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09/11/2009

Remembering 9/11

Rick Madonik
Staff Photographer


(Although this IS a photography blog, I’m electing to forgo the obvious visual props for this particular blog. I honestly believe most of the world has clearly etched references of today’s subject matter.)


Eight years ago this morning, things changed!

Most people were affected. Some, more profoundly then others. I, myself, believe I was in a state of shock for 2 or 3 days. A self admitted news junkie (hence my profession), unlike the vast majority of the population, I didn’t find out what actually happened until the aircraft I was on was diverted to Moncton, NB.

For me, it really was a surreal experience.

There I was comfortably settled on a morning flight to St. John’s (Nfld). The Maple Leafs were holding its training camp on The Rock, and I got the nod for an 8-day trip. I had never been to Newfoundland and was looking pleasantly forward to a relatively easy schedule in a fun city on company money. Who wouldn’t be feeling good?

But I knew something was amiss when the plane began a very slow descent. We were only about 90 minutes into an almost 3 hour long flight. I actually turned to my seatmates (an older couple, the man on his very first flight and only the second flight for his wife) and said it was weird we were descending so soon.

Within minutes the flight deck made an ominous announcement. The Captain told us we were being diverted to Moncton, New Brunswick, because North American airspace was being "closed." He admitted his information was limited but would update us whenever he knew more.

Never having heard of such an occurrence - the closing of continent-wide North American aviation - I knew whatever had transpired was monumental.

A few minutes later, the descent became clearly evident to all aboard as our plane began its approach. The Captain again addressed the cabin telling us only "there had been incidents, with aircraft, in New York and in Washington." He had asked Air Traffic Control for Halifax (instead of Moncton) and was told the tarmac was already filled with overseas flights that had been diverted.

OH CRAP was the only thing that went through my mind. Then reality set in and I, almost frantically, began to pack my assorted gear and readied myself to be first off the aircraft. After all, whatever it was, it was BIG NEWS and I was already on the road, fully packed and closer to New York then anyone in Toronto. I figured I’d rent a car, and head south down the eastern seaboard ASAP.

I remember standing in the aisle of the aircraft and gathering all my stuff so I could exit as soon as we landed. A reporter from TSN looked up at me and asked why I was fumbling about.

"You don’t get it, do you?" I asked him with a hint of sarcasm. A half blank stare came back. "You’re not going anywhere for days dude. North American airspace has NEVER closed, not even during WWII."

He was of the opinion we’d get to St. John’s by the end of the day. I said to him, the Leafs weren’t scheduled to leave until the afternoon, and there’s no way, under the circumstances, any charter could file a flight plan.

Hockey was the last thing on my mind. Now, it was just how big a news story this "event" would be.

I was feeling more than anxious. There were things going on in my personal life at that moment that I had to seriously consider – very quickly – about how to handle because I could see this "event" invading many facets. I also wondered how long this "event" might last.

Just about 10:20 we landed and began to taxi. I turned on my cell phone and tried to get a signal so I could call the office and find out what was going on. But there was no signal to be gotten. I tried turning it off and on several times hoping that would somehow grant me a sliver of signal strength.

As we taxied, the pilot now informed us we were being told to remain on the aircraft even after we arrived at the gate. This caused me more frustration, as I was ready to bolt. Within minutes we were being told to deplane. I pushed my way through the cabin and exited as quickly as possible.

Down an exterior staircase and around the nose of the aircraft toward the terminal, I stopped to fire a few frames of people deplaning. As I lowered myself to the tarmac for a long angle, a security guard got rather nasty with me and demanded I move along. When I hesitated, he really began to insist.

As I approached the terminal, a man in a pilots’ uniform held open the door for us. I approached him directly, and stated one simple question.

"How bad is it? I probed.

"It’s real bad. Two aircraft struck the World Trade Centre and one hit The Pentagon."

(Just about this very moment, the passengers of Flight 91 would be attempting to regain control of that aircraft, and would soon plough into a field in Pennsylvania.)

We were the first, or second, aircraft to land in Moncton, so the confusion and crush of people was just about to begin. As I entered the terminal, I saw media crews (ATV) coming in. A reporter and video operator approached me and pushed a mic to my face.

"I’m not doing this," I told the reporter. "I’m one of you (meaning media)."

I took a step closer to the reporter and asked him to "tell me the timeline" and "don’t’ give me any media spin" asking him to tell me just bare facts.

I was in an absolute state of shock when he gave me a short, but detailed, timeline of planes hitting and buildings collapsing. I couldn’t understand the buildings imploding and I found it hard to believe both would structurally fail.

"The world just changed," I muttered out loud. Looking around, I then realized I was in the only airport in Canada that didn’t have a freaking TV.

Finding a payphone I called the Star’s 800 number. I was quickly connected to the Picture Desk where photographer Rene Johnston was manning a phone.

"Look at the TV and tell me what you see" was the first thing out of my mouth.

I’ll never forget what he said, or how he said it.

"They’re gone, man, they’re gone," he said.

I could not comprehend the Towers had collapsed, but my journalist brain was still working.

Speaking with then photo boss Hans Deryk, I asked if I rent a car and start going. He informed me the borders were closed (which proved wrong as colleague Bernard Weil was already enroute to New York from Toronto and crossed easily) and I should find a hotel and hunker down. No one knew how long airspace would be closed and there would be peripheral work to do in cities which were now trying to find sleeping space for thousands of diverted passengers.

About 2:30 pm I arrived at my hotel and finally called my girlfriend. Why I hadn’t called her earlier I still don’t know. I caused her hours of unnecessary panic as my flight had departed Toronto at a time consistent with one of our aircraft being involved. At the time, no one was sure where the flights had originated, and when she hadn’t heard from me for hours, she began to assume the worst.

I spent five long days in Moncton. Eventually, the Maple Leafs, and I, did get to St. Johns, but the eight day, relaxing, fun filled trip to the East Coast was no more. Instead it was a hurried 36 hours in St. Johns preceeded by a world altering event and followed by some very intense security screenings on each of the flights in the days that followed.

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