I soon became one of the “plane people” portrayed in the Broadway musical “Come From Away,” which tells the story of what happened when we were forced to land in far eastern Canada. If you see the show, which reopens later this month, bring tissues.
After my plane touched down on the old military airstrip in Gander, Newfoundland, we remained stuck there for 13 hours. Attendants started rationing water, and smokers got cagey. Then, reports trickled in from people making phone calls to family that the World Trade Center had been hit. That’s all we knew. Remember, this was the age of flip phones.
I know it was horrific to watch the events unfold on TV, but trust me, it was also traumatic to be trapped in a steel cylinder cut off from our country, unable to grieve with it. We couldn’t even see what was going on — but could already sense that whatever it was, things might never be normal again.
At the time, I worked as a television reporter in Albany, N.Y. “What’s going on?” I whispered to a flight attendant who was trying to keep us calm. It was hot and starting to get smelly.
She motioned me over to a window away from the other passengers. “Look,” she said softly, raising the window shade so I could glimpse the 38 jets from all over the world, all grounded just like us. “We’re not going anywhere for a long time.”
She was right. What I didn’t know then was that this nightmare, and the five days I’d be stuck in this town I’d never heard of, would change me forever.
“You must be starving, honey,” I remember a Red Cross volunteer saying as she handed me a sandwich and we stumbled through the Gander airport assembly line. Most of us donate to the Red Cross once in a while. But when you’re the one they’re helping, you start wondering why you didn’t give more.
Some 7,000 of us passengers nearly doubled the population of Gander — and its international airport hadn’t seen such activity in decades. The spot was a base for Atlantic aircraft in World War II, then it served as a stopover for transatlantic travel. But once long-range jets didn’t require refueling, Gander’s airport traffic consisted mainly of corporate, cargo and regional flights.
School buses shuttled us to makeshift shelters but, because of the terrorist attacks and uncertainty about who was on our flights, we couldn’t get our luggage. Canadian Mounties and bomb-sniffing dogs inspected every single piece.
As I entered the crowded lobby of a school that would be my home for the next five days, I spotted passengers from other flights, their faces contorted and wet, eyes riveted to something perched above. I swiveled to find out why. Televisions. It was here — 15 full hours after the attacks — that we saw the towers fall. We sobbed together, speechless, exhausted and unable to move.
Over the next several days, we learned of the thousands of deaths and the tremendous, heartbreaking recovery effort.
The Ganderites, as we learned our hosts were called, hung their heads out of respect, cried with us, and hugged those who clearly needed it. They gently guided us into classrooms turned dorms, where homespun quilts decorated mattresses on the floor. It smelled like a high school locker room, but we were just as grateful as if it had been a five-star hotel. They supplied us with soap, razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Bone-tired, we collapsed into sleep.
In the morning, they greeted us with coffee, bacon and toutons — a local specialty that is like a pancake doughnut. Then, the homemade casserole train began. Can you imagine feeding thousands of unannounced houseguests? That’s what they did. All day long. Egg bakes, Newfoundland cod au gratin, even moose stew. The region is known for its hot dish delights.
Predictably, Americans walked around mumbling, “Where are we again?” and fumbled over how to explain on the phone with family. So, on day two, a giant map appeared with a circle around Gander next to an arrow saying, “You are here.”
Also on day two, news reports that the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald was hit hard by the terrorist attack reached my ears — and engulfed my heart. I knew that my college boyfriend Todd Isaac, a gregarious guy from the Bronx who earned his way to Phillips Academy prep school and the College of the Holy Cross, worked there. Please God, not Todd.
Cell service was spotty, so a kind young couple took us to their home to use the landline. I couldn’t reach Todd, so I asked a friend in New York to track down his roommate. We tried to give our hosts money for that call, and many others to follow, but they refused. They let us shower, outfitted us with their own clothes and talked with us for hours about our grief and lives back home.
They could have looked at us suspiciously. They could have thought that some 7,000 of us showing up in their town was an inconvenience. They could have balked at spending their own money to make endless casseroles and cover mounting phone bills. They could have said, “This isn’t my problem.” But they didn’t.
“This is just who we are,” I remember one lumberjack-looking guy explaining, as we thanked him over dinner in the school cafeteria. I have to wonder: Would Americans let strangers — especially foreigners — into their homes to shower?
On day three, we ventured to Walmart for clothes and underwear. Everything was practically gone, but I spotted one bright, flowery shirt dangling on a rack — not my usual style, but we were desperate. I grabbed one sleeve and another passenger grabbed the other. Back home, this might not have ended well. But here? We went back and forth insisting the other take it. I realized the locals were rubbing off on us.
I did audio reports for my TV station from rows of phone banks a local telecom company set up. But I struggled for the words to express how the community members had gathered us in their arms and loved us, no questions asked.
It’s no surprise their goodwill inspired the musical “Come From Away.” I’ve been putting off seeing the show for years, avoiding the emotions it will surely unleash.
But on this 20th anniversary, I’m going. At a time when our country is in a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and hatred has raged over masks, politics and vaccines, I think it’s essential viewing. For all of us. It’s a tale of the good that comes when we look out for each other.
Those five days made me look at my own American egoism and selfishness. I retell my son the story every year without fail. As a single mom, I’ve tried to raise him to be accepting, empathetic and kind. For years, I emailed with the couple who helped us, but then life happened, and I can’t find our messages anymore.
But I will never forget how they comforted me when my friend called to say DNA tests from Todd’s toothbrush confirmed he had perished in One World Trade Center. I called his mom after they finally opened up airspace and we returned to an empty and eerie JFK Airport. I could finally lock myself in my bedroom alone and cry.
“I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from you, Amy,” she said. “I was like, where is Amy? Does she know?”
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Isaac,” I said, struggling to speak. “I was one of the people trapped — I mean taken care of — in Canada.”
To all those who helped us and opened their homes and hearts to us, thank you is not enough. Two decades later, I’d like them to know one thing: I have always tried to be a little more like you.
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