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Korean flight's hijack scare spooked Ottawa on morning of Sept. 11

The Langevin Block had 24 Sussex Drive on the line as Korean Air Lines flight 085 lurched menacingly toward Canada. Its pilots had mistakenly broadcast codes to indicate a hijacking that led NORAD to scramble jets.

Threats in the air could hardly be ignored, not when the World Trade Center towers in New York had just collapsed to the ground, not when dozens and dozens of ocean-crossing jets were being diverted from U.S. destinations to Canada.

The immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused moments of deep panic in Ottawa. They are mostly forgotten now, but not by those who got the bureaucracy into gear that day.

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Mel Cappe, as clerk of the Privy Council Office, was Canada's top civil servant at the time. He recalls being in his office in the Langevin Block on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with the military's No. 2 commander. They were discussing responses to the attacks when KAL-085 emerged as a potential crisis.

"There's a secure phone call with the prime minister to 24 Sussex. We're talking about this flight – what are we going to do about it," Mr. Cappe recalled.

CF-18s from the far north were sent scrambling. So were U.S. fighter jets, across Canadian air space. The hope was to escort the Anchorage-bound plane to Whitehorse, where Mounties stood waiting.

Complicating matters was the fact that dozens of other wide-body passenger jets were about to arrive on the East Coast. The fear was that terrorists might be lurking aboard these flights too.

"What are there, five border services people in Gander? Maybe?" Mr. Cappe said. "Are you going to let these people get off the planes without doing interviews? Keep all these people on the planes until someone makes a judgment they aren't terrorists?"

Mr. Cappe was frequently in contact with the prime minister that day, and led several key meetings. The first, in his boardroom, involved fewer than 10 people in the security bureaucracy. But they were key figures who would remain so for years to come – CSIS director Ward Elcock, deputy minister of defence Jim Judd, PCO security and intelligence co-ordinator Richard Fadden, RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, among others. Later, Mr. Cappe led more than 30 deputy ministers in discussions about Canada's reaction to the attacks.

The most crucial official that day was probably Margaret Bloodworth, then deputy transport minister. Dealing with what was happening in the skies fell largely on her shoulders.

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The first question was how to deal with all the diverted planes.

"We wanted these planes to be grounded before some of these people on these planes – including some of whom might be dangerous for all we knew – found out what was unfolding," Ms. Bloodworth recalled. "We just didn't know what was out there."

More than 6,600 passengers landed in tiny Gander, Nfld., 8,500 people in Vancouver, and still more in other communities. Meantime, Transport Canada planes flew border-guard reinforcements to the coasts so that the screening could begin. "People sat on these planes for a long time – but I never received a single complaint," Ms. Bloodworth said.

She recalled imposing a no-CNN rule around her that day. "I had TVs turned off. It was a human drama you easily got caught up in. We didn't have time," she said. (She got to bed late that night, and Mr. Cappe called her in the wee hours of the morning to tell her Gander needed more cots.)

KAL-085 turned out to be a false alarm. It landed peacefully in Whitehorse with no hijackers or terrorists aboard. A year later, prime minister Jean Chrétien told CBC he had been prepared to have NORAD shoot it down. "I said, 'Yes, if you think they are terrorists, you call me again but be ready to shoot them down.' So I authorized it in principle," he said.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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