what was believed to be a small, private aircraft flying into one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time I arrived at the airport’s emergency operations center (EOC) the bank of televisions were flickering with images of commercial aircraft clearly being used as missiles.

The mood in the EOC was somber. We held our collective breath as the unimaginable horrors of that day emerged. As we watched the first tower fall, our national aviation system was on the brink of an unprecedented total shut down. All in-air flights would soon be ordered to land at the nearest compatible airport. As our Operations staff scrambled to find parking for unscheduled landings, the security screening to the concourses was closed to all but ticketed passengers.

It took time for the gravity of events and the consequences to sink in. I remember asking our FAA representative privately when he thought flights might resume. “Not today” he said. I told him that I wanted everyone in the EOC to hear his answer to that question. Once they did, it became clear that it was time to consider shutting down the airport. I called then Denver Mayor Wellington Webb to let him know the seriousness of the situation and its impact on the airport. The Mayor approved my recommendation for a preemptive closure and evacuation. DEN would be one of the first airports to close in advance of the national directive.

Nothing in the airport’s emergency contingency planning prepared us for the range and scope of challenges we would all face that day, and the day after and the day after that. But we did. Chaos was transformed into order thanks to the dedicated aviation professionals on duty at DEN and airports throughout the country that day. Thousands of passengers would unexpectedly end their day’s journey in Denver that fateful day.

The airport’s 6.5 million square feet of buildings would need to be evacuated, searched and secured before we could get authorization from the FAA to reopen. It took the entire team at DEN along with our airline and concession partners to successfully meet the seemingly endless and fluid flow of security directives from Washington.

One FAA directive required that ALL knives be removed from the post-security areas on each of DEN’s three concourse. Staff from our concessions office had to search every restaurant and office to confiscate every single knife as one of hundreds of requirements for reopening.

Decisive action and a massive and coordinated team effort allowed DEN to be the first major airport ready for recertification for reopening.

All of this seemed insignificant when compared to the horror in New York CIty, Washington, D.C. and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania that day.

Who could have ever imagined a day in our lifetime when there would not be a single plane in the U.S. skies? The skies remained empty and silent for several days following September 11, 2001. This would be the first moment of silence for those innocent and heroic souls lost on that unimaginable day.

Amy Bourgeron is the former Senior Vice-President of Marketing and Communication at the Denver International Airport