Dennis Cole, an emergency services advisor for Sherritt in Fort Saskatchewan, and a former deputy fire chief for the Lloydminster Fire Department, will pause this Monday for the 16th anniversary of 9/11 to reflect on lessons he learned acting as the airside ground transportation coordinator on Sept. 11, 2001, when 38 planes landed at Gander International Airport with more than 7,000 passengers to accommodate. He is pictured leading his Sherritt emergency response team through training at the Lakeland College Emergency Training Centre in August. SUPPLIED PHOTO
This Monday marks the 16th anniversary of 9/11.
It’s a day of infamy when just about everyone, including first responders who lived through the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, remembers where they were.
One of those is Dennis Cole, a former deputy chief with the Lloydminster Fire Department.
He was a lieutenant with the Gander N.L. Fire Department on September 11, 2001 when 38 jets landed at the airport, after the United States shut down its airspace, stranding passengers for up to five days.
“The population of Gander was about 10,000 and we had 8,000 drop in for a cup of tea,” he said, adding a touch of humour to an other worldly time in history that he will never forget.
Cole served as the air side ground transportation coordinator on the tarmac at the Gander airport during the 9/11 crisis.
“Basically, I was inside the fence, airside portion of the airport, and I coordinated all the buses,” he said.
His task was to coordinate and escort buses to each aircraft on the runway and get passengers into the terminal for customs and processing, and from there on, buses and minivans to places to sleep and eat.
Lessons learned that day will serve him well as a recently-hired emergency services advisor for Sherritt International Corporation, a world leader in the mining and refining of nickel from lateritic ores, with projects and operations in Canada, Cuba and Madagascar.
“One thing it does, is dealing with emergency operations with planning there (Gander) is that certain stuff that came up that the average person wouldn’t think about in disaster planning,” he said from Sherritt in Fort Saskatchewan where he works.
“So I always try to apply that to my job and the people that I am working with.”
At Sherritt, Cole is in charge of the emergency response team at the plant for training development, equipment and operations.
“If there is an emergency on scene, I will be there as an advisor to assist them,” said Cole, who previously worked as a safety lead for Tartan Canada Corporation in Lloydminster.
He was a deputy fire chief in Lloydminster from May 2011 to March 2013.
Before that he was a manager at Reliance Safety Supply & Service Ltd. in Lloyd.
He said every year 9/11 brings up old memories, and every year he takes a personal pause to reflect on what happened and what his team did in Gander, and how they overcame challenges.
At Sherritt, he said “I’d like to do something, probably have a moment of silence especially with our teams here to remember the firefighters that took the ultimate sacrifice.”
In the U.S., about 412 emergency workers were killed in 9/11.
Cole said his son, Joey, who is a junior member of the Britannia Fire Department, will also take a moment to reflect on Monday.
Cole recalls taking a quick two hour break from Gander on September 14 to rush home and celebrate Joey’s first birthday with a bite of cake.
“So he knows all about 9/11 and I told him what happened,” said Cole.
Cole was at home sleeping after a shift when planes hit the World Trade Centre and the tragedy unfolded.
His wife woke him up to watch the news on TV and within no time, jet planes starting landing in Gander, one after another in plain view from town.
That’s when he knew the Gander Fire Department would have a role to play as 9/11 triggered a typical personal 911 reaction.
“Pretty much like everyone around the world, I guess you could say I felt shock as to what was happening,” he said.
Firefighters convened at the airport’s Emergency Operations Centre at 7 p.m. on 9/11 and started coming up with plans to get passengers off the planes to all available accommodations in town.
“We didn’t know how long the airspace was going to be shut down in the States, so the passengers were left on the aircraft on the runways until the determination came that it’s going to be shut down for an extended period and we were going to start taking these people off,” explained Cole.
He said he took until 2 p.m. the following day to unload all of the wide bodied jets.
At some point, a decision was made to empty the Gander firehall and set up cots to accommodate passengers from the smallest Malaysian flight of about 80 passengers.
“We had a washroom there with showers and a kitchen,” said Cole.
‘The ladies auxiliary came in and started cooking and took care of them that way.”
He said when he got released from the airport, he was amazed by what else was happening around Gander that makes him proud to be a Newfoundlander.
He said the local Walmart set up tables out in front of their store with toiletries free for the taking and the provincial phone company outlet allowed visitors to come in and call anywhere in the world for free.
Cole said it is impossible to prepare for an emergency of that type with constantly changing circumstances to deal with.
“One of the biggest problems that we came into was the school bus company— the bus drivers were on strike,” said Cole, and they needed that transportation.
He said when the fire department went to the bus depot where drivers were picketing and told them what was going on and they needed their help, everyone dropped their pickets and pitched in.
“That was good on those guys; they put everything aside to help,” said Cole.
Cole said his role that day gave him a lot of experience in emergency management operations and dealing with EOCs, just adapting to stuff as it goes, along with valuable people skills as a first responder.
“It was more showing compassion for these people—just seeing their faces when they got off the aircraft and just finding out what’s going on; it was a total shock to these people,” said Cole who was born in Gander.
He said a lot of them didn’t even know where they were.
“They showed up at a place called Gander and they had no idea in the world where they were,” he said.