On a Tuesday morning 20 years ago, I began what was shaping up to be another ho-hum workday. It turned out to be anything but.
It started out at Yeager Airport’s general aviation area, where I was scheduled to interview the crew of an aircraft hired by the state to drop thousands of bait packets treated with a rabies vaccine over a wide swath of rural West Virginia.
The baits were designed to be eaten by raccoons, skunks and other woodland species known to carry and spread rabies, which had caused nearly 150 known wildlife deaths in the state that year and was beginning to take a toll on domesticated animals.
Shortly before arriving at the airport, I heard an airplane struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. I initially assumed it was a case of extreme pilot error involving a small, private aircraft.
I soon learned differently.
The Canadian pilot of the bait-laden de Havilland Twin Otter bush plane, chartered from the Province of Ontario, said he had been ordered to end the day’s first bait-bombing run prematurely and land immediately after it was learned the second tower had been struck by a passenger jet.
As we spoke, a Learjet 25 made a steep descent, landed and taxied to a halt nearby.
After disembarking, the pilot said he had been flying at 39,000 feet, en route to Los Angeles following a planned fuel stop in Kansas, not long after taking off from Norfolk, Virginia, with two passengers and a co-pilot on board.
“We were directly above here when we got word to pick some place to land and get on the ground immediately,” or risk getting shot down, he said. “We’ve been told our flight’s on indefinite hold.”
About an hour after the Federal Aviation Administration issued the national no-fly order, I learned State Police had begun receiving numerous calls from the Elkins area, where a large, white, four-engine jet resembling a Boeing 747 was seen circling the countryside at a relatively low altitude.
Since the intentions of those flying the mysterious jet were unknown, emergency officials advised that classes be canceled at nearby schools.
After spending another two hours trying to get answers about the presence of the orbiting mystery jet from the FAA and military sources, State Police were informed the aircraft “had an official purpose” and did not pose a threat. The aircraft’s purpose and mission were never explained in more detail, and I’m told the white jet’s presence over Randolph County that day has remained a source of speculation in the Elkins area.
On Friday, while scanning an official executive branch timeline on the events of 9/11, I learned three E-4B aircraft — the civilian version of the Boeing 747 — were airborne early on 9/11 to take part in Global Guardian, an annual Air Force-U.S. Strategic Command training exercise.
The large, white, mostly unmarked aircraft, equipped to serve as mobile command centers and operated by the Air Force, were ordered to break off participation in the drill when news of the terrorist attacks broke.
But apparently the E-4Bs were not immediately cleared to land at air bases in the Washington, D.C., area after the Pentagon was struck and were seen circling above the nation’s capital and over the Richmond, Virginia, area following the attack.
Could the Elkins area have been another site for an E-4B holding pattern?
As horrific as the terrorist attacks were, 9/11 was followed by a wave of national unity, compassion and resolve in the weeks and months that followed.
Before the attacks, Red Cross officials had expected about 25 people to turn out for a blood drive they scheduled the following day in St. Albans. Instead, hundreds of people crowded into First Presbyterian church and waited their turns to donate, many for the first time, to help the 9/11 injured.
American flags began appearing on porches and windows where they were never previously displayed.
People put aside political differences and supported the nation’s institutions and leaders.
President George W. Bush and then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared calm, competent, reassuring — even empathetic.
It took less than a year for that sense of unity to dissolve.
Here’s hoping it won’t take another 9/11 to get it back.