September 11, 2016
That high, azure sky Tuesday morning, 15 years ago, began like any mundane workday for John Glass.
Sitting in his office in the lower level of Terminal C of the Philadelphia International Airport, he was going through his morning routine.
Fall was approaching and part of his responsibilities as airport operations superintendent for the last 22 years was making sure the airport was fully stocked and ready for snow season. He went down a list of inspections, and what construction was being done. What runway closures would occur, what airfield activity would take place. He checked off what had to be met for FAA compliances.
Then his wife called. A plane had just struck one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center, she told him. Glass knew the towers well. Originally from central New Jersey, he spent many times there, visiting his grandfather, a retired New York City Port Authority worker in Trade Center Tower 1.
All around the airport, others were learning about what happened in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
The terror attacks that day – in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington and in a Pennsylvania field – would change forever travel at airports.
As the nation pauses Sunday to remember the 2,996 victims on the 15th anniversary of the attacks, Glass and other airport workers shared their memories from that day. Memories that remain as crystal clear as the skies above New York City and Philadelphia on that world-changing Tuesday morning.
American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. Sixteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower. By 9:26, the FAA had closed down U.S. airspace – and airports nationwide.
Glass and his fellow PHL employees, including manager Keith Brune, were placed on high alert along with every airport in the country.
Glass and Brune essentially became front-line soldiers in a war against a faceless enemy. Their day was punctuated with turbulence, and then long pauses of silence and nothing.
“That’s exactly the way that day was, you’re in the fog of war and no one was able to truly piece together what was happening, when it was happening, all we knew was that we were under attack,” recalled Glass, 46, a Point Pleasant Beach High graduate who now calls North Philadelphia home. “I live that day every day of my life. I try not to reflect on 9/11 any more than I have to, because I know people who lost family and friends.
“But I do live it every day, because there are things in my office from when my maternal grandfather, Cyril Storer, worked at the World Trade Center tower. I see his little notebook binder and business card. I position those things as a daily reminder when I sit behind my desk. I live it. The emotions don’t go anywhere. I’m an ops guy, a planner and an emergency responder, I get into that mode in handling my business like what happened on 9/11. We can’t change what happened, but we can remember them and the difference that day made in our lives.”
Brune, then a superintendent in the airport operations group, arrived to work around 7:30 for a training seminar he was leading for new airport employees. He was in a conference room when the group received word that an aircraft had hit a tower at the World Trade Center. Brune immediately thought it highly unusual, considering it was a clear day and the air space is regulated very well in and around New York City.
Brune and his team switched on the conference room TV in time to witness the second plane hit.
“I remember thinking that wasn’t an accident, and my first thought was that our world had clearly changed,” said Brune, who is now deputy director of aviation & operations and facilities at PHL, and will mark 25 years with the airport in October. “We went right to work, getting in touch with air traffic control and the executive team here at the airport. There was an awful lot of concern within the airport industry that how could this have possibly occurred? It sort of snowballed from there, trying to wrap our minds around what occurred and what could occur that we weren’t aware of.
“We also immediately thought about the threat to us here in Philadelphia. We had a surplus of flights that would be coming in, when the United States air space was closed," he continued. "There was an awful lot of confusion and how we were going to handle all of the passengers. We took a fair number of airplanes that day, obviously moreso than normal.”
The biggest challenge was trying to keep some semblance of normalcy when calm wasn’t the order of the day. The airport put out the word through the media and radio that the airport would be closed and all flights canceled. The airport had to be cleared. Working with the airport tenants was helpful, and by 11 a.m. or so, Philadelphia International Airport was a ghost town.
Through the years, Brune had seen the airport barren, due to a major weather event like snowstorms or hurricane threats. But nothing like this. Not on a gorgeous, weekday morning.
“For a few days after 9/11, it was a very scary time, because there was no one around and no one knew if something else was out there,” Brune said. “We deal with 80,000 people that come through here every day, and around 9/11 I could have thrown a bowling ball down any one of the concourses and not fear hitting anyone. That was something you try and process. During a weather event, you know it’s going to eventually stop snowing. Not knowing was the worst part of 9/11.”
Mike Gale, who recently retired as CEO of the airport, and his staff coordinated with local law enforcement and first responders, and made sure the deluge of passengers in the airport that morning had as much information as PHL management.
“The airline industry is actually a very small community, and we all know everyone,” said Brune, who lives in Philadelphia. “We learned how to keep the rumors down and try to keep the flow of information coming. If you don’t provide honest, positive truthful information, that’s where problems occur.
"The airport community was able to band together in a crisis and effectively communicate what we knew were facts," he said. "We were able to understand and live with things that we didn’t know. That day taught us how to best position ourselves in an event like that, and how to reopen again.”
9/11 gave Glass an even greater appreciation of the very people that he works with on a daily basis.
“What we need to learn and keep in mind from that day is that no matter what good the United States does in this world, there are always going to be people that see us as bad,” Glass said. “To me, that day made me be a bigger patriot, because as a kid, you grow up thinking the police are bad guys, and adults are bad guys. But in my job working with police and firemen, I fought battles with them and worked out problems with them.
“You see their commitment and dedication. My feeling toward our first responders, policemen and firemen have only gotten stronger because of 9/11," he said. "They were running to the fire, when everyone was running away. I hate it to say, but we’re in the airport, and that day made you less trusting of people. You don’t know who your enemies are.
"I was raised in a family that had the mindset that you help people. That’s what this country still does. We were all Americans that day."