The population of Gander, Newfoundland is about 10,000. On September 11, 2001, they had 6,700 visitors. When terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, the federal government shut down US airspace. Thirty-eight passenger jets en route to the States were diverted to this tiny outpost.
In late August last year, I was crossing Newfoundland by bus. We stopped at the Gander Airport and inside the terminal I found a fitting monument – a twisted girder from the 911 tragedy. It was a gift from the people of New York to the people of Gander. As one of the welcomers said in 2001, “We’re all Americans today.” I looked around the terminal and imagined hundreds of frightened travellers milling around.
There’s been a play created based on those days in Newfoundland. I’m going to Come From Away in April, and I’m sure I’ll be moved by human kindness and resiliency. In prep for my trip to Toronto, I bought a book called The Day The World Came to Town. The same people, the same humanity on display.
Here are a few quotes from the book. They make real an event of terrorism and emergency because real folks are saying real things.
First, a song:
Raise your glass and drink with me to that island in the sea
Where friendship is a word they understand
You will never be alone when you’re in a Newfie’s home
There’s no price tag on the doors in Newfoundland
There will always be a chair at the table for you there
They will share what they have with any man
You don’t have to worry, friend, if your pocketbook is thin
There’s no price tag on the doors in Newfoundland
I felt the generosity of Newfies in Port-aux-Basques, Gander and St. John’s. And not a pretend giving, but genuine.
The biggest problem facing officials was transportation. How do you move almost 7,000 people to shelters, some of which were almost fifty miles outside of town? The logical answer was to use school buses. On September 11, however, Gander was in the midst of a nasty strike by the area’s school bus drivers.
Amazingly, as soon as the drivers realized what was happening, they laid down their picket signs, setting their own interests aside, and volunteered en masse to work around the clock carrying the passengers wherever they needed to go.
Roxanne and Clark decided to buy something comfortable to wear, a change of underwear, and some deodorant. No sooner had they returned to the Lions Club than another woman who they hadn’t seen before asked if they would like to take a shower. Roxanne hadn’t seen any showering facilities but assumed they must be tucked away in a part of the club that this woman would now show them.
“No,” the woman said. “You can come over to me house and shower.”
Roxanne stopped herself from laughing. A complete stranger was inviting her to her home to use the shower. Roxanne and Clark had both grown up in small towns but this went well beyond small-town hospitality. These were the nicest people in the world, Roxanne thought.
Cindy and Reg Wheaton took Vitale to their home just down the street. They told him to help himself to anything in the refrigerator and to use the phone to make calls or the computer to send e-mails. They showed him where the remote for the cable television was located, handed him a clean towel, and left. He could stay as long as he wanted, and they told him that when he was done he should just leave the door unlocked on the way out. Vitale was speechless when they left.
Fast found herself on a residential street, where she spotted a man on a porch waving at her. He asked if she was one of the stranded passengers.
“Yes,” she said.
He explained that he and his family were preparing a big birthday party for his grandson in the backyard. He asked if she’d like to join them. She agreed and followed him around the house. The boy’s parents were still decorating the backyard with balloons and streamers in anticipation of other children arriving. Fast was introduced to the guest of honor.
“Happy birthday,” she said.
“Thank you,” the boy replied.
“How old are you?”
Fast was energized by the family’s sense of warmth and their willingness to share this time with an outsider who just happened to be walking down the street.
As its old slogan implies, Canadian Tire is more than just tires. One of the clerks was able to scrounge up a pair of air mattresses and two sleeping bags and then asked, “Do you want a tent as well?”
Zale said it wasn’t necessary but Wood cut her off.
“Hell, yes, we want a tent,” she declared, her Texas accent almost bowling the clerk over. It might rain, Wood reasoned, so a tent could come in handy. Zale and Wood piled their supplies onto the checkout counter and started reaching for their credit cards.
“You’re off the plane, right?” the cashier asked.
When Zale and Wood nodded, the cashier announced that they could just take the items. Anything the stranded passengers needed, the store was happy to provide. The store even offered to send one of their employees over to the Knights of Columbus to help them set up the tent.
No sooner had the first planes started to land in Gander than O’Donnell received a phone call from her bosses telling her she had carte blanche to donate everything in the store, if necessary, to the relief effort. “Anything the passengers need that you can provide, please do it,” she was instructed. Money was not to be an issue … In fact, if another store had something the passengers needed, and that store had reached its limit in terms of donations, then O’Donnell was authorized to go in and buy it for the passengers. It was like a scene right out of Miracle on 34th Street.
Newtel, the telephone company for Newfoundland, set up a long bank of tables on the sidewalk in front of its offices and filled them with telephones so passengers could make free long-distance calls to their families. On another set of outdoor tables, they placed computers with internet access. Newtel officials kept the tables running day and night for as long as the passengers needed them.
Harris called one of her assistants, Vi Tucker, and the two women loaded up a truck with pet food, water, cleaning supplies, and anything else they thought they might need, and lit out for the airport. Once they arrived, they began sizing up the situation. The animals were stowed away in cages in the same compartments as the luggage. As Harris went around taking a quick look inside each of the planes, she knew these animals were going through their own emotional ordeals. In some cases, Harris couldn’t even see the animals, as they were buried behind mounds of suitcases. But she could hear them crying and barking … One at a time, they crawled into the belly of the airplanes, tunneling their way through the mountains of bags, to reach each animal. As best they could, they would clean the cage and then lay out some food and water.
Following the van driver’s directions, they approached a large house with off-white vinyl siding and white trim. Mark joked that he would protect them if there was any trouble, and the women laughed nervously. They noticed an older woman standing in the driveway.
“George invited us over for coffee,” Deb said.
“You must be the plane people,” the woman replied, introducing herself as George’s wife Edna. “Come on in, my dears.”
Well said, Edna
Come on in