Nearly every generation has “one event” which not only left unforgettable memories of where people were and what they were doing when it happened, but was a pivotal time in our collective history. September 11, 2001, is that event for our generation.
Fifteen years ago, our nation suffered an inconceivable horror on our own front doorstep. The consequences of those events will have lasting impact on not only our generation, but generations to come.
We sat down with several current and former Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA) employees who worked at one of our four airports on that fateful day, and will post their stories throughout this week.
Here’s how September 11, 2001, is remembered, in their own words.
Christopher I. Styles, A.A.E., current Director, Aviation Division, Southwest Florida International Airport
What was your position at the Authority during September 2001?
I was an Operations Specialist; the entry-level position in Airport Operations at Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) . On that day, I was coordinating a runway closure with Airfield Maintenance for routine upkeep and repairs on the runway.
How did you find out about the attacks on 9/11?
While I was positioning one of the runway closure X’s out on the runway, my supervisor called me on the radio and said, “Hey Chris, an aircraft struck one of the towers in New York……You should come in and check this out.” I didn’t think too much of it, so I finished my duties on the runway and went in to take a look. When I walked into the Port Authority lobby, there were more than a dozen coworkers standing around the TV. When I got a look at the crash site, right away I realized this was a huge emergency. People were talking about a small plane or a military jet accidentally running into the building. Based on the size of the damage, I knew it was a large aircraft. The group was discussing how a pilot could’ve possibly flown into the World Trade Center on a crystal clear day. I asked our Building Engineer what he thought about the structural integrity of the tower with that amount of damage and fire raging through it. His response to me was, “The fire shouldn’t compromise the integrity of the building, but that massive impact sure might.”
A short time later, we witnessed the second aircraft hit the other tower and it was obvious we were under attack.
What did you do at the airport in the hours following the attacks?
After the second aircraft flew into the tower, I talked with my boss and we decided it would be best to get the closed runway back open and bring in the folks working on the airfield. While coordinating the runway re-opening, the Pentagon was attacked, the crash in Pennsylvania occurred, and the Twin Towers collapsed.
We received a call from Air Traffic Control (ATC) and were advised that the national airspace was shutting down and all aircraft were being required to divert and land as quickly as possible. At that time, Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) had approximately 17 gates with loading bridges and a handful of ramp parking spaces. Approximately 30-35 aircraft transiting the east coast of Florida (north and southbound) diverted into JAX. They came faster than we had available gates, so I worked with ATC to stack them on one of the parallel taxiways and await their turn for an open gate to park and deplane. After a couple of hours of unplanned and unscripted irregular operations, we had all aircraft shutdown and parked, many in improvised parking spaces, and people off-loaded into the terminal.
The crowd in Baggage Claim and the Arrivals curbside was horrendous. The airlines and airport arranged for buses to pick up the diverted passengers (estimated between 3,500 and 4,500). Every person working at the airport jumped in and assisted the passengers with guiding them and their luggage to their respective bus.
After everything cooled down and all passengers were transported, we repositioned our Airport Mobile Command Post (a large retrofitted Winnebago) back near the terminal and prepared for any new threats. I wound up spending the night in command post and watched the developing news on the TV. It was surreal.
What one memory (or story) stands out for you about that day?
I remember driving to work that morning. It was maybe 5:30 am, and I heard on the radio, “Today is the inaugural 911 First Responder’s Day” and the nation was encouraged to recognize and appreciate all first responders. That was a strange precursor to the rest of the day’s tragic events.