September 11, 2011
In 2002, in Uncle John’s Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader, we wrote about what happened in a little Canadian town called Gander in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. It’s the kind of story we can all use on a day like today.
Far too few people know the heartwarming story about what
happened in a small town on a remote island in the North Atlantic on
September 11, 2001. Canadian air traffic controller (and BRI member)
Terry Budden told us about it, and we decided to share it with you.
THE TOWN OF GANDER
Gander is located in Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province. The town is central to Newfoundland Island, and the home of Gander International Airport. The decision to build an airport on Gander was made in 1935 because aircraft couldn’t make the long flight from New York to London without stopping to refuel. Newfoundland falls on the Atlantic Ocean right under the flight path between these two points, making it the ideal stopover location. The town itself formed around the airport and was mostly populated by people who worked in support of the aviation industry. They referred to Gander as “the crossroads of the world.”
Today, of course, aircraft can fly farther without refueling, making Gander an unnecessary stop. With the exception of local and cargo flights, very little international traffic stops there anymore. Gander has since become a quiet town. Until September 11, 2001.
Less than an hour after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 20001 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights and closed their airspace for the first time in history. Transport Canada (Canada’s equivalent to the FAA) followed suit, ordering all aircraft to the ground. There were approximately five hundred planes arriving over the east coast of Canada with nowhere to go. Air traffic controllers quickly started directing these flights to the closest airports. Before long, 38 planes were parked wingtip to wingtip on Gander’s taxiways and runways – and more than 6,500 passengers and crew suddenly found themselves stranded.
THE LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE
Town officials and coordinators immediately scrambled to assess the situation thrust upon them, still reeling from the images on CNN. The emergency Coordination Center at the airport and the Emergency Operation s Center at the town hall were activated, and the situation was discussed. Gander has many contingency plans for all sorts of different situations – there is even a contingency plan for an emergency space-shuttle landing at the airport – but no plan for accommodating and feeding so many people for and undetermined amount of time. The town’s 500 hotel rooms were no match for the 6,500 unexpected visitors.
Des Dillon of the Canadian Red Cross was asked to round up beds. Major Ron Stuckless of the Salvation Army became the coordinator of a mass collection of food. Murray Osmond, the only Citizenship and Immigration officer on site, began the arduous task of processing thousands of passengers. “There was also the issue of security,” Osmond told reporters. “We didn’t know which planes out there might have individuals aboard like the ones who attacked the World Trade Center.” He worked with a planeload of U.S. soldiers who had arrived to help maintain order.
While airport officials made preparations to process everyone, the passengers had to remain on board – some for as long as 30 hours – worried, confused, and cut off from the outside world. They couldn’t see the attacks that kept the rest of the world glued to their televisions and still had no idea why they had been forced to land. Before long, though, passengers with cell phones and portable radios began spreading the word that the United States was under attack. If so, what would be the passenger’s fate? Were they war refugees? How long would it be until they saw home again?
JUST PLANE FOLKS
When the passengers finally disembarked, they received a warm welcome. Although Newfoundland is the poorest province in Canada, everyone helped out:
•It was quickly decided that the majority of the rooms would go to the flight crews so they would be well rested and ready to travel on short notice. The decision as to where to house everyone else had to be faced next: the town of Gander, even with all its residents, churches, schools, and shelters opening their doors, could handle only about half of the stranded passengers. The rest would have to be transported to the surrounding communities of Gambo, Lewisporte, Appleton, Glenwood, and Norris Arm. But transporting these people seemed to be a problem as well – the local bus drivers had been on strike for weeks. They weren’t for long: the striking bus drivers put down their picket signs and manned 60 buses to drive the passengers to their destinations.
•Families were kept together. Many places set up special rooms for families with babies and small children where portable cribs were assembled, and boxes were filled with toys and games. Diapers, bottles, and formula were provided, all free of charge.
•When calls went out for food and bedding, people emptied their cupboards, refrigerators, and closets and went to the airport. “They were there all night long, bringing food and standing at the tables, passing it out,” said Captain Beverly Bass from American Flight 49. Asked who was manning the tables, a passenger from Air France Flight 004 responded, “They were the grocer, the postman, the pastor – everyday citizens of Gander who just came out.”
•The passengers weren’t allowed to take their luggage of the flights; they were there with just the clothes on their backs. So, responding to radio announcements, the residents and businesses of Gander supplied deodorant, soap, blankets, spare underwear, offers of hot showers and guestrooms – even tokens for the local Laundromat and invitations to wash their clothes in people’s homes.
•A lot of quests didn’t speak English and had no idea what was happening. Locals and U.S. soldiers were put to work as translators.
•The local phone company set up phone banks so that all the passengers could call home. They strung wires and cables so those staying in schools, churches, and lodges would also have access to television and Internet. Passengers participated, too – those who had cell phones passed them around for others to make calls until the batteries ran dead.
•Hospitals added extra beds and sent doctors to the airport, just in case. Anyone with a medical background worked with the local doctors and pharmacists to tend to those with special needs. People in need of prescriptions received what they required at no cost.
•Residents of Twillingate, a tiny island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, prepared enough sandwiches and soup for at least 200 people, then delivered them to the mainland.
•To keep their spirits up, the passengers were given a choice of excursion trips, such as boat cruises of the lakes and harbors, while others went to see the local forests and memorials. Whale and iceberg watching were also popular activities. Newfoundlanders brought in entertainers who put on shows and grief counselors to talk to those who needed it.
After the airspace reopened, with the help of the Red Cross, the passengers were delivered to the airport right on time. Not a single person missed a flight. Many of the “plane people”, as they were sometimes called, were crying and sharing stories with each other. Many people exchanged phone numbers and addresses with newfound friends.
Many travelers have since shown their thanks with donations to local churches, libraries, and charitable organizations.
•Lufthansa Airlines was so moved by the townspeople’s reaction that they named one of their new aircraft after the town, an honor never before given to any place outside of Germany
•The passengers from Delta Flight 15 started a scholarship fun and raised more than U.S. $30,000 for the school that housed them.
•The Rockefeller Foundation, which had used a small computer lab at a school in Lewisporte as the nerve center for their philanthropic activities, supplied the school with a brand new state-of-the-art computer lab.
•Gander Academy, which housed the passengers of Sabena Flight 539, Lufthansa Flight 416, and Virgin Flight 21, has received $27,000 in donations from the passengers that stayed there. The school is using the funds to finance a new six-year global peace awareness program.
• On the one-year anniversary, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien traveled to Gander to honor the townsfolk. “You did yourselves proud,” he told a crowd of 2,500 people how had gathered on the tarmac. “And you did Canada proud.”
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