SEPTEMBER 11 WAS JUST ANOTHER WORKDAY for Corporal Mike Murphy. At 8:45 in the morning, he was teetering in his chair with his feet on his desk and a mug of coffee in his hand. The tall, dark, powerfully-built Corporal was reading the newspaper, passing the time until his real work got underway. His office was located in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Technical and Protective Operations Facility on St. Joseph Boulevard in Orleans. This was where the Force’s Protective Operations Branch was housed. Although Mike was already dressed in his uniform, he didn’t have to go downtown to take his shift on Parliament Hill until 10 o’clock. His job there working in the Parliament Hill Security Unit was pretty boring. All it usually entailed was sitting in the squad car for hours on end, waiting for something to happen. His only respite was an occasional break at the nearby Tim Horton’s.
It hadn’t been the same since he’d been reassigned to protective policing of the Parliamentary precinct. His previous assignment on the Combined Special Enforcement Unit in Cornwall had involved a lot more action. It had been a real adrenal high trying to stop Mohawk warriors at the nearby Akwasasne Reserve from smuggling cigarettes across the border. While he wasn’t there when the Indians shot down a New York State Police helicopter with a 30.06 rifle, he did get to participate in a couple of hair-raising speedboat chases on the St. Lawrence River. That was real action, he thought, perfect for a beautiful sunny day like today. Oh well, he yawned, politely covering his mouth with his hand, I’ve learned over my fifteen years as a Mountie that the RCMP is like the military. You do the job they tell you to do; you take the bad with the good; and most of all, if you want to get ahead, you keep your mouth shut. Speaking about truth in advertising, imagine putting that on the Mountie crest, he thought.
A piercingly loud yell came from down the hall in the conference room startling him so much he almost toppled over out of his chair. “Oh, my God! A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.” It was Lise, the group’s Secretary, who was preparing the room for a meeting and had turned on the TV to check and make sure it still worked.
What the hell! Mike thought as he joined the mob rushing down the hall towards the television to see what was going on.
Several constables, who were already there, coffee mugs in hand, waiting for the meeting to start, were staring at the television with their mouths agape. More streamed through the door shortly after Mike and joined the transfixed crowd. Bill Macdonald reached over and switched the channel from CBC Newsworld to CNN. He wanted to get the story direct from New York.
Paula Zahn’s pretty face, framed in a soon-to-be-famous blond, layered hair-cut, came on the screen. It was her first day on the job at CNN. She looked really flustered as she repeated the horrifying news. “Again, there is a report just in that a large plane has crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers, tearing a gaping hole in the building and setting it afire. Stand by for more details. We’ll let you know as soon as we can find out more.”
As Mike watched, feeling as if he had been kicked in the stomach, the full horror of the story unrolled in living colour. The camera crews that were quickly dispatched to lower Manhattan filled the small screen with terrifying images of flames and smoke pouring out of the south side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
A breathless eyewitness told one of the CNN reporters also on the scene, “I saw a passenger jet flying low down the center of Manhattan around 8:45 a.m. It then veered off left to fly directly into the south side of the North Tower.”
More breaking news came in. Paula Zahn reported, “The plane may have been American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston. It was on its way to Los Angeles. The FBI is investigating reports that it may have been hijacked.”
The video showed crowds of people standing in the streets below the towers looking up at the flames. Then all of a sudden, another plane came into the picture flying low against the clear blue sky on this most perfect of all mornings. A voice in the background could be heard saying, “Holy shit! Oh God! Holy shit!” as the plane crashed right into the other tower, and exploded in a giant ball of flames.
Paula Zahn’s alarmed voice reported what all, but the blind, could see, “A second commercial jet has crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre!”
“People are jumping out of the windows,” a hysterical woman on the street screamed at a CNN reporter. “You can see them jumping out of the windows, if you go by there, you can see them jumping out the windows right now!” The distraught woman had been traumatized by the gruesome sight of the falling bodies, which exploded like ripe tomatoes as they hit the pavement.
The assembled constables sat mesmerized before the TV. They did not move or speak for the endless minute that they watched the flames and devastation against the perfect blue backdrop. Suddenly, breaking the spell, Sargeant Major Bill Wilson, a tall, dark-haired imposing figure with a military moustache that gave him a British-regimental look, appeared at the door. “Come on,” he ordered. “We can’t sit on our asses all day watching TV. We’ve got lots of work to do. You don’t have to be a genius to see that all hell’s breaking loose. You can get the details from your radios. The guys at Headquarters are shitting their pants. There’s talk of coordinated attacks on all the major western nations. Our National Operations Centre has been put in full crisis mode with representatives attending from CSIS, other departments, and the U.S. Government as well. We’ve been ordered to get all our people up on the Hill right away to make sure at least nothing goes down there. We’re also putting extra constables at the residences of the Prime Minister and the Governor General. And we’ll be working with the Ottawa Police to step up the security on all the embassies. You all know what your regular jobs are, eh? Well, get to it, but take extra care. We may really be under attack this time.”
The assembled constables snapped out of their trances and sprang to action. Some still had to go put on their uniforms. Others like Mike were already dressed in their customary yellow-striped blue trousers and grey shirts and ties. Mike ran back to his office to get his hat and to put on his bullet proof vest. He also retrieved his Smith and Wesson model 5946 service pistol out of the locked drawer of his desk and snapped it in his holster. Getting a head start on the rest of the officers, who were still waiting for the elevator, he ran down two flights of stairs. Going out the back door, he emerged in the parking lot behind the building.
A whole line of police cruisers was waiting. While they were different models, they all had a zigzag, blue-white-yellow-red line running the length of the car. On their door was the distinctive RCMP crest with a buffalo head and the slogan “Maintiens le droit.” On their back panels was emblazoned the profile of a Mountie on a horse carrying a flag. Mike ran over to his car, number 264, a Chevrolet Impala and climbed in. He turned the key and it started right up. Putting the car in gear, he raced out through the gates and down the hill. At the bottom, he turned left onto St. Joseph.
After flipping on the radio, Mike pushed the button for 91.5 FM, boring old CBC, whose usually tedious news and public affairs programming was, for a change, exactly what he wanted to hear. As he speeded west towards the Queensway, he listened anxiously hoping to learn more about the attack on the Twin Towers. But he was disappointed to hear nothing new, except that the already announced Public Service Alliance of Canada strike had been called off. Well, at least that was good news. He wouldn’t have to deal with angry public servants picketing Parliament and making it difficult for people to come in and out of the Parliament Buildings on top of everything else that was happening. All the rest of the news he heard was just a rehash of what he knew already from CNN - lots of wild speculation about hijacking and terrorists, but nothing specific.
When Mike reached the end of Metcalfe Street and passed through the stone gates guarding Parliament Hill, it was 9:30. He stopped and rolled down his window to check in with Constable Jean-Pierre Turcotte who was stationed in his car facing out.
“Bonjour, Jean-Pierre,” Mike said. “I guess you know about the World Trade Center attacks, eh?”
“Oui,” said Jean-Pierre. “Je ne peux pas le croire.”
“I can’t believe it either,” said Mike. “The very thought of it makes me sick.”
“Oui, all those poor innocent people who were killed,” said Jean-Pierre.
“Anything goin’ on up here?” asked Mike.
“Non, rien,” said Jean-Pierre. “But since there are twice as many of us up here as normally, we have to assume our alternative emergency patrol stations.”
“Okay,” said Mike, “I’ll do that.”
Mike pulled over and stationed his car in a position over on the right of the rectangular drive in front of the Parliament Buildings. Looking through his front windshield, he checked out the Center Block. This is the Gothic Revival style building built out of Nepean sandstone that stands at the summit of Parliament Hill. It has housed Canada’s Parliament since its completion in the 1920s. Leaning out the window, Mike also glanced up to see the top of the Peace Tower where a giant Canadian flag was proudly flying 92 metres above the ground. It somehow reassured him to see that this architectural symbol of Canadian democracy still stood so solidly and securely. It also reminded him that it was his job to make sure it stayed that way.
Mike noticed that an eerie calm had descended. The usual crowd of tourists had not shown up, perhaps sensing that this was not the best day for sightseeing. That was good because the tours of the Parliament Buildings would have to be halted anyway. We can’t have hoards of tourists with their cameras and packsacks poking around everywhere if we’re really going to tighten up security, he thought.
While he sat there, Mike heard that the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States had shut down all air traffic across the United States for the first time in history. Then at 9:45 he learned that another commercial jet had crashed into the Pentagon, and that the White House was being evacuated. This really is war, he thought. The United States is under attack.
Around 10 o’clock, Mike pulled his car up in front of the East Block of the Parliament Buildings and assumed the next post of his rotation. There he heard on the radio that the South Tower had collapsed in a huge grey cloud of dust and debris. It had cascaded down the street like water from a burst dam, sending panicked pedestrians scurrying for cover. Day was being turned into night by the ever-expanding apocalyptic cloud. Oh, my God! he thought. How many people must be in that building? Nobody knew exactly, but a voice on the radio, trembling with fear for the worst, speculated that 50,000 people worked in the two towers and might have been killed.
Mike continued his rotation around the Hill, pulling up to the usual place right in front of the door to the Centre Block underneath the Peace Tower. Meanwhile the magnitude of the tragedy continued to escalate. At 10:10, he learned that a fourth hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 flying from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco, had crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. At 10:30, he heard that the North Tower had also tumbled to earth. All international flights en route to the United States were being redirected to Canada. New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani had ordered the evacuation of Manhattan south of Canal Street.
It was getting pretty hard for Mike to stay focused on his job of providing security for the peaceful Parliamentary precinct when he could hear on his radio the whole damn world spinning out of control. Then a call came over his radio. It was from one of the parking attendants. He had found a suspicious-looking van illegally parked in one of the Senate’s reserved parking spaces. It had some bags in the back with what looked like airline tags on them. The parking attendant was worried that there might be a bomb in one of them.
“I’ll take it,” Mike told the other constables over the radio, glad to have something concrete to do at last. Immediately he keyed a brief incident report into the laptop computer secured on the armrest. Then he backed up and drove over behind the East Block.
The battered white mini-van definitely had no business being parked here, Mike thought as he approached it. Who would be so stupid to park it up on the Hill on this day of all days? He keyed the license plate into the computer and got his answer. It was Mr. Constantine Salakopolis of 37 Oak Crescent in Toronto. Hmm! I’ll get the office to follow up on this and see what more I can discover, he thought, as he sent off a quick e-mail requesting action. I’d better get out and investigate.
Mike walked cautiously over to the van and peered in. He could see four big bags in the back seat with airline tags. They did look pretty suspicious. Of course, it could be nothing at all, but he was taking no chances. He called the Ottawa Police and informed them of the situation. They said they would send a bomb squad right over and order Wellington Street and Confederation Square cordoned off immediately.
Mike and the parking attendant waited for about ten minutes for the bomb squad to arrive. While they waited, they could see police constables with yellow plastic tape already at work in Confederation Square.
When the bomb squad pulled up, two of the officers unloaded a robot that looked a little like R2D2, only bigger and less friendly. Another officer then used a remote control to send the robot over to the van to take pictures of the contents, which were then transmitted back to the screen on the control console.
“Looks like it could be pretty big to me,” he said. “If those bags are all filled with C4, they could blow half the East Block down and maybe even take the side off the Chateau Laurier all the way over on the other side of the canal.”
“What are you saying?” asked Mike with alarm.
“I’m saying we’d better get everyone the fuck out of those buildings.” he replied.
“The whole Chateau Laurier?” Mike asked incredulously.
“Well, maybe only its west side.”
“What about the Centre Block?” asked Mike.
“Oh, it should be protected by the East Block.”
“Are you sure we’ve cordoned off enough?” asked Mike.
“No, we should probably extend it all the way from the Supreme Court on the west to the National Gallery over on Sussex. But we can’t block off the whole damn town, eh?”
“Okay, you’re the expert. Do what you have to do,” replied Mike.
The head of the bomb squad got on the radio and gave the instructions for the evacuations and additional closures to Ottawa Police Headquarters, which in turn relayed them to the scores of officers now standing by in a high state of readiness.
Then the head of the bomb squad returned to his manipulation of the robot to try to figure out what was really inside the van. After an hour of inconclusive viewing, four people who had ignored the yellow tape came strolling up. One stepped forward - a middle-aged man wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap.
“What are you doing to my van?” the man asked anxiously, seeing the robot positioned against the back window with everyone looking on from a distance.
“That’s your van, eh?” Mike asked.
“Sure is,” the man replied.
“And who the hell may I ask are you?”
“I’m Costa Salakopolis.”
“What, in God’s name, may I ask, is your van doing there?” said Mike.
“It’s parked,” the owner replied.
“It’s what?” asked Mike.
“Yeah, parked, we left it there so we could go eat,” answered the man.
“Eat? Don’t you know what’s going on today?” asked Mike.
“Well, yeah, we know some planes crashed into a couple of buildings in New York, but that’s a long way away,” he said.
Mike turned to the head of the bomb squad and shrugged. Then he turned back to the man. “What’s in those bags in the back of your van?”
“Oh, they contain the belongings of my cousin and his wife. They’ve come over from Greece for a visit. We just picked them up at the airport before coming downtown,” said the man.
“What do we do now?” Mike asked the head of the bomb squad.
“Let’s get the dogs to sniff the bags. That will give us some additional comfort that there aren’t really any explosives in them,” he said.
“Okay,” said Mike. Turning to Mr. Salakopolis, he said, “Give me your keys.”
Mike then threw the keys to the head of the bomb squad and walked over and said something to the parking attendant. Following Mike’s instructions, the parking attendant soon presented the van’s owner with a ticket.
“Thirty-five dollars,” the man protested. “I could have parked in a lot for ten.”
“Exactly, that’s what you should have done,” said Mike, breathing deeply and counting to ten, trying to control his temper as he’d been taught to do. Seeing the head of the bomb squad signal the all clear after the dog had finished nosing the bags, Mike turned back to the man and said, “Now get out of here, before we decide to take your car apart piece by piece just to make sure there aren’t any hidden bombs we may have missed.”
“Okay, Constable, okay, we’re going,” the man said, becoming more compliant. He went over to his wife and friends and herded them quickly into the van and drove off.
The rest of Mike’s day on Parliament Hill passed without a hitch. Elsewhere in town, there was a bomb threat at the World Exchange Plaza, which also fortunately turned out to be a false alarm. The new U.S. Embassy Building on Sussex Drive, which was believed to be the town’s prime target, was closed down and its staff evacuated as a precautionary measure. The shops on the other side of the street from the Embassy were also closed, but that didn’t matter much as all the customers were already prudently avoiding the area anyway.
At the end of the day, he returned to his office in Orleans all wiped out. His newspaper and coffee mug were still there sitting in the same spot on his desk where he had left them when Lise’s shout heralding the attacks had ended what had been a beautiful day. Now a strange feeling came over him that everything that had happened that day had just been a horrendous nightmare. Then reality intruded again in his consciousness and he knew that everything had indeed actually happened. He wished he could start the day over and erase everything, but he knew he couldn’t.
Mike then went down to the locker room and changed back into his civvies and swapped stories with the other constables who were straddling in. He learned from them about the chaos that had ensued at the airport when U.S.-bound flights were diverted to Ottawa and domestic flights grounded. He was glad to hear that there were no major incidents at any of the embassies. The other constables were curious to hear about the bomb scare on Parliament Hill. Apparently, it was the most exciting thing that had happened in Ottawa all day.1
That night when Mike turned his silver Pontiac Grand Prix into his laneway and pulled into the garage of his ranch-style home on Denison Crescent, he was physically and emotionally drained. This was not because of anything he had actually done, but because of the stress induced by everything that had happened. He entered the house through the kitchen door in the back of the garage.
“Linda, I’m home!” he shouted.
The family’s black Labrador retriever Trudeau came running up with her tail wagging furiously and jumped up to welcome him.
Mike leaned over. “Good girl, good girl,” he said, hugging the dog more tightly than usual.
His pretty, strawberry-blond wife Linda came running in from the other room wearing a powder-blue track suit and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh Mike, I’m so glad you’re home,” she said. “Poor boy, your day must have been just terrible.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe what happened in New York. It was really tense up on the Hill all day. We were on ultra-high alert. I’m sure glad to come home to see you and the kids and relax.”
Mike and Linda walked into the recreation room together holding hands and sat down on the couch. Trudeau followed behind, furiously wagging her tail, still excited about Mike’s homecoming.
On the television in the corner, President George W. Bush was saying, “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts...Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.”
“You know I’ve been watching the TV steadily since I got home from my shift at the hospital at 4 o’clock,” she said, running her fingers through her hair and shifting on the couch. “Here it is past 8:30 and I still can’t turn it off. I can’t believe what happened in New York City today. It’s so horrible. Yet, at the same time, it’s brought out the best in so many people. That Mayor Giuliani is really something. He stepped right up and took command. We need some politicians like him in Canada. And the firefighters and rescue people have been so brave. I also can’t help thinking about the doctors and nurses who are working so hard to take care of all the victims in the hospitals. I’d like to go down there and help.”
“Wooah, you know you can’t do that. How would they get by without you at the Civic Hospital?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid you’re right,” she said. “Especially now after all the cutbacks, I can’t let everyone down.”
“Where are Ryan and Ellen?” he asked.
“Ellen’s up in her room studying and Ryan’s off at hockey practice.”
“Oh, yeah, how could I forget, it’s starting up again at 7 every Tuesday.”
“You want me to fix you something to eat? There’s still plenty of left-over pot roast from last night. We had some before Ryan went to practice.”
“Yes, please,” he said. Then he leaned back on the couch and held his head in his hands. It was beginning to throb.
“Would you like a Tylenol?” she asked sympathetically.
“That would really help,” he answered.
Linda went away briefly and came back with a couple of capsules and a glass of water. Mike took them and washed them down with the water. “Thanks, you’re an angel,” he said.
Just then on the TV came the image of thousands of ecstatic Palestinians filling the streets of East Jerusalem and chanting “Allahu Akbar” to celebrate the successful attack on America.
“Why do they hate America so much over there?” he asked.
“It’s not only over there. Ryan told me that he’d heard that some of the Muslim students at Pierre Elliot Trudeau High School also cheered when the World Trade Center attack was announced.”
“Oh, God, no! I hope it’s not true,” groaned Mike. “I can’t take any more of this,” he said reaching for the remote. “Do you mind if I turn off the TV?”
“No, go ahead, Honey. I’ve seen enough too,” she said. Then she got up and went into the kitchen.
In a few minutes, she returned with a heaping plate of pot roast with potatoes, carrots and onions, all covered in gravy, just the way Mike liked it. He was definitely a meat and potatoes man. After giving Mike the plate, she sat down again next to him on the couch. She pretended not to notice when he slipped Trudeau a small bite. Linda just sat quietly and watched him while he ate. She understood how he felt, and his need to have her close by.
When Mike finished eating, he put down the plate on the coffee table and put his arm around Linda. “We haven’t been going to church very often any more. Why don’t we go as a family this Sunday, like we used to do when the kids were young?”
“Okay, I’d like that. It would make me feel better too,” she said. “But we’ll have to ask Ryan and Ellen. We can’t force them to go like when they were little.”
“I’m sure you can persuade them.”
“Come on. Let’s go to bed. I know what you need more than church,” she said gently.
In a letter to the editor of The Ottawa Citizen published later in the week following the attacks, Eric Plamondon wrote:
On my bus ride home on Thursday, I heard a young man about 14 or 15 celebrating the act of terrorism against the United States. The brash youth, standing two people ahead of me on the packed bus, was openly saying he wanted to invite his friends over to his house for a party and to watch on TV the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre Tower. He stood there on the bus with his friends, wanting to be heard by everyone. Talking in a boisterous manner, talking about his “brothers” on the planes, while patting his chest hood-style with his right hand like they do in the movies. He said when he turns 18, he wants to go back to his homeland, train to be a terrorist, and come back to Ottawa and bomb it.2
It was the 22nd day of Jumada II in the year 1422 as September 11, 2001 was called in the Islamic calendar. In a one-bedroom, sparsely¬furnished apartment in a non-descript tower on Caldwell Avenue in the west end of Ottawa just on the other side of the Queensway from Mike’s comfortable suburban house, Khalil Omar Mohammed, a handsome and athletic, young, Arab, had already completed his Maghrib or evening prayers and had rolled up his prayer rug. Now he was back again glued to his TV, clutching the remote in his powerful hand as he had been most of the day. While he’d already watched the tape he had made of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers almost a hundred times, he rewound. Caught in a vicarious cycle of death and destruction, he pushed play again to relive the thrill of seeing the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
“Alhamdulillah!” [Praise be to Allah!] he whispered, and then after the second plane hit, “Allahu Akbar!”
While Khalil marveled at al-Qaeda’s success, he also felt a profound sense of regret.3 A month earlier back in August he had been ordered by his controller in Cairo to go to Newark right away to meet Saeed Alghamdi to prepare for an unspecified big operation in the United States. As soon as he could make the necessary arrangements, he had tried to drive down in his old beat-up Honda Civic, figuring that this would attract a lot less attention than flying. For the occasion, he had even shaved his beard and worn jeans and a sweatshirt and an Ottawa Senator’s hat to look like an ordinary Canadian.
In an hour and a half, Khalil had crossed the Ivy Lee Bridge at Thousand Islands west of Brockville and had pulled up to the border control north of Watertown on I-81. When the Customs inspector, a nosy, middle-age, black woman wearing glasses, had asked his nationality, he had said “Canadian” and tried to put her off by showing her a Canadian driver’s license. Suspicious of his Middle Eastern appearance and accent, she had challenged him for further proof of his nationality. At first Khalil had insisted that he was an Egyptian-Canadian from Ottawa. But when he was pushed harder, he had acted confused over the distinction between a landed immigrant and a citizen. The inspector had said that she was sorry, but that landed immigrants from Egypt required a visa to enter the United States and that the only way for him to get one was to go back to Ottawa and apply at the American Embassy. As he turned his car around, he had angrily muttered, “Abed,” the dual-purpose Arabic word for “black” and “slave.”
Khalil hadn’t wanted to turn back. But what else could he have done? If only he had been able to secure a fake Canadian passport, he thought. But since Ahmed Ressam had been caught trying to get across the border in Port Angeles with a trunk-load of explosives on the eve of the millennium, it has not been so easy. Khalil had asked a contact that specialized in providing false Canadian passports to get him one three months ago. While the contact had promised one, he still has not delivered. Khalil had thus missed out on the mission simply because of the man’s incompetence.
And now on this day of great victory Khalil realized that the single inspector had been all that had prevented him from becoming one of the glorious hijackers. And she was a woman and a black, he fumed. Allah’s curse be upon her. His disappointment was intensified by the years he had spent waiting and training for just such a moment. He couldn’t help thinking that with his participation, and Allah willing, the brave hijackers might have been able to take out the White House or the Capitol Building.
I must be patient though, Khalil consoled himself. If I bide my time, I will surely get another chance to achieve glorious martyrdom for the sake of Allah. I just hope it will come soon though because I don’t know how much longer I can put up with the drudgery of my life in this alien land.
1   This little dramatic episode was based on actual events reported in Carolyn Wheeler, Glen McGregor and Ken Gray, “Response Second Only to War Measures Act,” The Ottawa Citizen, September 12, 2001, p.S31.
2   Letter to the editor, The Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 15, 2001, p.A7.