Gander, N.L. looks back on key role in 9-11 aftermath
Andy Johnson, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, September 9, 2011 7:38AM EDT
It is a chapter in the history of Gander, N.L. that few will ever forget.
The remote, normally quiet, laid-back town of 10,000 became an almost instant hub of activity and old-fashioned hospitality in the hours after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, as dozens of planes were diverted to the community.
Local residents came together, opening their hearts and homes to the thousands of stranded, stressed out and emotionally wracked travellers unable to reach their U.S. destinations.
On Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9-11, the community will be looking back on those days, joined by U.S. and Canadian dignitaries, media, and some of the stranded passengers who stayed in the town a decade ago. The weekend's events will include a benefit concert, the staging of a musical, and a somber memorial to be held on Sunday.
David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, will be among those marking the sombre occasion in Gander.
"The people of Gander, the people of St. John's, the people all over Canada took in so many people, cared for them every day until the planes could move on," Jacobson recently told CTV's Canada AM.
"This is something I heard a lot about when I was back in the States 10 years ago and I thought it was the right place for me to go to thank the Canadian people for their kindness and generosity."
In total, 38 passenger planes carrying 6,700 passengers and crew members from 100 countries were diverted to Gander International Airport -- a sprawling facility that was once a major refuelling stop for transatlantic flights and served as an allied staging point during the Second World War.
The airport could handle the influx of planes, but the 6,500 passengers was another story. It took the generosity of the entire community, as well as a handful of nearby villages, to meet their needs. And they did.
Many residents of Gander, as well as those in Gambo, Lewisporte, Appleton and Norris Arm, opened their homes to accommodate stranded travellers while schools and community halls were turned into temporary shelters.
Volunteers packed 7,000 lunches to hand to passengers as they deplaned, pharmacists filled prescriptions for free, striking bus drivers walked off the picket lines to help drive people around, and the local arena was turned into a giant walk-in fridge that quickly filled up with donated foods.
That generosity is being recognized in a very physical way as the 10-year milestone approaches. The town was recently sent two pieces of steel that were salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers.
One piece, weighing in at 315 kilograms, was donated by the fire department in Bethpage, N.Y. in recognition of Gander's contribution. Another 54-kilogram piece was donated to Gander by the port authority of New York and New Jersey.
Both pieces will be on display Sunday during the ecumenical service marking the anniversary, before they are put on permanent display in the local aviation museum.
Shirley Brooks-Jones, of Atlanta, Georgia was one of the passengers whose plane was diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001. She and a group of her fellow travellers were bussed to Lewisporte, a nearby village where they could be provided with accommodations and care.
To this day, she told CTV's Canada AM, she has vivid memories of arriving in the village and somehow feeling like she was home.
"They were just so awesome, they really were. They were so gracious, they were so kind, gentle, very perceptive. They could tell the passengers that needed some extra tender loving care, or those that needed to see the doctor or have prescriptions filled and so forth. They were very, very perceptive people and very loving people," she said.
Brooks-Jones was able to leave a few days later, and as she and her fellow passengers were boarding their plane they had the spontaneous idea of setting up an endowment scholarship as a way of showing their gratitude.
"It didn't take long at all, it was just one of those absolutely beautiful things that happened," she said.
The scholarship, ranging from $200 to $475 per student, has now been given out to 134 successful candidates, and Brooks-Jones has returned to Newfoundland each year to hand out cheques to the winners.
"They're small, but the whole point is to let those students know that those of us who were there on 9-11 will never forget what they did," she said.
Some residents of the area, though, find the accolades almost embarrassing. After all, said Mayor Claude Elliott, Gander residents simply did what anyone from Newfoundland and Labrador would have done in their situation.
"It's our culture, it's our way way of life. We live on an island where most of the time the weather is harsh, and we survive by helping each other," Elliott told CTV News.
"It goes back generations where if someone in the community was in need everyone came forward to help, and that's passed down from generation to generation."
Still, Elliott said he will always be proud of his community and the way they came forward to offer their assistance.
The experience proved the town could get through any hardship by pulling together, he said.
"I always say the greatest asset any community has is its people and if you can call on your people in a moment's notice and mobilize them and they're willing to help, you're over halfway through whatever problem you might have."
With files from The Canadian Press