When the World Trade Centre fell on 9/11, private aircraft across the US were grounded – apart from one.
In the immediate fallout of the September 11 attacks, US and Canadian airspace was closed by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), with the exception of military, police and essential medical flights. It was the first unplanned closure in the US, coming after temporary exercises in the 1960s.
Domestic planes already in the air were diverted to the nearest airport, while non-military flights needed specific approval from the US Air Force and FAA. A small handful of aircraft were approved, such as Civil Air Patrol’s aerial photography unit, but only one private plane was allowed to fly.
Shortly after the attacks in New York and Washington, snake handler Lawrence Van Sertima was bitten by a Taipan snake, his first serpent bite after 40 years of experience. Unfortunately, this was one of the most deadly snakes in the world, so when he was bitten in the thumb, he immediately became alarmed.
As per Broken Secrets, he had to travel to Miami’s Baptist Hospital by ambulance due to medical helicopters being grounded, which took around 40 minutes. Within a matter of hours, he was already in critical condition, with blood coming from his eyes and mouth and his organs under threat from the snake’s venom.
Fortunately, Miami-Dade’s Fire Rescue had a snake bite unit with five vials of a polyvalent antivenin, capable of fighting off different snake bites. It kept some of the symptoms at bay, but Van Sertima knew what he needed: monovalent antivenin, a serum made from the snake’s venom which would be essential in saving his life.
Timing wasn’t on his side, with only New York and San Diego storing the antivenin and no way of getting there in time without travelling by air.
Considering the chaos in New York, it was an absolute no-go. Van Sertima and the snake bite unit got in touch with San Diego, and mercifully, the FAA approved a flight escorted by two fighter jets. After a quick flight across the country, the antivenin was soon administered and he made a full recovery. He only learned about 9/11 afterwards.
Normal civilian air traffic didn’t resume until two days after the attacks, with security checks massively strengthened and new regulations introduced (cockpit doors were also reinforced over the next month). Planes left stranded were first to fly, before limited service across the US resumed. It took several days to clear the backlog of delayed passengers.
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