I slept in Mrs. Breen's first-grade classroom the first night. In Canada. On the floor. Not the bed I was dreaming of after three weeks on a USAID consulting project in Jordan. With approximately 12,000 other passengers who had been diverted from the unspeakable horror that gripped New York and Washington, I set up camp and tried to sleep amid heavy snoring and intermittent announcements.
After 11 hours in transit and 10 hours locked in a Lufthansa plane on the ground, visions of my own warm bed in the District faded. But my discomfort and that of my fellow passengers was slight compared with those caught in the horrific act of terrorism that forced our detour. In fact we could not have come to a nicer town, but we did not know that until well after midnight.
That's when we were driven to Gander Academy -- a K-6 elementary school in Gander, Newfoundland. Food, blankets, sheets, towels, dental supplies, phones, and e-mail connections waited for us, along with the whole town of volunteers.
The effort here is staggering. From Gander to the surrounding towns of Norris Arm and Glenwood, our northern neighbors welcomed us. Gander Academy was one of many facilities available to weary passengers.
Three food stations in the grammar school offered bread, cereal, milk, homemade muffins, doughnuts, fresh coffee every five minutes.
Passengers sat dazed in front of two TVs, absorbing the magnitude of the situation. As exhausted as I was, I stayed there watching till 4 a.m. Finally, I dragged myself away and settled in.
This grammar school holds 800 children. There are 25 in Mrs. Breen's classroom. Last night I was one of 15 in a room. Pint-size chairs and tables were stacked up against the sides of the room. Our mattresses were blankets and sheets on the floor. I had four decent hours of sleep and when I awoke, here's what I saw on her walls: drawings of cheery red apples, scissors and pencils with faces and poems. One read:
Red apples Blue Sky Yellow buses It's September.
Falling Leaves Rainbow crayons Many Questions It's September.
Opening doors Opening books Opening hearts It's September. Welcome children.
Then Diane Breen, a teacher for 27 years, walked into her classroom. She welcomed me, showed me where Gander was on the map, then answered my questions.
Twelve thousand people had arrived in a town of 10,000. As of 7 a.m., 17 of 34 flights had been processed.
"My husband works for customs and got called at noon yesterday," Breen said. "He's worked for 24 hours and hasn't slept. Six thousand were processed through the night."
"Please thank him," I said. "Everyone has been so friendly."
"That's normal for Newfoundland. Everyone is friendly even though our economy is poor. Fishing was the big industry here but it's mostly closed up, not much cod left. The international airport is the industry in Gander. There's an armed forces base next to the airport, too. Arrow Air -- about 200 military men -- crashed here from the States . . . years ago around Christmastime. We helped then, too."
As we were chatting, another passenger -- a mother with four young children, ages 2 to 7 -- came into the room and Breen immediately asked if they had enough to play with, then provided more. On the opposite wall I noticed another of her poems:
Welcome, children. I'm happy you're here. We're all going to have A wonderful year.
We'll read And we'll write And we'll sing And we'll play
We'll build And we'll paint And learn new things Each day.
All day long former students -- seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders -- have also been lending their time and services, collecting trash and handing out water. Over the public address system friendly voices announced rides into town, showers in residents' homes, religious services, bowling, soccer and children's activities.
This obvious effort to occupy the children and relieve passenger boredom was an attempt to return to normalcy, because life after all does go on, but I couldn't help thinking all these activities seem so frivolous in light of the loss of so many lives. Still, new volunteers arrived to keep us in good spirits.
It wasn't just staff and parents who pitched in. All over town the desire to help "our neighbors" was omnipresent. Everyone felt so sad, and pitching in was a panacea.
Joan, a volunteer who was neither staff nor parent, told me that she and her husband had driven past the airfield the previous afternoon. "I mean, you are our neighbors," she said, "and this affects the whole world, doesn't it? 'I feel so helpless,' I said to my husband. So we asked what we could do and started setting up the bedding at the three schools."
I decided to take advantage of the current shower announcement and went with two male passengers to Dave's and Vita's house. These strangers -- a retired couple with four children and seven grandchildren -- generously offered their modest home for whatever we needed. Vita chatted with me over coffee while we waited for the others to finish showering.
She seemed delighted to have the company. She said she is a homemaker and does a bit of quilting.
Vita and Dave had been married 49 years and looked so content. It was then I realized the simplicity of their lives. That very contentment allowed them space to be as friendly as they were.
That day, cots, air mattresses, towels, toiletries and free T-shirts began to arrive at the school. And the food continued to flow -- as did the high spirits and good nature of our new friends despite the taxing of systems -- human and man-made.
In fact, by the third day, the health authorities became concerned with the crowding and a possible case of salmonella poisoning and made a decision to move about 250 of us to a new location. Because all the in-town schools, community centers and hotels were filled, they placed us in a remote Salvation Army retreat, Twin Ponds -- used mostly by children in the summer.
So no sooner had I adapted to my air mattress than I found myself climbing a wooden ladder to the top of a bunk bed -- this time four to a room in barracks-style cabins. As one of the other passengers remarked, "The last time I did this was 40 years ago."
Needless to say, our comfort level did not increase. Though the desire to help us remained sincere, isolating us took a toll.
At what point, I wondered, do people lose civility? Yes, there's been a national tragedy; yes, the people of Gander have been wonderful; yes, the circumstances are extraordinary, but we've moved to a different level. When does crowd mentality take over, and when do people begin to lose sight of what happened to focus instead on what is happening to them? In the beginning, passengers felt grateful and lucky -- to the crew, to the community, to the fates -- grateful and lucky to be alive and safe. But when does the need for personal comfort overtake the feeling of gratefulness?
Physical isolation from family and friends seemed bearable when electronic communication was possible. On a human level, e-mail provided connectivity and reassurance and expression -- a way to confront the tragedy. At the elementary school the bay of computers and high-speed e-mail access not only provided a link to the outside world but also an activity. People logged on dozens of times each day. I wondered how long the lack of communication would test our endurance. With only one outgoing and one incoming phone line, one TV, and no Internet access, anger and frustration among the passengers rose quickly.
Ironically, the authorities isolated us to provide better sanitary conditions, but the water system at Twin Ponds gave out and we were moved once again late the next day. This time we relocated to the College of the North Atlantic at Gander, back in town where a computer lab with an Ethernet connection restored civility.
The staff there was exhausted as they had just cleaned up from another passenger group, but went right back at it after just an hour's notice. They asked us to be patient. Many had already worked 18 hours. They began serving food, preparing cots, servicing phone messages and assisting at the computers.
This turned out to be a pause in the journey, not an overnight. Apparently, planes were being refueled, cleaned and slowly cleared for takeoff. The airfield was still clogged with planes blocking planes and no one knew what direction they were flying -- on to the original destination or back to the country of origin. The FAA still had not cleared the airspace for foreign carriers. For us, it looked like a return to Frankfurt not Dulles, and takeoff might still be hours away. Which caused no end of discussion. Most of the U.S. passengers were looking for options to head home. German passengers were content with Frankfurt.
A few of us looked into alternative arrangements. If we jumped ship, so to speak, we'd still have to get to the airport to identify our luggage. Key to all our planning was Tony, a one-man, all-service volunteer -- offering home, chauffeuring, and providing travel and community information. Mike, a fellow Washingtonian, went to Tony's house to make arrangements. I stayed and searched the Web for driving directions.
Finally, the plane was being readied for departure. Amid hasty goodbyes, e-mail address exchanges, promises to keep in touch, and wishes of safe journeys, several of us watched our fellow passengers disappear behind the gate.
We'll make our way out of Gander, toward D.C. in the morning via taxi, ferry, car and train. It still may take several days, and I don't know when I'll sleep in my own bed again, but thanks to the community in Gander, Newfoundland, who opened their hearts and their town, I was safe and well-fed. And thanks, Mrs. Breen, for welcoming me. I've learned new things each day.