Shortly after September 11th, Diageo, the world’s leading premium drinks company, set up its “Spirit of America Fund.” The fund raised over two million dollars from Diageo employees and company matching contributions. Within hours, Diageo had bottled water to the scene, and within days of the tragedy, Diageo donated an ambulance to Hatzolah Volunteer Ambulance Service and “Toughbook” computers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
As the signature event to symbolize its corporate commitment, Diageo initiated the first civilian humanitarian relief flight into Afghanistan, “The Ground Zero to Ground Zero Airlift.” The initial plan was to send supplies to aid civilians and relief workers on the ground. But for Diageo, this was not enough; Diageo wanted to take it one step further. The company decided not only to airlift supplies, but also to deliver a group of New York city public safety officials – people who were at Ground Zero on 9/11 – to the US command center in Afghanistan.
Working with New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, Diageo took four firefighters from the New York Fire Department and two police officers from the New York Police Department on this humanitarian mission. All had worked at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
Here were two police officers and four firefighters, one of whom had lost his brother in the trade center, flying across the world to deliver aid to the other victims of the Afghani regime. Fire Department Chaplain Reverend John Delendick (who was one of the four firefighters making the trip) described this mission as “the ultimate gesture of healing.”
The logistical challenges for putting together the first relief flight into the newly opened Bagram AFB in Afghanistan were staggering. Landing rights at the command center had to be secured. An insurer had to be found to cover a fully loaded IL-76 flying over “enemy territory.” Visas had to be obtained for a traveling party of eleven, many of whom did not even have passports.
To facilitate the plane’s arrival and to ensure that any relief efforts would be directed to appropriate charities and agencies, an advance team was flown into Uzbekistan the day prior to the Diageo team’s arrival.
Complicating matters further, final takeoff clearance from the State Department and the US-military’s Central Command was granted only hours before the IL-76 was scheduled to depart from Ostende, Belgium, and the cargo plane received a US military escort on the last leg of its journey.
Accompanied by 90,000 pounds of relief supplies aboard a chartered Russian Cargo Jet, the group landed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, literally hours after it had been liberated by US special forces, delivering the first private relief effort to the new war on terror.
Diageo invited journalists from 1010 WINS, The New York Post, and The New York Daily News to join the airlift. A wire service photographer was onboard to provide the media with images. Satellite phones were secured to enable the WINS reporter to file live audio updates every couple of hours.
While in Afghanistan, the Diageo team visited and donated food to the 800-child Tahiya Maskan orphanage – the only operating orphanage in Kabul. It was an emotional experience for both the travelers and the children receiving aid, not to mention the international press corps.
The airlift received tremendous worldwide media coverage, including extensive coverage in the Mid-East press. Even before the team’s departure, The New York Post and Daily News had written about the event. 1010 WINS teased the event for days and the send-off press conference, held at Ground Zero, received blanket coverage.
Upon the airlift’s return to JFK airport, television cameras from all the New York network affiliates and CNN covered trip, as the members of the envoy disembarked the plane. The policemen, firefighters and Guy Smith, Diageo’s Executive Vice President for External Affairs and Marketing Public Relations, gave interviews that were featured on the network’s nightly news and all network morning shows the following week. The combined reel of US television airtime coverage runs well over one hour.
The story ran on the front page of The New York Post, New York Newsday, and the Nation Challenged section of the New York Times. Other publications to feature the story included: Agence France Presse; The Associated Press; The Calgary Sun; Chattanooga Times/Chattanooga Free Press; Chicago Tribune; The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT); The Edmonton Sun; The Financial Times; The Macon Telegraph; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; The Orlando Sentinel; The Union Leader (Manchester, NH); Saint Paul Pioneer Press; The San Diego Union-Tribune; The Sun; USA Today; The Washington Post; and The Washington Times. Media outlets in Dubai, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey also featured coverage of the airlift.
A final note: the director of the Kabul Orphanage remarked to the Diageo team as it delivered the relief supplies – “this will feed the entire orphanage for the whole winter.”