HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Almost anyone old enough to remember one of the darkest days in American history knows where they were on 9/11. But aside from those affected in more tragic ways, few remember the day quite like Scott Miller, who’s about to mark 20 years as the airport’s spokesman.
Few people, in turn, know their work anniversary quite as well as Miller. Why? “My first day of work was 9/10,” Miller recalled, reflecting on the day as the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches. Yes, that 9/10. Sept. 10, 2001.
The next morning, Miller didn’t even yet have an identification badge. “At about nine o’clock, the phone rings from a news anchor saying, ‘Hey: question for you: Are your flights to New York canceled?’ I said, ‘I have no idea. Why?”
There were, after all, no smartphones or alerts or — at Harrisburg’s old airport terminal — even a TV.
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The anchor told Miller the news everyone was learning.
“So I get on the dial-up internet at the time,” Miller said. “Couldn’t get on anywhere because everything was jammed up. And a few minutes later, my boss walks in and says, ‘Hey, come with me. We’ve got a situation.'”
Before long, the terminal was as empty as the skies above, after the FAA closed down America’s skies. Miller walked outside.
“It’s a ghost town. There’s two of us standing there. All of a sudden we see some people driving up in a Ryder truck,” Miller recalled. “This wasn’t too long after Oklahoma City,” where 168 people died in a terrorist attack carried out using explosives in a rented Ryder truck.
“And we’re like, ‘Uh, what’s going on?'” Miller continued. “These business guys in suits said, ‘Where can we return this Ryder truck? It’s the only vehicle we could find in Pittsburgh. All the flights were canceled, and there were no rental cars available. It was the only way we could get back to Harrisburg.'”
One false alarm among many. When the skies re-opened later that week, people everywhere were just as jittery.
“We got a lot of calls saying, ‘There’s a low-flying airplane. There’s this. there’s that,'” Miller said. “Airplanes with normal schedules and normal flight paths were now being noticed because, ‘What is that?'”
Miller’s career is thus inextricably linked to 9/11, unlike few others. And the physical form of Harrisburg International Airport (HIA), as it exists today, was literally shaped by 9/11, unlike almost any other airport before it. Miller said the airport authority had been planning to modernize the old terminal but — soon realizing the new security requirements that would emerge — scrapped the renovation plans in favor of an all-new terminal, among the first that would be built for a post-9/11 environment rather than retrofitted for it.
For example, before 9/11, most checked bags (as opposed to carry-on bags) weren’t screened by x-ray equipment before being loaded onto airplanes. So infrastructure didn’t exist to screen the bags after agents placed them on belts behind ticket counters, and at some airports — including Reagan National near Washington, D.C., whose 1990s-era terminal is newer than many — passengers 20 years after 9/11 still have to drag their checked bags from ticket counters, after receiving the bag tags, around to TSA security personnel before dragging their carry-on bags and kids to a TSA passenger screening checkpoint.
Not so at HIA, which has among the first terminals built from the start with what’s called “inline” equipment. “If it weren’t for 9/11, we wouldn’t be in this facility,” Miller said.
Jon Inners, now retired from his state job with the Pennsylvania’s geologic survey in Harrisburg, was in the airport’s baggage claim area recently, reflecting on 9/11. In his case, it featured an adventure not with air travel, but on public transportation.
“I ended up in the middle of Camp Hill, and I usually get a bus that takes me within a block or two of my house,” Inners said. And how does he view airport security today, compared to before 9/11?
“Oh, much better,” he said. “I don’t have any fears of flying.”