Chaos filled the streets of New York City on Sept. 11 two decades ago, as people faced fear of the unknown when terrorists linked to al-Qaeda hijacked passenger jets and flew them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The same day about 6,000 kilometres away, that fear was evident in Whitehorse when a Korean airliner, suspected of being hijacked, was reported to be heading its way.
“For us, it was a little bit of disbelief,” said Dave White, who was working that day as an air traffic controller at the Whitehorse International Airport, now the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport.
“But at the same time, when you’re hearing this and when I’m talking to the NORAD military fellow by the phone … he says the F-18s are en route and that they know the mission.”
The mission White is referring to is an order that the F-18 fighter aircraft were given by Jean Chrétien, Canada’s prime minister at the time.
A year after the event, Chrétien disclosed his directive to shoot down the plane in an interview with CBC News.
“I said yes, if you think they are terrorists, I said you call me again. But be ready to shoot them down,” he said.
The United States decided to close its airspace on Sept. 11, 2001, due to the terrorist attacks, and Canada followed suit — forcing every plane in the sky to land.
That included Korean Air Flight 085. It was en route to New York City from South Korea, with a fuel stop in Anchorage, Alaska, with more than 200 passengers and crew on board.
But U.S. officials weren’t allowing any planes to land on American soil, so the Korean airliner — which was running low on fuel — was diverted to the closest international airport, in Whitehorse.
A city left scrambling
What happened next sent a city of 21,000 people scrambling in fear.
According to Max Fraser, a documentary filmmaker in Whitehorse, the pilots on Korean Air flight 085 sent a text message containing a three-letter code “HJK,” an abbreviation of the English term “hijacked”, which can also be interpreted as: “We are victims of piracy.”
This message was reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration headquarters in Washington, which then ordered air traffic control in Anchorage to tell Korean Air flight 085 to turn on its hijack signal.
Whitehorse then went into an emergency response that no one was prepared for.
Police ordered everyone out of the downtown area. Traffic was congested, and phone lines were so clogged that emergency officials had trouble getting information out to the public.
Thousands of students were evacuated from school. Many were taken to a soccer field to get picked up, leaving parents scrambling to find their children.
Fraser produced a documentary from that experience titled Never Happen Here: The Whitehorse 9/11 Story.
Unbeknownst to Yukoners, amid this chaos — and seeing what was happening in the U.S. — officials were responding to the possibility that their city could also be a target.
“It’s a very vivid memory of that day in Whitehorse,” Fraser said.
Marguerite Kulack also remembers that day very well. Three of her four children were in different schools.
“I just wanted to kind of collect everybody together — I think that’s kind of a mother hen kind of thing — and try to figure out a way to get us all safely together.”
Kulack’s daughter, Simone Kitchen, was seven years old at the time.
“I know there was an announcement that we were having an evacuation and that it wasn’t a drill,” she said. “And then our teacher explaining to us that we would all have to go home. But I honestly don’t think the teachers even knew exactly what was going on.”
Kitchen says there was a lot of confusion that day in Whitehorse.
But when her mom picked her up, she said, “I remember she was very calm, but she definitely was on a mission to pick us all up.”
‘We had snipers on the airport’
As for Dave White, the now-retired air traffic controller, he says he only thinks about that day on the anniversary.
He recalls everyone in the tower scrambling in heightened awareness, grabbing manuals and following procedures.
“It really comes down to training as well, because we’ve been through a number of mock-up type drills, not of hijacks, but of emergency situations.”
White says that when the jetliner was getting closer to landing at the Whitehorse airport, the RCMP took command of the situation, blocking off the highway and the airport.
“We had snipers on the airport and on the air terminal building. I remember a sniper being on the control tower roof as well.”
Then the jet landed without incident.
“It comes down to you plan for the worst and hope for the best,” White said. “And hope that there was no [Canadian] military intervention, because had that intervention occurred, the consequences would have been instantaneous and catastrophic.”
It was later learned that the hijacked plane was a false alarm. It’s not clear why the initial text from the pilot was sent.
The pilot left the plane and raised his hands as he walked on the tarmac. Passengers were taken through customs and brought to cadet camps in buses until the Korean flight was cleared.
The days that followed left many wondering what happened.
Whitehorse officials said it was difficult to prepare for because it was an extraordinary situation. Emergency plans, including evacuation orders at schools, have since been improved.
Max Fraser says he’s still asking 20 years later just why the hijack signal was activated.
“I think as northerners, as Canadians living in a supposedly free and democratic society, we have the right to know,” he said. “And there should be a full and complete explanation of all the events that took place and rattled our communities so fundamentally 20 years ago.”
Korean Air has denied Fraser’s interview requests for his documentary.
He says his film is missing an important piece: the pilot’s story.
Fraser wants him to come back — this time to share what was going through his mind that day, when fighter jets had Korean Air Flight 085 in their sights, ready to shoot it down in Whitehorse and forever changing people who were there that day.
For Dave White, it was a sort of awakening: If an event like this happened in Whitehorse, it could happen anywhere, he says.
“It was a moment in time when we kind of lost our innocence or we became less naive of what happens in the greater picture in the world. And that we can be affected by almost any action anywhere.”