From the archives: 9/11 fear sent scores of jets to Canada

Lindy Washburn
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GANDER, NEWFOUNDLAND – The passengers staggered into the vast terminal, bewildered and bleary-eyed, hours after their planes touched down.

They hadn't seen the towers fall. They knew little of the attacks – only what they'd gathered from scattered cellphone conversations before their batteries died or from their pilots, who shared radio news reports. It was incomprehensible.

Few had any idea where they were. They stared at a map someone had taped to the wall, showing Canada's easternmost provinces. A hand-drawn arrow pointed to a place called Gander. "You are here," it said.

But where?

Gander looked about 1,000 miles from New York. The terminal looked like something left over from the Cold War.

Beyond Words is a scrap book kept by Claude Elliott, the mayor of Gander.

They'd seen the tarmac fill with jumbo jets, one after another – Lufthansa, Delta, Continental, Air France, American, on and on. Beyond the runway was the fence, where a few townspeople had gathered to watch the planes land. Beyond that, woods.

A convoy of school buses had ferried them from the planes to the terminal, where they'd been frisked and scanned, their passports checked and customs declarations collected. They'd been allowed to take only their carry-ons.

In the arrivals area, scores of tables were set up. Smiling people handed out brown paper bags, each containing a sandwich, fruit, a water bottle and juice. The passengers helped themselves to toothbrushes, toothpaste and other toiletries piled in bins.

The rest of the world had seen the worst humanity could do: airliners hijacked and flown into office towers, people forced to leap 100 stories to their deaths, the World Trade Center destroyed.

Now these travelers, stranded in Newfoundland, would see the best humanity had to offer.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States abruptly closed its airspace, Gander, Newfoundland, became a safe harbor for 38 international aircraft, 6,700 passengers and crew, 17 dogs and cats, and a pair of great apes.

The onetime "crossroads of the world," known for its last-chance airport at the edge of the North Atlantic, welcomed passengers from 92 countries. They were refugees from the new age of terrorism.

To the death and destruction they had witnessed that day on television, the Newfoundlanders offered their own simple, timeless antidote: food, clothing and a place to sleep for thousands of total strangers.

They expected nothing in return.

They had no idea whether their guests would stay hours, days or weeks.

They didn't know if additional terrorists might be lurking among them.

They just did the right thing.

In this Aug. 31, 2011 photo, Gander, Newfoundland, Canada Mayor Claude Elliott stands in front of the Royal Canadian Legion Hall which was used as a shelter for the passengers of a flight stranded after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"It comes right back to our grandfathers' day," says Gander's mayor, Claude Elliott. "Newfoundland is a harsh country. ... We had to survive by helping each other."

A town of 10,000, with only 550 hotel rooms, Gander took in 4,800 people, outlying towns took thousands more. From their closets and kitchens, the Newfoundlanders provided blankets and towels, sandwiches and stews for the shelters. They invited passengers home to wash up or sleep.

The "plane people," as the Newfoundlanders came to call them, were baffled at first, then grateful and, finally, profoundly moved.

It "was life-changing to me," says Kevin Tuerff, founder of an Austin, Texas, public relations firm, who was on an Air France flight. On every 9/11 anniversary since, he divides his staff into pairs and gives each twosome $100 and half a day off to do good deeds for total strangers.

"I was raised in the Catholic Church and knew the importance of compassion and helping one another," he says. "But what happened there in Gander was remarkable."

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In their own way, the Newfoundlanders tried to reverse the damages of the horrors at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa.

"Everyone's kindness and friendliness, not to mention fabulous food, cozy beds, nature walks and rides into town and back, have all been among the best experiences of our lives," Barbara and Kevin O'Brien of Ridgewood wrote to the local paper after it was over. "This entire community seems to be made up of saints and angels."

"What Gander did was restore faith in people," says Elliott. "Seven thousand people went away from here with a different view, a different outlook on life. I think Gander showed that there is still a lot of good left in our world today."

Trans-Atlantic hub

Driving into Gander on the Trans-Canada Highway nowadays, the role of aviation in the town's history becomes instantly apparent: wire sculptures of airplanes mark each entrance, and the streets bear names of air heroes like Earhart, Rickenbacker and Yeager. People comment on the makes and models of planes in the sky the way most people appreciate cars on the road.

Three hotels line up along the highway: the Albatross, the Comfort Inn and the Hotel Gander.

Nancy Budgell, afternoon desk clerk at the Comfort Inn, wears a 9/11 lapel pin, designed for the 10th anniversary. Many plane people are expected back, and the town plans an entire month of activities and observances.

She remembers that day as if it was a month ago, not a decade - how the crew of American Airlines Flight 49 arrived exhausted and a crew member wept in the breakfast room for a friend lost on an airliner that hit one of the towers.

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The manager's son, Matt Miller, remembers, too. He was 9 in 2001. Students at his elementary school and every other school in town were dismissed for the week so classrooms could be used to house passengers.

The inn's 9/11 scrapbook is full of photographs and letters of gratitude from England, France and all over the United States.

Everyone in Gander has a scrapbook of 2001, it seems. Mac Moss, retired administrator of the College of the North Atlantic, shares the college's albums: a photo of a couple sleeping in the cafeteria with a baby nestled between them; a snapshot of backpackers from the plane who pitched their tent on the lawn outside; letters and Christmas cards from Germany, France and the U.S. Beulah Cooper, who took a tray of sandwiches to the Royal Canadian Legion hall and left with lifelong friends, keeps an album of photos of the passengers who stayed at her home.

Thank you letters and Christmas cards sent to the staff of the College of the North Atlantic in Gander, where many of the plane people were housed.

Gander International Airport opened just before World War II as a joint military project of the Americans and British. "The Rock," as Newfoundland was known, had been settled centuries earlier by fishermen from England and Ireland. They fished the world's greatest cod grounds, hunted seal when stores of salt fish ran out, admired the icebergs from Greenland floating by in the spring and remained wary of mainlanders, joining the Canadian federation only in 1949. When times got tough, their sons and daughters migrated to Boston and Brooklyn.

The isolation, harsh winters and rocky soil instilled a quirky independence, a neighborliness born of patience and need. Even now, the island has only 500,000 people - roughly half the population of Bergen County in nearly 200 times the space.

Newfoundland's coastal towns, tucked into bays and coves, bear names like Heart's Desire (not far from Heart's Content) and South Dildo. With their slow-paced conversations, lilting accents and unstinting hospitality, the Newfoundlanders seem from a different time as well as a different place. Derm Flynn, the mayor of Appleton, calls friends in New Jersey and New York regularly, and they all ask: How are things in heaven on earth?

Gander's airport was built inland at a spot chosen for its comparative lack of fog. When the town's residential areas were laid out in 1959, a witty planner drew the main roads in the shape of a goose's head. (Gander – get it?) By 2001, though, the airport seemed a relic of the propeller era rendered obsolete by the jet age, its traffic reduced to a few small turboprops, corporate jets and the stray medical or mechanical emergency.

Yet it still boasted one of the longest runways in North America, at 10,500 feet. And the town is still home to Nav Canada's regional air-traffic control center for the North Atlantic. From its bunker-like confines, dozens of air-traffic controllers guide more than 1,000 flights each day as they cross the ocean.

The aircraft move across their radar screens like the fingers of a hand raking the sand in parallel tracks, their icons lining up in the jet stream for the quickest trip across the North Atlantic.

On Sept. 11, when the Federal Aviation Administration closed American airspace, the tracks turned sharply north.

Flights stacked up

"We were about two hours from Newark Airport," remembers Maureen Murray of Morris Plains, who was returning from vacation on an Air France flight from Paris with her partner, Sue Riccardelli.

"We saw the flight attendant turn white as a sheet and start closing curtains. From the looks on their faces, we knew something was wrong."

The pilot came over the loudspeaker.

Due to "some kind of armed threat at the World Trade Center," Murray recalls him saying, the plane would make an emergency landing.

Tom McKeon was on a Continental flight from Dublin to Newark when the captain apologized for any sudden maneuvers. He was under orders to land quickly, he explained, because the U.S. appeared to be under attack. "I've been on thousands of flights," says McKeon of West New York, "and we've never gone from 30,000-plus feet to the ground so quickly."

In the Gander airport tower, traffic controller Bev Mercer heard the news when her supervisor called from Nav Canada's area control center.

"U.S. airspace is closed," he said. "Be prepared to be busy."

It was noon, local time.

"We took our radars and opened them to the widest screen," Mercer says. "There are all the 'oceanics,' the westbound planes. We see all these targets [the planes], and then we see everybody doing turns."

She holds her hands in front of her, fingers pointed sideways, and then turns them to point her fingers straight up – north toward Gander.

"Oh, my God," she says. "We'd never seen it before."

Soon, the planes came into view through the tower's tinted windows. "A line of heavies," she says, referring to the jumbo jets that fly the intercontinental routes and need long runways to land.

Gary Tuff, acting chief of the airport's emergency response service that day, was opening the airport's emergency operations center when he looked out. "They were stacked up," he says.

Gary Tuff was the acting Chief of Emergency Response at the Gander International Airport on 9/11.

Atop the tower, a controller hung an American flag.

The planes were coming in – to St. John's, Deer Lake and Stephenville, Goose Bay, Halifax and Gander.

The Maritime Provinces received 122 diverted planes that day. Nav Canada's regional controllers assigned them airports, based on distance and size. Controllers in towers who typically saw a handful of flights a day set up racetrack patterns overhead to space the planes safely.

Then they brought them in, one by one.

Lufthansa. Northwest. Sabena. USAir. Air France. Delta. Continental. British Airways. Hungarian Airways. American TransAir. Cargo jets. Private jets.

"There was just long enough to get one off the runway, then another one was coming in," says Tuff.

Gander's runway was the longest, but each plane there had to land, make a U-turn and taxi back 5,000 feet before turning and heading toward the aprons or unused runway to park.

"We had 747s, 767s, 757s and Airbuses," says Tuff. The aircraft were packed in like sardines in a can, Mercer says. Post-it notes for each plane are still stuck to the wall in the airport's emergency operations center.

This Aug. 30, 2011 photo shows Doug Dillon, the manager of Gander Area control for Canadian government agency NavCanada in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. An air traffic controller on Sept. 11, 2001, he helped safely guide dozens of flights to safety at the remote town.

They parked on the terminal aprons, nose-to-tail down the second runway, nose-to-tail on all but one taxiway, and at the other side of the airport. Controllers kept the long runway clear for additional landings.

The spectacle overhead drew townspeople to the airport fence to gawk.

"Our priority was to get them down safely," said Tuff. "Once we started doing head counts of the passengers, we realized that the town's population had almost doubled in an hour."

Towns mobilized

Mayor Elliott heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center when he stopped for a cup of coffee at Tim Horton's. When the second hit, he went home to watch CNN.

The town's chief administrator called shortly thereafter.

Gander was going to get some planes, he told Elliott – as many as 200.

Elliott convened representatives of the Fire Department, telephone company, hospital and government agencies, activating the town's emergency plan.

Gander had 550 hotel rooms, but many times that number of people were about to arrive.

Calls went out to every school, service club and church to see if they could accommodate passengers. Mayors in Appleton, Glenwood, Gambo and Lewisporte – smaller towns up to 45 minutes away – volunteered their communities to help.

The hotel rooms were assigned to the airline crews, under emergency powers, because they would have to rest before taking off again.

The only fleet of vehicles large enough to transport the passengers would be the school buses. But their drivers were on strike.

The drivers volunteered to come off the picket line, Elliott says. "For the next couple of days, they drove people where they needed to be, and then when it was over, they went back on strike."

Local security crisis

In the air approaching Gander, quiet descended aboard Air France 004. Cellphones didn't work. Information was scant.

Sue Riccardelli remembers wondering who had ever gone to Gander before. "I thought it was inhabited by natives," says Murray.

They didn't know that once the plane landed, they would have to wait hours to disembark. As soon as the aircraft were on the ground, what had been an aviation emergency morphed into a security crisis.

"Every plane that came out of the air was treated as if there could be a terrorist suspect on it," says Elliott. "They didn't know how widespread this terrorist attack might be."

"We locked down," says Tuff.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police took charge of security. Access to the tarmac was strictly controlled. Police radioed each plane, checking in with pilots. Doors opened on some planes, but without stairs, nobody got off.

Aboard the aircraft, rumors abounded as the hours passed. Some people managed to use their cellphones to call family. Passengers passed phones from hand to hand until the batteries died.

In the evening, McKeon crowded into the cockpit with a half-dozen other passengers to listen to President George W. Bush's address to the nation on the plane's radio. "It made me think of Pearl Harbor," he says, "with people squeezed around the radio."

Some passengers were kept in planes for 24 hours. Smokers were desperate for a nicotine fix. Emergency workers scoured local pharmacies and brought every available nicotine patch to the airport. Ground crews pumped out lavatories. Flight attendants distributed the last snacks and alcoholic beverages.

In the terminal, security, immigration and customs officials set up stations, along with the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Once through the gauntlet, the passengers were assigned lodging by the Red Cross – each plane's passengers billeted together.

Then they boarded school buses and headed out. It was nearly 9 p.m. when Murray and Riccardelli arrived at the College of the North Atlantic. McKeon reached the Appleton Town Hall at 2 a.m. Shirley Brooks-Jones of Columbus, Ohio, made it to Lewisporte past dawn - after pausing along the way for the bus riders to admire a moose.

No time to spare

While the passengers had been waiting, the people of Gander prepared.

Beulah Cooper got a call at home "asking me to make a tray of sandwiches to bring to the Legion," where she belonged to the Ladies' Auxiliary, she recalls. "Somebody said there was a planeload of people coming."

Mac Moss, at the College of the North Atlantic, got a call telling him to expect 275 to 300 passengers from Air France. "I asked what time we'd get them," he says, and realized he had 90 minutes to get ready.

Ninety minutes to prepare for 300 guests – to gather staff and move desks, collect food and bedding. Moss called the cooking instructors who prepare students for jobs on oil rigs and cruise ships. "Raid the store, gather up what you can," he said.

Nellie, his wife, piled up the household's pillows, blankets and towels. She called friends and neighbors and "those friends called their friends," she said. "In no time, I had a carload of blankets, towels." Over and over, she ferried them to the school.

The manager of a hotel miles away called to ask if Moss could use old bedspreads and curtains. When Moss said yes, she drove through the night to deliver them.

Others ran television hookups into the cafeteria and staff lounge so the plane people could finally see the day's events, in English or French.

"We gathered in the cafeteria and watched," Murray recalls. "What we saw on CNN was our first glimpse of what had happened."

They were among the last Americans to see it; the shock shows on their faces, captured in photographs.

The same scene played out all over Gander and central Newfoundland.

"You felt so bad for them," says Cooper. "They didn't know where they were or what was going on back home or who we were."

A local teenager offered Kevin Tuerff an air mattress. "A complete stranger walks up to me and says, 'Do you need a bed?' ... He gave it to me and walked off," marvels Tuerff. "How often do you find yourself in such a vulnerable position?"

The plane people had roofs over their heads, bedding (if not beds), food and attentive hosts. Day One had passed safely. They slept while local officials got organized.

Two apes and karaoke

"We realized then we were going to have those people for a few days," says Elliott. Both Canadian and American airspace were now closed. In fact, the last planes wouldn't leave till Sunday.

He went on the radio to ask for donations of food to be brought to the community center. The line of cars soon stretched 2 miles. Elliott commandeered the ice hockey rink at the center, lowered the temperature and created the province's largest walk-in refrigerator.

Computers and phones were made freely available at schools, hotels and offices. The telephone company set up a phone bank with 100 phones on the lawn outside its Gander office. If the passengers couldn't figure out the intricacies of long-distance dialing, Melanie Burt, an operator, helped them. Italian fashion models, British military officers – she dealt with them all.

In this Sept. 13, 2001 photo, stranded passengers take turns on computers at Gander Academy, an elementary school in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada to communicate with their families.

In Appleton, McKeon and the other plane people woke up to the bustle of breakfast preparation in the municipal building. A few took a walk to a convenience store on the Trans-Canada Highway. Take what you need, the owner told them – no charge.

Some of the airline passengers had special needs:

  • Two female bonobos – an endangered species of great ape – were in crates in the belly of a flight from Belgium, bound for American zoos. "The girls," as zookeeper Beth Pohl calls them, were taken to an airport hangar but not let out of their cages for six days. Their Belgian zookeeper stayed with them, along with 17 dogs and cats from the planes. Volunteers from a local animal-welfare group walked and fed the pets. The two 65-pound primates "ate well, had visitors and dogs and cats to watch and overall remained very calm," Pohl recalls, though one was given Valium the last two days.
  • The town threw a party for two children with life-threatening illnesses who had been on their way to Disney World, courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. "We brought every mascot we had in Gander, birthday cakes, music, clowns," said Elliott. "We're not Disney World, but we tried to make them happy."
  • Gander's pharmacists worked around the clock to provide medication to diabetics and others who were unable to get at their checked luggage. Faxes flowed from Newfoundland to medical offices around the world as substitutions were worked out and doses confirmed – all free of charge to the passengers.

In St. John's, the provincial capital, and at Halifax, Nova Scotia, dozens of planes landed as well. But those cities had plenty of hotel rooms, military barracks and college dorms – and an armada of municipal and provincial employees to help with the emergency. In Gander, the response was personal.

Locals stopped by the schools and halls where people were staying and invited them home to shower.

"I didn't know what to think," says McKeon. "I didn't believe it. I didn't trust it – I thought they might rob us." But after talking with Flynn, the Appleton mayor, McKeon moved up the hill to his house to stay.

"I had a dozen people come here for showers," says Beulah Cooper, who volunteered at the Legion in Gander. Seeing a young woman in tears after a call home, Cooper asked if she'd like to spend the night. Eventually, three women moved in for the duration. Since then, Cooper has entertained the young woman – Monica Burke of Seattle – and her mother on a return visit, and is getting ready to host her again on the 10th anniversary.

"We were told not to take anybody into our homes," says Elliott. "But you don't tell Newfoundlanders that!"

The town had never been so crowded.

"We went around on skateboards and saw people everywhere, sitting on the grass," says Matt Miller, who was 9. "My friends and I did a lemonade stand."

Plane people walked to Walmart in hopes of buying underwear, and locals offered them rides. Seeing a woman carrying a toddler, a resident called to her from her porch, then gave her a stroller. At the college, students led the plane people on a hike around Cobb's Pond. At night, they put on karaoke concerts.

There was tragedy as well as romance.

Hannah and Dennis O'Rourke, Long Islanders on their way home from Ireland, waited for news of their son, a New York City firefighter lost in the collapse of the towers. Two passengers who met while staying in Gambo began a courtship that led to marriage.

The plane people were a cross section of the world. The chief executive of Hugo Boss had been bound for New York's fashion week, and a group of Moldovan refugees were on their way to reunite with families in America. The mayor of Frankfurt borrowed Elliott's office, while executives from the Rockefeller Foundation set up shop in the Lewisporte Town Hall. Israeli newlyweds spent part of their honeymoon at Appleton's council chambers. A Muslim imam prayed next to an Orthodox Jew.

"Nobody tried to get ahead of another person because of their station in life," says Mac Moss. "They slept on a hard floor. There were no complaints, no complaints at all."

"It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life," says Shirley Brooks-Jones, who stayed in Lewisporte. She has returned 17 times.

A lesson in caring

One by one, the planes were cleared to depart starting Friday afternoon – more than three days after they landed. There were false starts and tense moments. Foreign carriers were told to return to their points of origin, rather than finishing their trips to the U.S. Some passengers mutinied and chartered a bus. Others bought used cars and headed for ferry ports, abandoning their checked luggage.

Eventually, they all left. In Gander and Gambo, Lewisporte and Appleton, people went back about their business.

But then word started to seep out about what had happened in Newfoundland.

"It was the passengers, it wasn't us, that spread the story," says Elliott.

A former newspaper columnist wrote a book, "The Day the World Came to Town." Shirley Brooks-Jones made presentations around the Midwest about her experience and a scholarship fund she'd helped start with fellow passengers. Tom Brokaw did a television special during the Vancouver Olympics.

Today, if you know where to look, you can see many signs of what happened a decade ago:

The name Gander was given to a baby bonobo born in 2003 at the Columbus Zoo and to a Lufthansa Airbus 340 that plies the skies from Europe to North America.

Kids at a Lewisporte school who are too young to remember 9/11 use computers donated by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Thirteen members of the Lewisporte Collegiate Class of 2011 received college scholarships in June from the Delta Flight 15 scholarship fund. Contributions now total almost $1.5 million, and have helped pay the college bills of 134 kids, including a newly minted physician and a geophysicist.

A telephone operator who went back to school to become an aesthetician, Melanie Burt, received an award in June from an Air France Flight 004 passenger fund. The award is given each year to a graduate who exemplifies the kindness and generosity that were showered on the plane people.

Airline mechanics studying at the College of the North Atlantic can train for European airport jobs, thanks to a partnership between the school and Lufthansa.

Derm Flynn, the Mayor of Appleton -a neighboring town of Gander, stands in the Peace Park where a 9/11 Memorial was built.

Appleton has expanded and renamed a park and playground beside the Gander River where the passengers sat on riverside rocks to collect their thoughts; it's now the Appleton Peace Park.

And in Morris Plains, framed photos show the highlights of return trips to Newfoundland by Riccardelli and Murray, who visit their friends, the Mosses.

Yet almost 10 years since the jets descended on Gander, the town has built no monument.

"Our culture and our people don't want any recognition," says Elliott. A thank-you party the town threw a month or so afterwards for the 9/11 volunteers was attended by only 30 people. "People don't want to see a whole pile of plaques," he explains.

Mostly it's the passengers who came to Newfoundland who've changed.

"I learned that you have to stretch a little, whether it's in trusting one another or reaching out to help," says Tom McKeon, now married and a father of a 2-year-old.

Brooks-Jones used to say she had four sisters and four brothers, and now talks about her fifth sister - in Newfoundland.

Sue Riccardelli (far left) and Maureen Murray (2nd from left) are shown with a journalist from Al Jazeera English and friends from Gander, Nellie Moss and Mac Moss in 2011. Riccardelli and Murray were on a flight from Paris back to the US on 9/11 when their plane was diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. They become close friends with people they stayed with 15 years ago and make a point to see them every year.

And Murray and Riccardelli feel as if they've become ambassadors for the people of Gander, whom they revisit every other year. "If you could package up what these people have, it would be a more peaceful world," Riccardelli says.

"It was a little pocket of calm in the middle of the world," says Kevin O'Brien. "We think of that time as a totally wonderful experience," adds his wife, Barbara, almost apologetically, "when for everyone else it was a disaster."


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