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29 Planes And 1,300 Passengers: How The Chaos Of 9/11 Unfolded At Mid-Continent Airport

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Planes parked at Mid-Continent Airport after the FAA grounded all flights following the Sept. 11 attacks.

In Wichita, the chaos and confusion that unfolded on 9/11 was felt most acutely at Mid-Continent Airport.

Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Valerie Wise had just arrived at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport, where she worked as an administrative aide.

She didn’t know it yet, but in Wichita, the chaos and confusion that would unfold that day would be felt most acutely at Mid-Continent.

Less than an hour after the first tower at the World Trade Center was hit, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all planes in the air to land.

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Valerie Wise was an administrative assistant at Mid-Continent in 2001.

At Mid-Continent, 22 passenger airliners and seven cargo planes landed in less than 60 minutes.

“I heard people from the community were commenting about how they were watching all these planes circling, waiting to land,” said Wise, who is now the Air Service & Business Development manager at Eisenhower National Airport.

“I went over to the terminal building and went to the information desk to help out wherever I could. And the terminal was just teeming with passengers.”

More than 1,300 of them, suddenly stranded in a strange city with nowhere to go, caught up in a national tragedy.

Bob Knight was Wichita’s mayor in 2001. He said he had been to New York the week earlier for a conference, where Mayor Rudy Guiliani showed visitors the city’s new emergency communications center.

When Knight arrived at Mid-Continent, city and airport officials were scrambling to figure out how to house the unexpected visitors.

Knight got on the airport’s public address system.

“I made a couple announcements,” he recalled, “[that] the city of Wichita would do everything it could do to accommodate them under the circumstances. And they have our full attention.

“But, yeah, it was just a horrendous time.”

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Camp Hiawatha

Among the passengers were 123 Israelis aboard an El Al flight headed from New York to Los Angeles. Wise said they were initially hesitant to get off the plane because they were uncertain what was happening.

The city made arrangements to send them to Camp Hiawatha, a summer camp run by the Salvation Army near 53rd Street North and the Little Arkansas River.

Jami Scott is the director of Homeless Services for the Salvation Army. She was part of the group that helped get the bunkhouses and dining hall ready for the Israeli passengers.

“We felt that we were doing something, even though we weren't like at ground zero, we were doing something to help our community, our world,” Scott said.

The Salvation Army enlisted the help of local synagogues and the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation. Scott said the passengers shared stories about life in Israel, and she taught them about Wichita and Kansas.

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Jami Scott was part of a group that got Camp Hiawatha ready to house 123 Israeli travelers stranded in Wichita on 9/11.

“I don't want to say it was a good time, but it was a time where people came together and did what needed to happen to make sure people were safe,” Scott said. “But we were still able to share … our cultures with each other.

“I think what that taught me was that in the middle of chaos and fear, people will come together and people will figure it out and that you can still be kind in the middle of all that.”

By Tuesday afternoon, all of the passengers were taken care of, many of them driven to hotels on city buses. Security crews had completed sweeps of the terminal and runways and had set up new procedures for screening passengers.

But for the next 48 hours, before the FAA allowed airlines to begin flying again, Wise said Mid-Continent was strangely silent.

“Wednesday was like a ghost town,” she said. “The airfield was so eerily quiet. It was just like a desert with aircraft sitting there.”

Travel resumed the next day, and the passengers stranded in Wichita were allowed to continue their trips.

Twenty years later, Wise said she still recalls how she felt after she left work the evening of Sept. 11.

“I remember going home at night after the crazy day. I didn't have a chance to watch the news to see what was happening,” she said.

“It wasn't until I got home that night, exhausted, and just cried, you know?”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.