LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- Twenty years ago, Rosemary Vassiliadis, then deputy director of aviation at McCarran International Airport, thought when a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, it was possibly an accident and maybe a small plane.
It didn’t take long for her to realize the true gravity of what was happening when a second plane hit, then one hit the Pentagon and one commercial jet crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
“Our industry was used as a weapon and that was very, very hard to accept and not just get really angry over,” Vassiliadis said.
But Vassiliadis, now director of aviation, said there was no time to be angry. She said the airport had to act when the decision was made to close U.S. airports and airspace.
“It was hard to imagine, because the airspace has never closed before, ever,” she said.
Many key decisions were left up to Vassiliadis that day because the number one person in charge and other managers were out of the country for an aviation conference.
Vassiliadis said staff worked incredibly hard to first help get all of the people out of the airport.
“Unique Las Vegas, we had 90,000 to 100,000 rooms full of people that would need to go home. So, what are they going to do? Most of them are going to come to the airport,” she said.
She said the Las Vegas airport worked with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to get word to tourists they couldn’t come to the airport. The director said about 10,000 people were in the airport at the time when staff had to clear it and lock the doors.
“It was so eerie,” she said.
Vassiliadis said staff then did a sweep of the airport to make sure there were no explosives inside.
“We had to check every garbage can. We had to check every corner. We had to walk every corner,” Vassiliadis said.
She said staff even checked the racks of airport clothing stores to make sure nothing was hidden. Vassiliadis commended the airport staff for what they did.
Some refused to leave the airport and go home because there was so much work to do. Vassiliadis said people slept on couches and in offices for a couple days. She also credits her staff for their efforts which led to McCarran being the first airport to get certified to reopen.
“Of the whole ordeal the toughest part for me was when we had visitors from New York coming in," she said. “It just broke my heart just to see so many in total disbelief and watching TV for three days.”
Vassiliadis said when it came time to get the first planes up in the air, some passengers got priority.
"I don’t know if I should tell this story but probably, I bent the rules and I went to the airlines and said New York flights first. I mean, they have to go home. They just needed to go home and see what was happening,” she said.
Vassiliadis has a picture in her office that was taken by a staff member two days after the attacks. The sunset picture of the desert sky is something she cherishes.
“To let us know everything was going to be okay. And it is. We came out stronger. We’re okay,” Vassiliadis said.