‘It was a nightmare’: A trucker’s cross-border hazmat run on 9/11

Trucks drive on the Ambassador Bridge, between Detroit and Windsor, at the U.S.-Canada border, which closed on Sept. 11, 2001.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Canadian trucker Robert Mitchell picked up a load in Toronto bound for Laredo, Texas. Mitchell, a company driver for C.A.T., expected a routine run to the U.S., though he didn’t haul hazardous material often. His trailer was loaded with steel drums filled with paint thinner, ultimately destined for an auto plant in Mexico.

Mitchell, now 70, didn’t follow the news much back then. He generally listened to CDs in his rig. But when he made a quick stop to join his wife for breakfast in Toronto, he gathered that there had been a bombing of some kind at the World Trade Center in New York. 

Even then, Mitchell had no inkling that the unfolding terrorist attacks might affect his run to Laredo, let alone radically change the way trucks cross the U.S.-Canada border. So he wrapped up breakfast and headed on Highway 401 to enter the U.S. via the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit.

“It never even dawned on me what was fully going on,” Mitchell recalled. 

As he made his way toward Windsor, a message from his carrier appeared on his truck’s satellite message system: Expect problems at the border. Still, Mitchell pressed on, assured that all his paperwork was in order. But he wasn’t able to get anywhere near the border. At 10:05 that morning, the U.S. border was effectively sealed. Trucks backed up for miles.

“It was a nightmare,” he said.

He decided to take back roads to reach a Husky truck stop. When he parked, he didn’t anticipate he’d be there for two days.

A duty to get his load to Laredo

At the Husky, tempers flared as truckers vented their anger at the terrorists who brought down the twin towers, attacked the Pentagon and crashed a plane in Pennsylvania. Mitchell’s wife, meanwhile, kept him updated with regular phone calls. For Mitchell, the extent of the devastation finally hit when he saw footage of the second tower collapsing. 

“When it came down, it was like, ‘Holy crap!’” Mitchell said.

Still, he was resolved to get his load to Laredo.

“I don’t know why I had this feeling that I had a duty to the company I was working for, but they were good to me,” Mitchell said.

After hearing that trucks were trickling across the border, Mitchell decided to make his move. It took him 12 hours to reach the border from the truck stop — something that would normally take a few minutes. He and thousands of truckers waited. Employees from local businesses walked around passing out water, ice and sandwiches. 

‘It was as if they thought I had a bomb’

When Mitchell finally reached the U.S. border, it had been radically transformed with tents and communications poles, and fortified with soldiers and armored vehicles. 

“It was like entering an army base,” he said.

Mitchell was ordered out of his truck while officers and dogs inspected the truck inside and out, including under his hood and in his bunk. He faced plenty of questions about his flammable cargo.” 

“It was as if they thought I had a bomb,” he said.

At long last, Mitchell got through without incident. But other drivers had a harder time, he said. 

“A lot of them were just turned around at the border: If they were not a true Canadian citizen or if they weren’t white — I’ll just be blunt about that.”

“I even had colleagues, Quebecers, who didn’t get through just because they didn’t speak English well enough,” he added.

An era of friendly border encounters comes to an end

Mitchell, like other cross-border drivers, would adjust to the post-9/11 norm. Whereas getting through had previously often required just a quick showing of his driver’s license, he’d soon have to bring a passport on his U.S. runs and face longer wait times and more questioning.

The arrival of the FAST card, launched in 2002, allowed truckers to clear the border more rapidly, and Mitchell continued doing cross-border runs for years with C.A.T. and then Hyndman Transport until it shut down as part of Celadon Group’s bankruptcy in 2019. He now stays within Canada, working for a carrier serving the agriculture sector. He doesn’t miss the border crossings.

Before 9/11, Mitchell often looked forward to his encounters with U.S. border officers. He’d become friendly with some of them over the years. Those crossings were opportunities to catch up and talk about their families.

All of that changed after 9/11.

“We went from, ‘Hey how are you today? How’s the wife? How’s the kids? Hey, are the Lions going to make it this year?’” he said. “That was the end of that.”

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