Launching Critical Incident Response on the Ground in NYC

ALPA Pilots Remember

By Captain Chris Hayes, Delta

On the morning of 9/11, I awoke in room 344 of the Metropolitan Hotel in Manhattan, NYC. Since I didn’t turn the TV on for another 30 minutes, the world hadn’t quite changed for me yet. At 0930, I saw the damage from the first airplane and wondered how an aircraft could accidentally run into a building on such a beautiful day. When I saw the second one hit, I realized commercial aviation would never be the same.

Pickup was scheduled for 1300, so I knew I had time to look around a bit. I put on my jogging gear and headed for Times Square. As I ran over there, I could see the smoke from the damage, mostly white, like a low-lying fog bank over lower Manhattan. The island was already becoming eerily quiet. The crowd that had gathered at Times Square was talking of different possibilities. “Was it American or United?” “What kind of airplane was it?” “I think the hijackers stole the airplane from the ground. There probably weren’t any passengers on board.” I knew that last one was wrong—much easier to commandeer an aircraft in the air than steal one on the ground and take off.

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Back at the hotel, it soon became apparent that I would be staying in NYC for at least one more night. That afternoon, I headed for lower Manhattan, deciding I would get as close to the damage as I could. Streets were beginning to be barricaded, but there were still a few cracks in the armor, so I got to within about one-half mile of the damage. Although much smoke was visible, I couldn’t see any debris or damage due to other tall buildings in the area. Many other people had gathered, all eager to see and assist if possible. A bunch of us started helping the Salvation Army distribute bottles of water to emergency personnel. Soon the net tightened and “unknowns” were no longer allowed to help. As darkness began to fall, I returned to my room.

As chairman of the Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) at the time, I knew I had to start mobilizing the team. Unfortunately, we were scattered all over the planet, completely immobile. Both the trunk lines at the hotel and the cellular circuits were overloaded, so communication was difficult. I eventually got a message to the team through ALPA’s voice messaging network. I asked those available to contact their chief pilots and help in any way they could.

In the meantime, several crews who might need CIRP assistance were stuck in New York. I called or left messages to 35 people, mostly pilots. Twenty-five gathered in a conference room at the hotel at 1300 on Thursday afternoon. I spent 15 minutes talking about stress-related issues and then answered a few questions. We then got a conference phone from the hotel and got through to a chief pilot in Atlanta. Flight information was changing by the minute. It soon became apparent that we wouldn’t be leaving the city for at least one more night. After another gathering at the hotel on Friday afternoon, we were told to head to LaGuardia, where a special flight would take us all to Atlanta. I arrived in Atlanta too late to catch the last flight to Salt Lake, so I didn’t get home until Saturday night.

In the meantime, Delta was able to get some CIRP teams on the move earlier. One team drove to New York from Atlanta on Wednesday. Some of our pilots who were not stuck away from home headed to the flight attendant and pilot lounges of their home bases. The program is designed for pilots to interact with pilots, ramp personnel with ramp personnel, etc. But this event was of such magnitude, and the need was so great, that everyone pitched in to help where they could. Howard Rohan and Dick Allis spent days in the Atlanta lounges meeting incoming flights to offer assistance to pilot and flight attendant crews. Tim Velasco and Mike Dunn not only spent time in the SLC lounges, they also went to LAX for a couple days to assist, since we had no other CIRP volunteers in the area. John Peterson and Lynn Rhoades commuted in early and spent many hours in the lounges talking and answering questions. In addition to his coordinator duties, David Cleveland spent many hours at the airport helping out. Many from other bases went to where the need was greatest.

Responses to individuals started diminishing after about 10 days. The worst was over, although we would be forever changed. CIRP pilot peers alone interacted with several hundred employees, mostly flight attendants and pilots, although a few responded to mechanics, ACS, ramp personnel, etc. As of November 9, 2001, Delta peers interacted with a total of 8,058 employees, approximately 10 percent of the workforce.

When this program began at Delta in 1995, no one envisioned an event such as the terrorist attack of 9/11. But the team stepped up to the task and accomplished the mission. My thanks to all the pilots of the team who made it possible.

This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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