Fifteen years ago, on the day the World Trade Center fell, the Pentagon burned and almost 3,000 people died, hundreds of aircraft carrying thousands of passengers were ordered to land.
When the United States shut down its airspace, tiny Gander International Airport in Newfoundland opened its runways, taking in 38 wide-body planes on transatlantic routes.
And this is where one of the many inspiring stories of 9/11 unfolded.
It’s okay. Love this touching story of Gander; revel in it. Because every year, as Sept. 11 reminds America of the unfiltered evil in our world, it’s also necessary to remind ourselves of the human capacity for kindness, selflessness and generosity.
The people of Gander, a town of no more than 10,000, looked at all those planes lined up at the airport and didn’t think of terrorism, didn’t see potential attacks. They just wanted to help.
It was a logistical challenge. The city didn’t have hotels or restaurants to take in nearly 7,000 passengers, and the community knew that the people from more than 100 countries stuck on those planes were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers. Just like the Newfoundlanders were.
Christa Folkes, who had just become a grandmother, was on one of those planes.
She was returning from a solo trip to visit her family in Germany and was on her way back to Norfolk when her plane was diverted to Gander, said her daughter-in-law, Amy Folkes.
The family was frantic, wondering whether Grandma was okay. She was.
“She had a fantastic experience there; everyone treated her very well,” Amy Folkes said. Her mother-in-law, who just turned 80, was on the road again and couldn’t be reached to tell the story herself.
But Amy and the rest of the family remember that their matriarch was shown kindness, comfort and compassion in those fraught days.
The people of Gander and surrounding fishing villages filled their schools, community rooms and churches with cots for Christa Folkes and the other stranded passengers.
The town’s bus drivers, who were on strike that day, walked off their picket lines and went back to work. Bakeries went into overdrive production, hospitals staffed up, and many of the townspeople opened their homes and offered their beds to the “plane people.”
They found a way to care for the 17 dogs and cats and the two great apes that were also aboard the planes.
There, on a Canadian island of green hills and rocky coasts, humans were at their best.
“9/11 will live long in memory as a day of terror and grief,” said then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at the Gander airport on the first anniversary of the attacks. “But thanks to the countless acts of kindness and compassion done for those stranded visitors here in Gander and right across Canada, it will live forever in memory as a day of comfort and of healing.”
The good vibes go on, 228 times.
Shirley Brooks-Jones, 80, was one of those plane people on her way back home to Ohio from Europe when Delta Flight 15 — the same plane that Folkes was on — was diverted to Newfoundland.
After 28 hours on the plane, she and her fellow passengers were bused to the even tinier fishing village of Lewisporte. They spent the next three days in that town, where the mayor and most of the residents cooked elaborate meals, let them use their showers, even borrow their cars.
None of the townspeople would accept money. So after the passengers were finally able to reboard their plane, Brooks-Jones, a longtime fundraiser at Ohio State University, had a midair idea. She passed around a notebook and asked each of the passengers to contribute to a scholarship fund for the children of Gander.
They had $15,000 when they landed.
Brooks-Jones did this for a living. So she helped turn that into more money — the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship fund has grown to about $2 million.
“As of this year, the scholarship has been received by 228 graduates of Lewisporte Collegiate” high school, Brooks-Jones said.
There were 28 scholarships this year. Brooks-Jones has returned to Newfoundland 26 times and often meets with students who got the scholarships, including one who is now a town doctor.
And get this: The story of Gander is so remarkable that it has inspired a musical, "Come From Away," playing at Ford's Theatre in Washington right now. See it if you can.
The “plane people” included the frantic parents of a New York City firefighter (he died), a man and woman who fell in love in Gander (they got married) and a gay couple who worried about whether a small Canadian town would welcome them (it did).
Most of us still have vivid memories of the horror of that day. We relive the fear those terrorists instilled in our society every time we take off our shoes at the airport, go through a metal detector at a museum or maneuver past ugly concrete bollards.
But let’s also consider the incredible acts of bravery we witnessed that day. And the days that humans were at their best in a small town in Newfoundland.
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