Vancouver Island man played key role at Norad defence centre amid Sept. 11 turmoil

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mike Jellinek expected an average day at work, but like most of the world, he spent his day glued to a screen, watching the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.

Jellinek monitored the events in a control room at the North American Aerospace Defence Command Centre (Norad), veritable fortress inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colo.

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Few might know that the North Saanich navy captain played a key role in the defence response to 9/11.

It was a fluke that a Canadian was the command director on duty that morning. Four out of five shifts that week were manned by Americans. Jellinek was about a year into his three-year term at Norad after retiring from the navy.

“We were just doing our jobs,” said Jellinek, 63. In 2003, Jellinek was awarded the meritorious service medal by the governor general for his work initiating the response to the attacks.

He arrived early for a 5:30 a.m. briefing on the day’s events: Russian bomber training in the Arctic and a fully manned Norad exercise — which came in handy later.

Then the command centre got a call, alerting them the U.S. national transport agency was tracking a hijacked plane.

“Before 9/11, the old-fashioned procedure was to get on an aircraft’s tail and watch it, then see what the hijackers wanted,” Jellinek said. The military became involved by request.

Command centre crew were watching CNN live video of smoke coming from the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York, wondering what was happening. Then they saw the second plane hit, he said.

In a very short time, four planes had been hijacked, one crashed into the Pentagon and another was in the air.

In the frantic hours that followed, Canadians and Americans worked together swiftly. Jellinek played a key role in two major decisions: all U.S. air traffic was shut down within the hour, and international flights were quickly diverted to Canadian towns and cities.

“It was a gutsy decision for Canada to say ‘Send them our way,’ ” Jellinek said. Canadians took stranded passengers into their homes. “In Gander [Newfoundland], they made lifelong friendships.”

Jellinek said the attacks took everyone by surprise and there was an instant scramble to scrutinize every previous threat.

“Security levels went through the roof,” he said.

The mountain went into lockdown and on generator power.

By the end of the day, Norad had nearly 200 armed planes in the air.

He describes walking out of the tunnel with his crew after their 12-hour shift as absolutely bizarre. The highway was a desert and the only sound was one fighter jet in the sky.

The next day heralded major changes at the command centre and across the country. Rules of engagement were re-drawn, a domestic transport representative was brought in-house and the U.S. began working with Canada on new security strategies.

Jellinek credits his team for their work that day, “Everyone was professional, calm and went well-beyond what they’d trained for.”

He said 9/11 changed North Americans’ view of their own safety: “It’s a nasty world out there and not everyone respects western values.”

After leaving Norad, Jellinek and his wife returned to Greater Victoria, where he served as deputy commander of the Canadian Fleet Pacific in Esquimalt. He now volunteers his time as a mentor at the naval base and with the Rotary Club in Sidney.

Since 9/11, he sends more Christmas cards to family and friends, and when the anniversary rolls around he thinks of his crew and how “by pure accident, you can end up part of some form of history.”

Jellinek said visiting New York and the World Trade Centre memorial is on his bucket list.

“But I’d really like to go to where Flight 93 landed,” he said. Flight 93 passengers overtook the hijackers to avert another attack. The plane crashed in a rural Pennsylvania field killing everyone on board but missing its target of Washington, D.C.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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