Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Aside #1: My 9/11 2001

My 9/11 2001  

I was preparing the brunch for 9/11 2011 and watching all the memorials on TV.  They brought back too many memories and I decided to post this separately. 


For me, the day of 9/11 10 years ago was remarkably similar to 9/11 today -- a warm fall day, no humidity, no clouds, cool for sleeping, with the leaves in the Gatineau Hills were starting to paint nature's rhapsody of fall colours.  9/11 2001 coincided with a rare (very rare) 'Retreat' of the senior folks at my government workplace. 

This place in the Hills -- called Willson House (picture, left) -- was about a half hour from Ottawa and was chosen for its remote location, rustic charm, beautiful view of Meech Lake (picture, right), no TV, no distractions. 


We were all told put away our cellphones, blackberries (if you were lucky enough to have one as they were fairly new then), and be there by 8:30 a.m. for a day that was to be full of weighty focus on the priorities for the government and for our workplace.

I arrived promptly at 8:30 a.m. A few other folks had arrived but not the star attraction, the Clerk or head of the Canadian public service.  I wandered around the place, stood on the front porch of Willson House gazing out at Meech Lake, and then paused to chat with the one security guard on duty who sat in the small office on the main floor.  

It turned out the commissionaire was watching news on a four-inch, black-and-white TV with an antenna and did not look up other than to tell me there was a plane crash in New York at the World Trade Centre.  Other folks soon joined us and this small group stared intently at the grainy picture as the second plane flew into the South Tower.  I remember well the silence, no sound whatsoever except exclamations of horror at the scenes of destruction and chaos. 

Emotions ran rampant.  I felt that the world I thought I knew -- my secure, violence-free world in Canada -- had suddenly snapped to an alternate, unknown, parallel universe of horror and destruction.  Who was this terrorist Osama bin Laden (his name surfaced early in reporting).  The whole thing seemed surreal.  

No one else of course showed up at Meech Lake that morning.  There were no contact, calls, no communication whatsoever from the senior ranks who were to speak to us that morning.  There would be no Retreat. 

Fear grew slowly but steadily about what the attacks meant for Canada.  Were we in Ottawa -- the nation's capital -- also in some unknown, unspecified danger?  So, I headed back to Ottawa and the office wondering if there would be emergency Cabinet meetings I would need to assist in organizing.  But calls to the office went unanswered. 

Arriving back in the city mid-morning, I drove toward one of the many downtown parking garages and was shocked -- shaken to be more precise -- to find a military guard -- rifle in hand -- blocking the entrances to these garages.  This is unheard of in Canada and downtown Ottawa.  My anxiety level notched up to decibel.  

My anxiety level continued to rise at I walked to my office along Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill. The street was virtually empty (unheard of) and the Hill and Parliament Buildings (Centre, East and West Blocks) virtually tourist-free.  

I had the sensation of many eyes watching me (snipers guarding the Hill?) as I scanned the parapets of Centre Block (picture) craning to look behind the gargoyles that surround the Peace Tower clock whose expressions I now saw as menacing.  

Another shock greeted me at the door to my building.  The doors were locked and guarded.  I eventually made it through the front doors of the building, walked the deserted halls and arrived at my office.  The only sound to be heard was TVs ... not a word from my staff watching CNN and other channels in mute horror.  No one had any information about what was happening in Canadian airspace or buildings.  My boss was in an emergency meeting and absolutely no information came my way as the hours unfolded.  

I watched until I could take no more of CNN reporting, retrieved my car and went home.  As the horribulous week continued, most of the public efforts focussed on getting assistance for the thousands of passengers stranded in Canada when the airspace over the US was closed. Many emergency level meetings were held in the ensuing weeks and months that followed as more and more information became available. 

I, like 100,000 others in Ottawa and area, stood silently on Parliament Hill later that week (September 14, 2001) as a sign of support for and solidarity with our American neighbours.  It was the largest vigil ever held on Parliament Hill, with the U.S. Ambassador Paul Celluci, Prime Minister Chretien and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson all in attendance.  

From the vantage point of a decade, I think it is fair to say that my life -- like many others -- as a senior public servant in government changed completely on 9/11 2001. The priorities and initiatives once considered important were mostly put to one side and the public service world evolved into one far, far different from pre-9/11.  The themes of security, public safety, intelligence, counter-terrorism became the centrepiece of the government agenda and remain there to this day.

Anyway, that was how I remember my 9/11 2001.


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