Terrorists, telephones and yo yos

On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the Twin Towers collapsed, and while people in Whitehorse were scrambling around in a panic to grab their kids and run for the hills, I was out of communication on the Dome in Dawson City, polishing up my rock-t

On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the Twin Towers collapsed, and while people in Whitehorse were scrambling around in a panic to grab their kids and run for the hills, I was out of communication on the Dome in Dawson City, polishing up my rock-the-baby trick on my yo-yo.

What a man in his 40s was doing playing with a yo-yo is a question best dispensed with quickly- chalk it up to my inherent and unrepentant immaturity: the same quality that to this day keeps me wide-eyed and enthused about new music, new literature, new technology, and, yes, new yo-yos.

In those days, I was employed as the manager of YKnet, which at that time was the territory’s largest internet service provider; and the yo-yo was a kind of Zen exercise for me, helping me to chill out in what was a cool and exciting but also often very stressful job.

On that Tuesday morning, I was personally stressed, like everyone else, by the events I had seen on TV over breakfast at the hotel and I was professionally stressed by the fact that I could not get in contact with my technical people back in Whitehorse.

I was trying to help finalize the internet connectivity for Dawson’s cable modem service, which was scheduled to come live that very day.

I had driven up from Whitehorse on Sunday night to get some Monday morning training on the new system’s equipment, because YKnet was going to act as the provider of internet bandwidth to the town’s new service.

Training on Monday had been put off by last-minute technical difficulties with the network.

Training that Tuesday was put off by the fact that most of the technicians involved with the project were from the United States, and were distracted from their final tasks by their haste to find a way back onto US soil and homeward.

I had a cellphone on me, but 10 years ago cellphones did not work outside of Whitehorse.

My chief technician in Whitehorse also had a cellphone, but for reasons unknown to me, I could not raise him from the land line in the equipment shed on the Dome. Also, I was getting no response to my calls to our head office above Mac’s Fireweed Books on Main Street.

I could not know that the primitive cellphone network in Whitehorse was bugging out from excessive use, or that my staff downtown were all busy evacuating the area, on orders.

All these memories came back to me this week, as I watched Max Fraser’s documentary, Never Happen Here, which covers the events of that day in Whitehorse.

I am not in the film reviewing business, but I can say that Fraser has done us all a service by creating this small memory-marker for that peculiar instance in our local history.

His 45-minute film clarifies a lot of things about the event that I, isolated up on the Dome, never even knew happened.

Furthermore, it poses a lot of interesting questions – questions that need answers, though

probably they

never will get them – about why the Korean planes were diverted to Whitehorse in the first place; about why one of them was sending out the erroneous alert signal that it had been hijacked; and about who ordered the change in the Korean plane’s “squawk” number to have it show up on radar as a hijacked, dangerous aircraft, subject to being shot down if necessary.

What struck me at the conclusion of the film was how the whole farrago of comic confusion and genuine terror that was the Whitehorse 911 experience was really all about failures in communication, and in communication technology – particularly in cellular telephone technology.

The overwhelming concern of most people in town that day was the safety of their children at school; and a major breeding ground for the public hysteria that beset the community was the inability of parents to contact their children. They arrived in frantic panic at the schoolyards, with each terrified arrival raising the anxiety level for children adults alike.

The cellular network in town was still very much in its infancy in those days.

Cellphones, though hardly unknown, were expensive to own and operate, and not overly common. Certainly they were not part of pretty much every child’s going-to-school kit, as they are rapidly becoming today.

In contrast, the wide availability of cellphone technology played an important role in the unfolding of the 911 story in the United States.

It was by means of cellphone conversations that the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 learned about the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, knowledge that motivated them to make their brave but fatal decision to counter attack the hijackers.

It was the paucity of that communications technology in Whitehorse – along with some sometimes pretty shabby emergency management, it must be said – that generated the panic and confusion that now seems so ridiculous, but also so sad and understandable, in retrospect.

A lot has changed in communications technology in the Yukon over the past 10 years, some of it for the good, some of it for the not so good.

All the smaller internet service providers then in business – Yknet, Polarcom, MicroAge, and the City of Dawson – are now defunct and forgotten, and Northwestel wields an unregulated monopoly over communications in the territory.

On the other hand, both internet and cellular communications technology (though of varying quality, and at excessive prices) is pretty much ubiquitously available to all and sundry in the Yukon, including our kids in school.

But we are still a long way from having the robust, reliable and universally affordable communications infrastructure we need to face our daily tasks and challenges, let alone unforeseen and unforeseeable eventualities like 911.

Our entire communication capacity is based on a single fibreoptic connection to the world, owned and operated by a single company upon whose questionable competence we may find we have to stake our lives, and the lives of our children, some day.

Kind of makes a guy want to reach for his yo-yo, to Zen down the stress.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.