Whitehorse Daily Star

Image title

Photo by Vince Fedoroff

DRAMATIC DEPLANING – Passengers file off one of the two Korean Air flights that landed in Whitehorse on Tuesday morning following the catastrophic events in New York and Washington.

Aircraft hijacking initially feared

Police treated a Korean passenger plane that landed at the Whitehorse airport at noon today as if it had hijackers on board, despite reports from Alaskan officials that it was a false scare.

By Whitehorse Star on September 12, 2001

A crew member of the Korean Air Boeing 747 passenger jet was removed from the aircraft shortly before 1 p.m.

He was under questioning to determine if there was indeed a genuine terrorism threat aboard, RCMP Cpl. Al Lucier explained at a 1 p.m. news briefing.

The plane was rerouted to the local airport after air space all over North America was closed. The massive airport closures come after terrorists hijacked and crashed two planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia this morning.

However, in a late-breaking Canadian Press news story, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said during a news conference that airport officials in Anchorage received an emergency transponder signal from the 747, indicating low fuel or a hijacking.

The transponder signal turned out to be a low fuel indicator, Knowles told the news conference.

Bob King, his press secretary, said this afternoon that the U.S. Air Force had determined at around 11:15 this morning, Yukon time, that the plane was not hijacked.

He said the initial call to the governor’s office came at 10:45 Yukon time.

“We were contacted and informed that this plane was over Alaska, about 200 miles from Anchorage, and that it was squawking a hijack code on its transponder,” King said today.

“We were told that the Air Force jets were flying up to intercept it.”

As a precaution, the main state government building and courthouse were closed in Anchorage. After the plane was further along, over Yakutat, Alaska, at the top of the Alaska Panhandle, the air force informed the governor’s office that it wasn’t hijacked.

“Less than a half-hour later, and we were informed by the air force that the plane was no longer considered a hijack suspect.”

He said the air force said the emergency signal was meant to indicate the plane was low on fuel.

Lucier confirmed at 2 p.m. the emergency alert did come from a low fuel indicator warning. At that time, police were still interviewing the Korean crew member and the emergency response team was still preventing any disembarking by others on board.

“Until we are able to remove all the individuals from the aircraft and determine the status of those individuals, we are not able to give you a finite assessment whether it is a hostile situation or not,” Lucier said.

“We are still dealing with the individual (crew member). At this point, there is nothing to suggest we are dealing with that but we can’t rule it out until we get everybody off.”

Lucier said information that there may be a threat on board the Korean flight to land in Whitehorse this morning came to the RCMP from NavCanada as the aircraft was escorted by American fighter planes through American airspace. The aircraft was subsequently picked up and escorted to Whitehorse by Canadian fighters, he said.

“We have been successful to have one of those crew to come off the aircraft and we are speaking with the individual to determine the situation on the aircraft,” said Lucier.

As a result of the initial concerns about a possibly hijacked plane heading toward the city, the RCMP evacuated large municipal, territorial and federal government buildings in Whitehorse, and notified the public through radio reports that the aircraft was coming in, said Lucier. The passenger plane’s flight started in Seoul, Korea. Lucier said he doesn’t know where the plane was headed.

Once it was rerouted, the Whitehorse RCMP and authorities handling the situation were told by NavCanada they may be dealing with a hijacked plane, said Lucier.

Once Canadian airports were closed, the RCMP shut off access to the airport, including closing the Alaska Highway from Robert Service Way to Two Mile Hill. The area around the airport was evacuated as well.

The 747 passenger aircraft landed and taxied to a remote area of the landing apron. Police started trying to establish communications with the aircraft to determine if it was indeed hijacked, said Lucier.

“Until we determine exactly what’s on board, that will determine the reaction that we take to that situation,” said Lucier.

He said the Yukon’s emergency response team was deployed to secure the aircraft on the tarmac.

“Any individuals that will be getting off the airplanes will be dealt with and transported where possible, to both clear customs and immigration and to be found accommodation until the situation passes,” said Lucier.

As NavCanada rerouted planes to specific airports, the local airports are receiving updates as to what kind of planes they are.

The RCMP, Canada Customs, Immigration and NavCanada are coordinating the emergency from the airport. There were initial reports that up to 10 aircraft could be rerouted to the Whitehorse airport. By 2:30 this afternoon, however, no more were expected, officials indicated.

Police and airport authorities had initial communication with the Korean Air plane to direct it to a remote area of the tarmac, away from two other planes that had landed earlier this morning.

“We had communications certainly through the tower and the officers that we have in the tower to have the plane directed to a location on the field that will facilitate our needs,” said Lucier.

The Korean Air passenger plane was the third one to land at the Whitehorse airport this morning. The second, a 747 Korean Air cargo plane with about six people on board, landed safely.

Officials weren’t concerned about the cargo plane, said Lucier. It parked on the airport apron near the Condor Air plane that had arrived from Frankfurt, Germany, at about 10:30 a.m.

That plane was a scheduled flight that arrives from Germany twice weekly.

About 100 people, including staff members were on the flight, said Department of Community and Transportation Services spokesperson Brenda Wale.

Of the 89 passengers on board, 35 people had been scheduled to continue on with the flight to Anchorage, Alaska. Those people will be staying in Whitehorse overnight, said Wale.

Air North is handling the German flight passengers’ accommodation arrangements. Two German-speaking interpreters are helping with communication.

— With files from Star reporter Jason Small and The Canadian Press.

A day never to be forgotten

By Chuck Tobin and STEPHANIE WADDELL Star Reporters

This morning’s eerie idleness at the Whitehorse International Airport was broken only by the regular arrival of the weekly flight from Frankfurt, Germany at about 10:30 a.m.

But fewer than 90 minutes later, Whitehorse was sent into a state of emergency with the news that two Boeing 747s were inbound, one of which was low on fuel and perhaps involved in a hijacking situation.

Emergency crews were dispatched to the airport, and the Alaska Highway was closed from Robert Service Way to Two Mile Hill.

The RCMP put out a general alert suggesting downtown businesses evacuate their stores and shops. Police personnel went to the larger downtown stores and federal and territorial buildings to recommend immediate evacuation, RCMP Cpl. Al Lucier explained this morning.

Lucier said it was also recommended by police that local schools be evacuated, though the downtown remained of primary concern because of its proximity to the airport.

“The fear was the plane would not make a successful landing, and that it would end up in the downtown area.”

As it was put by one Whitehorse woman who works in the downtown: “I can’t believe we are right in the middle of this thing.”

As the first of the two Korean jetliners approached Whitehorse, downtown residents and pedestrians were anxiously watching, particularly with news that one of the aircraft may have been hijacked, and was under escort by Canadian and U.S. fighter planes.

From rooftops and other strategic lookouts, they watched. At the highpoint along the Long Lake Road, several vehicles arrived shortly before the aircraft to witness the approach and landing of the first 747, a cargo aircraft.

It was reported through police updates broadcast on local radio airwaves that one of the large jumbo jets was low on fuel.

Both landed without incident, though the Yukon’s emergency response team had placed the second jet – which was escorted into the airport by fighter jets – under guard. It was still under guard at 2 p.m.

Meanwhile, traffic in Whitehorse came to a slow crawl along Second Avenue late in the morning as parents were advised to pick up their children after being removed from schools across the city.

Some walked with their children along the street past flags which flew at half-mast.

The chaos erupted as radio reports told listeners that an aircraft on its way into Whitehorse was being treated as if it had been hijacked.

As school buses made their way around the city to pick children up from the schools, Whitehorse Transit buses were also used to pick up students. This cancelled the transit system. The buses were still being used by the territory’s Emergency Measures Organization in mid-afternoon.

A number of high school students stood in groups outside F.H. Collins Secondary School this morning as others walked along Lewes Boulevard by the school.

While students made their way home or to their schools’ alternate designated spots, staff at the federal Elijah Smith Building, territorial legislature building and city hall were evacuated.

Bill Newell, the city manager, estimated that city staff were evacuated for about half an hour beginning at 11:15. All city employees were sent home.

“A lot have gone home for the day,” he said.

As government buildings closed, so did numerous retail outlets across the city.

Air North president Joe Sparling said with the North American-wide cancellation of all flights – float planes included – that were not already airborne at the time of the attack – resulted in the cancellation of his regular scheduled flight to Dawson City, Old Crow and Fairbanks.

It also grounded the fuel cargo plane the company is using to transport fuel from Fort McPherson to Old Crow.

While Transport Canada originally issued a no-fly order in effect until 1 p.m. today, the order was subsequently changed to indefinite.

Nathalie Dugas of the local office for Canada Customs and Revenue Agency said this morning while border crossings into Canada were to remain open, customs official have been instructed to increase scrutiny of people entering Canada.

Where officers can sometimes be satisfied simply by questioning individuals as they pass through the border stations, today, they will begin to request documentation to further verify the identity of individuals.

“The only impact is there could be a little bit of a delay going through the border because we have to be more cautious,” Dugas said. “We want to make sure that people who are coming are not a risk to Canada, so we are going to be questioning even more than usual....

“We are definitely going to be asking for some identification documents like a social insurance number, driver’s licence or passport, and that is going to be routine today.”

Be the first to comment

Add your comments or reply via Twitter @whitehorsestar

In order to encourage thoughtful and responsible discussion, website comments will not be visible until a moderator approves them. Please add comments judiciously and refrain from maligning any individual or institution. Read about our user comment and privacy policies.

Your name and email address are required before your comment is posted. Otherwise, your comment will not be posted.