Saskatoon first responders reflect on Sept. 11 terror attacks, 20 years later

The Sept. 11 terror attacks on U.S. soil were felt by first responders watching the events unfold on their television screens in Saskatoon.

Author of the article:

Thia James

Staff Sgt Grant Obst was a police officer on the Explosive Device Unit at the time of 9/11.
Staff Sgt Grant Obst was a police officer on the Explosive Device Unit at the time of 9/11. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Grant Obst recalls watching the World Trade Center’s North Tower burn.

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Obst, now a staff sergeant with the Saskatoon police, had walked from the old downtown police station to a restaurant with a big-screen TV after hearing rumblings about something happening in New York City.

When a plane struck the South Tower on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it became clear these were commercial airliners, not small private planes.

Obst, who worked full-time on the vice unit and part-time on the explosive disposal unit — the bomb squad — was called back to the station and told to get his equipment ready.

The unit was sent to Saskatoon’s John G. Diefenbaker Airport. North American airspace emptied after the Canadian and U.S. governments ordered flights grounded shortly after the first plane struck the North Tower.

With airspace closed, any incoming flight was potentially a rogue. Police set up a command post at the airport with the bomb squad.

“All aircraft became suspect. And there was no indication as to whether or not an aircraft would be landing in Saskatoon, but we didn’t know whether one was going to be or not,” Obst said.

The squad spent the day stationed there, reviewing possible scenarios.

“I don’t think I got home for supper that night,” Obst said.

Staff Sgt Grant Obst was a police officer on the Explosive Device Unit at the time of 9/11. Photo taken in Saskatoon on June 3, 2021.
Staff Sgt Grant Obst was a police officer on the Explosive Device Unit at the time of 9/11. Photo taken in Saskatoon on June 3, 2021. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

As they waited, they continued to watch the news.

The events of that day are now known as the 9/11 or Sept. 11 attacks.

Four commercial domestic U.S. flights were hijacked by 19 men all affiliated with the militant terrorist group al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. They had trained in Afghanistan prior to the attacks, then split into four groups to take over the planes and crash them into targets.

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Three planes did hit targets — the two towers in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. The fourth was crashed in a Pennsylvania field when the passengers on board Flight 93 fought back.

The coming days, weeks, months and years brought new information about the terror attacks and more fallout, such as the war in Afghanistan.

The attacks had ripple effects felt thousands of miles away in Saskatoon for first responders who had watched the events of that day unfold on their television screens.

Obst remembers seeing emergency vehicles on TV covered in debris and pieces of buildings. Those images still stick in his mind.

“Distance doesn’t really affect a sister and brotherhood. It’s there, it’s strong, it’s real. We certainly felt it that day and still do,” Obst said.

He recalls nearly, if not all, police went to the memorial held in Saskatoon with members of the Saskatoon Fire Department. Plainclothes officers put on their uniforms to march with firefighters.

He doesn’t recall the attacks having a dramatic effect on day-to-day duties, but he remembers when police toured the Canadian Light Source synchrotron because someone had mentioned that it could potentially be a target.

The tactical team and bomb squad did the tour to become familiar with the facility, he said.

“You can tell that it changed when you started looking at your own community, here in little old Saskatoon, (asking) ‘If somebody decided they would launch an attack on us, where would they hit?’ ”

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Hundreds of firefighters, police officers and paramedics gathered in Saskatoon one week after the attacks to remember the front-line workers killed on Sept. 11.

“They gave their best. Unfortunately the consequences were deadly,” Bill Hewitt, the fire chief at the time, was quoted as saying in the Sept. 19, 2001 StarPhoenix.

A tribute to emergency workers who died in the World Trade Center attack was held at Saskatoon City Hall on Sept. 18, 2001. Fire department members were among those paying tribute.
A tribute to emergency workers who died in the World Trade Center attack was held at Saskatoon City Hall on Sept. 18, 2001. Fire department members were among those paying tribute. StarPhoenix file photo
A tribute to emergency workers who died in the World Trade Center attack was held at City Hall on Sept. 18, 2001.
A tribute to emergency workers who died in the World Trade Center attack was held at City Hall on Sept. 18, 2001. StarPhoenix file photo

In addition to the first responders killed on the job on Sept. 11, many surviving front-line workers have developed respiratory illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety and cancers in the years since, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control. The buildings’ collapse unleashed debris and dust containing asbestos and other toxins.

In Saskatchewan, on the day of the attack, an association representing firefighters was trying to get the province on board with having cancers linked to their work covered by workers’ compensation.

Yorkton fire captain Brian Belitsky was part of the Saskatchewan Professional Firefighters Association (SPFFA) delegation that met with provincial Workers Compensation Board representatives in Regina. He and his son Clint drove from Yorkton to Regina for the meeting.

Belitsky, now retired after a 37-year career, remembers watching news coverage on the morning of Sept. 11.

He knew that firefighters in New York would be going into the buildings to help people and there’d be a lot of casualties.

His son, Clint, was preparing for fire college at the time.

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Belitsky said he vividly remembers driving to Regina, listening to updates about plane crashes in New York. At the time, he thought the planes were small, and having never been to New York, he didn’t realize how big the buildings were, he said.

Clint Belitsky, left, and his father Brian recall where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Clint was at the beginning his career, having just been accepted to firefighters’ college; Brian was captain of Yorkton’s fire department at the time. Photo taken in Saskatoon on Aug. 9, 2021.
Clint Belitsky, left, and his father Brian recall where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Clint was at the beginning his career, having just been accepted to firefighters’ college; Brian was captain of Yorkton’s fire department at the time. Photo taken in Saskatoon on Aug. 9, 2021. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

At the union meeting, father and son watched news coverage and realized the magnitude of what had happened. Brian went into the meeting with the other union members, while Clint remained alone in front of the TV. He was supposed to meet with his sister for lunch, but continued to watch the news, trying to grasp what he was seeing, he said.

“I pretty vividly remember it.”

The attacks were referenced often at fire college weeks later, and when Clint was hired in Saskatoon, he joined the occupational health and safety committee and the union executive, where he stressed the importance of safety.

Clint is now a senior firefighter, a 20-year veteran, and a representative of the IAFF union Local 80 in Saskatoon.

Brian noted it was a few years after exposure to chemicals and debris on Sept. 11 that firefighters began to develop cancers. In Saskatchewan, getting coverage took a few more years of lobbying the government.

Firefighters now wear masks to every call, cleaning trucks and their gear before getting into the truck to avoid contaminating the seats, Clint says.

“I learned right away how important it is from the older executive members — that’s what we’re fighting for, is to get this kind of coverage for firefighters before us who weren’t wearing masks, and even us now that we’re wearing our gear (it) still off-gases for hours after.”

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Current Fire Chief Morgan Hackl had been a firefighter for 14 years on Sept. 11, 2001. He was at home after a night shift, taking care of his three young children.

He vividly remembers watching news coverage and thinking about his colleagues and incidents involving flashovers or other close calls, he said.

Since the attack in New York involved two high-rise buildings, the Saskatoon fire department reviewed its procedure for responding to incidents in high-rise buildings and updated its practices, he said.

“For me, I just make sure I start the day (Sept. 11) reflecting on my career as a firefighter, how rewarding it has been but how important it is to keep safety front of mind. Especially in my position today, it’s my first priority that our staff stay safe, whether it’s responding to a fire, a motor vehicle collision, a medical call, whatever it may be, that we just need to always think in that way.”

tjames@postmedia.com

Cover of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix from Sept. 12, 2001.
Cover of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix from Sept. 12, 2001. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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