How I Learned That Toronto Is Not Montreal

Mar 31, 2018

I worked for newspapers, principally the Cincinnati Enquirer, for 38 years.

And, during that time, I was sent by those newspapers to cities all over the North America dozens of times.

But only once did my editors send me to the wrong city. It's a tale worth telling.

This tale stems from a news story which was one of the most tragic I've ever had to cover – the Air Canada disaster of June 1983.

An Air Canada DC-9, flying from Dallas/Fort Worth to Toronto, had a fire onboard that filled the cabin with toxic fumes. An emergency landing was made at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Ninety seconds after it touched down, the plane burst into flames. Twenty-three passengers lost their lives.

It happened late in the afternoon of Thursday, June 2 and I ended up working nearly around the clock for the next four days. I'd only been with the Enquirer for eight months, but they had discovered I had some deadline and re-write skills, which were much needed at that point.

Monday, though, was going to be my off day.

Until the phone rang Monday morning at home.

It was an assistant city editor at the Enquirer.

Pack an overnight bag, he said, breathlessly. Come down here to office. We've got airline tickets for you. You're going to Toronto! In like three hours! Move!

I dared to ask why I was going to Toronto and was told that on Tuesday morning, the flight crew of Air Canada Flight 797 – all of whom had survived – were holding a press conference. I would be there.

I did as I was told, packed a change of clothes (I was told I would be coming back on the same day) and high-tailed it to the Enquirer, which in those days, was at 617 Vine Street.

I was swarmed by editors. One had a wad of cash for me. The other had airline tickets – first to Detroit and then a change of planes to Toronto. Another made sure I had a company phone card – no cell phones in those days, the phone cards made it easier to communicate.

Soon, I was on my way to CVG. Caught the flight to Detroit.

I had about an hour and a half before the flight to Toronto. I sat around drinking coffee and going over my file on Air Canada flight 797.

Finally, it was time to board for Toronto. The Enquirer editors had made a reservation for me at an airport hotel, a Holiday Inn, if I remember correctly.

All I knew was what they had told me at the Enquirer: there would be a press conference at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Even before I went up to my hotel room, I found a pay phone and called the one person I knew in Toronto – Don Dutton, an extraordinarily good photojournalist for the Toronto Star and a very nice guy.

Don and I had struck up a friend over the weekend while he was in Cincinnati. I helped him sort out the local end of the story; he helped me do the same with Canadian end.

I got him on the phone at the Star. Here's how the conversation went:

Me: Don, it's Howard Wilkinson from Cincinnati. I just got into Toronto. I'm at an airport hotel.

There was a moment of silence on his end while he digested that.

Don: So you're in Toronto?

Me: Yes, just got here. Just wanted to call you and see if you could tell me where the Queen Elizabeth Hotel is.

Another pregnant pause on his end.

Don: Uh, Howard, it's in Montreal….

Me: WHAT!!!! Montreal! They sent me to Toronto! Wait a minute, Don, I'll call you back…

My next call was to the city desk of the Enquirer.

I can't remember which poor soul was on the desk, but I was furious and started yelling at him. And anybody who knows me knows that I am not someone who yells.

How could you guys send me to the wrong city? How???

As it turned out, they had made a mistake, thinking that it was in Toronto because that is where Air Canada had its headquarters.

Wrong.

I got them to get on the phone with the Enquirer's travel agency and book me on the earliest possible flight to Montreal – an Air Canada shuttle. Then, they re-booked my return trip, when sent me in a gigantic loop from Montreal to Boston to Pittsburgh and back to CVG.

Six cities in less than 36 hours.

I ended up making it there on time; attended the press conference at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, a very posh place; and turned around and went straight back to the airport to catch a flight to Boston.

I ended up writing the story long-hand in my notebook on the plane and phoned it in to the city desk on my layover in Boston.

The Enquirer was very pleased with my work.

What I did not tell the editors at that point was that when I landed at Montreal, I walked out to ground transportation and the first thing I saw was a white stretch limo. I walked up to the driver, and said, To the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, my man, and hop to it. I'll make it worth your while.

The stretch limo took me back and forth from the hotel in Montreal. No Yellow Cab for this boy.

That was my little bit of revenge for sending me to the wrong city.