In September 2001, Robin Reid-Fraser was a 12-year-old Grade 7 student at École Whitehorse Elementary School.
As was the case for many around the world, Sept. 11 began strangely enough with news of terrorist attacks in the United States with images of passenger flights flying into and destroying the World Trade Centre in New York. Another passenger flight would also crash into the Pentagon and, still another crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers were able to regain control of it from terrorists on-board.
In Whitehorse, for students like Reid-Fraser, the day took a stranger turn — beyond news reports from the U.S. — when schools, government buildings and some businesses in Whitehorse were evacuated as a Korean Air passenger flight, originally bound for Anchorage, was believed to be potentially highjacked and escorted in by military jets.
A Korean Air cargo jet was also diverted to the territory’s capital as one of many diverted flights to land on Canadian soil that day.
In a Sept. 8 interview, recalling 9/11 as a student in Whitehorse, Reid-Fraser described “a lot of confusion.”
Even today some of that confusion remains, as she would like to see more information on just how officials came to the decisions made that day that had such an impact on the community.
“It was a really dramatic, important event in the history of Whitehorse,” she said.
It was just before heading out the door to get to school that the phone rang at Reid-Fraser’s mom’s house. It was a friend of her mother’s calling about the news of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. They soon turned on the TV to images of two planes flying into the World Trade Centre in New York and the destruction that followed.
“I have this memory of having seen the image,” Reid-Fraser said, noting at that point she didn’t understand the gravity of the attacks on the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon, as well as the planned attempt on Washington, D.C. that ultimately crashed in Pennsylvania.
After taking in the news and getting to school, conversations there were dominated by news in the U.S.
As Reid-Fraser recalled, at that time, her teacher had already been working hard to discuss world events with the class. There seemed to be a sense that day though, that this was something very different from anything they had discussed previously.
The class had some time to talk about it before efforts were made to get things “back on track” with the regular school schedule. Tuesday’s were a particularly favourite day for Reid-Fraser, as the class had time set aside in the afternoon to work on special projects and activities.
“I was looking forward to that,” she said.
The class had fallen into the day’s normal routine, but later in the morning an announcement came over the PA that the school was to be evacuated. It was a situation playing out at schools throughout the city.
|A member of the Korean Air flight crew walks towards a RCMP emergency response team truck with his shirt and arms in the air at the Whitehorse International Airport on Sept. 1, 2001. RCMP suspected a possible hijack, but reports were false.
(Mike Thomas/Yukon News)
“At first it was very confusing,” Reid-Fraser said.
Streets were clogged with traffic as news of the evacuation and a possible hijacked plane coming into town prompted families to get to their child’s school or daycare as soon as possible and get out of the downtown.
It was unclear whether students would be bussed home or evacuated to a different location.
By that time, many believed a potentially hijacked plane was being diverted to Whitehorse, to the airport that sits just above the downtown.
On the grounds of Whitehorse Elementary it was “total confusion,” Reid-Fraser said.
Among the Grade 7 students there was an “adolescent range of emotion” she recalled. Many students seemed to deal with it through jokes and speculation about a mix-up by terrorists between the White House and Whitehorse.
It wasn’t long before a co-worker of her mom’s was at the school to pick up his own children and Reid-Fraser headed to her mom’s work with him and his kids. At the same time, Reid-Fraser’s father — Max Fraser — was also on his way to the school. He quickly learned where she was from others and headed over.
With Reid-Fraser’s mother’s car at the mechanics, Fraser took them to pick up the car and Reid-Fraser and her mother made their way out of town to a family friends’ place on the Takhini Hot Springs Road.
|A Korean Air flight was redirected to Whitehorse, causing panic downtown shortly after the Twin Towers were hit on Sept. 11, 2001. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)|
It was “in all of the traffic chaos” as others tried to leave the city, listening to the radio for updates that Reid-Fraser, and many in Whitehorse, learned the Korean Air flights had landed safely at the airport without incident.
Looking back, Reid-Fraser said there was a feeling of total confusion throughout the day over what was happening.
It later became clear the pilot of the suspected hijacked plane had included the letters HJK — code for hijacked — in a message. The flight was ordered to head to Whitehorse with NORAD officials contacting Canadian authorities for the go-ahead to shoot down the plane if necessary.
Max Fraser would eventually produce Never Happen Here, a documentary released in 2011, about the 9/11 situation in Whitehorse.
The film includes a portion where former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien confirmed the possibility that the plane could have been shot down.
Reid-Fraser said she was pleased when her father told her about his plans for the film.
“It was all really interesting,” she said, highlighting the information that came out in the documentary of the decision to have the flight land in Whitehorse.
While the documentary reveals much about the decisions made that impacted Whitehorse, Reid-Fraser said she would like to see more resources put toward questions that remain 20 years later.
Recently watching the documentary again, this time with her in-laws, she said she understands it was a totally unprecedented set of circumstances with a lot of factors at play that led to the flight being directed to Whitehorse, but she questions just how much officials knew about Whitehorse.
For example, did they realize the airport’s proximity to the downtown; did they know that the airport sits just above the downtown core.
She noted her hope the anniversary will bring about a renewed interest in the events of the day.
The 20th anniversary will be marked in Whitehorse with a showing of Never Happen Here at the Yukon Transportation Museum beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Max Fraser will be on-hand to introduce the film and for a question and answer period following. Northwestel will also air the documentary on its community channel (channel 209) Sept. 10 and 12 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. and on Sept. 11 at 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org