Gander, Newfoundland & Sept. 11, 2001

Location Date: 
September 12, 2011

I wanted to comment last week on the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States of America but I reluctantly passed. I knew full well that the weekend would be full of detailed commentary, analysis and reflection. Yesterday, I spent a beautiful morning at the family cottage watching the TV for several hours and reminiscing on my own thoughts 10 years ago - people I knew in NYC and the lives that were in jeopardy. Like everyone of my generation, 9/11 was to us what learning of Kennedy's assassination was to our parents - we will never forget where we were and how sick and frightening that day that was.

Last night, I was reading one of my favourite blogs - Barry Ritholtz's "The Big Picture." He commented that he "had more than I can take of this. I do not care to spend the entire day crying, but if I watch anymore of this coverage that is what will happen...It's a macabre spectacle to me. I need to find something more joyous and upbeat". 

OK. I agreed.

So I thought, why not share the story of Gander and the numerous small communities on that fateful day as a more joyous remembrance of the tragedy? The closure of U.S. airspace to roughly 75,000 people en route across the Atlantic Ocean forced commercial aircraft to put down ASAP at Atlantic Canada airports - thank god for the 10,000 foot runways (holdovers from WW2 necessities)! Gander alone received close to 7,000 uninvited visitors that day. Without the resources of a large urban centre, the towns effectively doubled in size - both in terms of their population and their heart. They opened their homes - kitchens and bedrooms - and extended a warm welcome to new and nervous friends for the next four to five days.

Can you imagine an encounter between an old Newfoundlander and his twang and a passenger headed to Atlanta and their southern drawl? Well, consider Delta Flight 15 from Frankfurt to Atlanta that was diverted to Gander and its passengers shuttled to the tiny (4,000 people) community of Lewisporte, northwest of Gander. Flight attendant Shirley Brooks-Jones tells how "no matter where we were, we had everything we needed. People brought towels and blankets from their homes, they brought home-made food. We slept on cots or mats from the local school's gym, and there were boxes and boxes of deodorant, shampoo and razors were provided...anything we needed. At night, the ladies of the town would pick up used towels, take them home to wash them, and bring them back fresh the next day. It was incredible." When offered money for their efforts and support, naturally the locals would have none of that. On the flight back, Ms. Brooks-Jones decided to take up a collection of pledges to start a scholarship fund for the local high school. She collected $15,000!! Incredibly, she has been back to Lewisporte 20 times since, been interviewed by Tom Brokaw for a 2010 Vancouver Olympics spot, helped over 130 kids get college scholarships and the fund now has over $1.5 million!! ( ) That is a wonderful story, and it says as much about the tremendous generosity of Americans as it does of the Newfoundlanders. 

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson attended the 9/11 memorial ceremony in Gander, clearly with deeply mixed emotions. Ms. Brooks-Jones was in attendance as well, and was kind enough to share her story on CBC Radio later with Rex Murphy. They were there to celebrate the incredible friendship between the peoples of Canada and the U.S. amidst the terrible evil and horror 10 years earlier. 

Ambassador Jacobson told the people that "on a day when some tried to strike a blow at the very core of what it means to be human, you affirmed with grace, compassion and good humour, our faith in the goodness of people. You were the best of us. Ten years ago the world thrust greatness upon the people of this remarkable corner of Canada. And for that the people of the United States are eternally grateful.” Brian Candow, a Gander priest who led the ceremony, I think put it best: “When the world came to Gander that day, we were given the privilege of doing what we believe all people are put on Earth to do — love one’s neighbour as oneself.” 

If you are interested in learning more about these wonderful stories of humanity and the friendships that can be borne out of even the worst of situations, you should consider Jim Defede's book "The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland". The reviews on Amazon, mostly from Americans, are in themselves, inspirational. Click here to be redirected to the Amazon website where you can purchase your own copy.

And God Bless America!

Jim McGovern