The Capital of Kindness

On 9/11, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador showed stranded travelers the true meaning of compassion. And that’s how it became a tourist destination.
The view of St. John’s from Signal Hill, Newfoundland, Canada.
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Photos by Jennifer Roberts

Dianne Flynn pressed play on the stereo and released the voice of country singer Alan Jackson into her home in Newfoundland. Her husband, Derm Flynn, listened to the words intently, his face and thoughts drawn inward.

Derm, the former mayor of Appleton, sang along in a near whisper.

The view of St. John’s from Signal Hill, Newfoundland, Canada.

I’m just a singer of simple songs / I’m not a real political man.

I sat across from Derm on the leather couch where, 18 years ago, an American had slept after his plane was diverted to eastern Canada following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In all, 38 commercial planes and four military aircraft were forced to land at Gander International Airport. More than 6,500 passengers descended on several small towns in central Newfoundland. Appleton was one of them. Gander was another.

In “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Jackson repeatedly asks us, “Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?” I was in Washington, on my way to work. My mother, who was also sitting beside me on the Flynns’ couch, was sailing with my father in Croatia, far from a telephone. Dianne and Derm were in Appleton, preparing for more visitors than the area had ever handled in one month, much less one day.

“Everybody was doing what they could,” said Derm, whose town of 680 residents cared for about 90 passengers for up to five days. “The plane people needed food and a place to eat and sleep. They needed some assurance, compassion, love and counseling. They needed someone to give them a warm hug.”

My mother and I spent three hours — not five days — with the Flynns in early June. And in that short time we received heartfelt conversation, a ramekin of fish with cheese, homemade fruit tarts, Appleton pins, a cup of coffee and two rounds of hugs, which I admittedly needed more than the cod and caffeine.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were catastrophic. However, the tragedy did produce one positive outcome: Americans came together, healing en masse. But that was 2001. The 2016 presidential election and current administration have fragmented our country. Our pieces don’t fit anymore; we are no longer whole. I am no longer whole.

Current events are causing me to sleep less and curse more. No rom-com movie or carb-heavy meal or puppy yoga session can dispel the sense of dread I feel as I watch the pillars of tolerance and decency wobble and threaten to fall. I have tried to find a release close to home, but none of my usual therapies are sticking. I needed a more powerful pill to lift my spirits and remind me that good people and selfless deeds still exist. So I decided to fly north of the border and due east for some mending. If 9/11 history served correctly, Newfoundland could restore me.

The Gander airport’s international terminal, which opened in 1959, has the province’s first escalator, paneled in wood. In all, 38 commercial planes and four military aircraft were forced to land at the airport when flights were rerouted on 9/11. Many in the province cared for the passengers — the inspiration behind the musical “Come From Away.”

In the 847-page Dictionary of Newfoundland English, you can find one phrase for inclement weather (“not fit fer a dog”) and nearly a dozen terms of endearment, including “m’darling,” “ducky” and “trout.” In Canada’s easternmost province, affection trumps storminess.

I learned a sampling of these sayings from a display in the lobby of the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, which is staging “Come From Away” through Dec. 1. (The title refers to anyone who is not from Newfoundland and Labrador.) The Tony Award-winning musical about the events that unfolded in Newfoundland on and after 9/11 has been drawing audiences and accolades all over North America and beyond. Members of the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College in Ontario developed and workshopped the show in 2012. Over five years it ascended the performing arts ladder, from regional theater festivals to Broadway. The show, which was staged at Ford’s Theatre in 2016, returns to Washington on Dec. 10 for a nearly four-week stint at the Kennedy Center.

While studying the vocabulary list, I met Susan Rollinson, an audience member whose vernacular rolled off her Newfoundland tongue.

“Newfoundland is a great place to be from,” she said. “We’re all about giving. We take care of people. We’re also curious. ‘Oh, you’re from away?’ Away is a big place.”

After the 100-minute performance, I sought out Susan. She wasn’t hard to find. I spotted her a few rows back, frozen in place, her cheeks glistening with tears.

“I’m so proud,” she said. “That’s my people. That’s what we do. The actors gave dignity to what we stand for: humanity and kindness.”

We exited a side door together, hoping to bump into the actors. We ran into George Masswohl, who played Derm Flynn and Gander mayor Claude Elliott, among other characters. Susan, full of emotion, thanked him for his moving portrayal and complimented him on his accent. I told George I thought the audience was not just applauding the actors, but that they were cheering for Newfoundlanders — and for altruism and empathy. He agreed.

“We take this very seriously,” he said. “We are spreading the message of what they did, with no questions asked.”

Derm and Dianne Flynn make dinner for guests at their home in Appleton, Newfoundland. Derm Flynn was the town’s mayor when 9/11 left passengers stranded in the province.

We landed in the provincial capital of St. John’s on a cold, gray and foggy summer’s day. However, we didn’t stand still long enough to feel the chill. We rushed over to the Rooms, a cultural center, to catch a free musical performance held during the summer months. Mark Hiscock, who performs traditional songs from Ireland and the province, was on a break, so we scanned the exhibits on cod fishing and musical instruments.

“Do you play?” Larry Dohey, the museum’s director of programming and public engagement, called out to me. He removed an ugly stick from its peg and stomped its kid-size boot, causing the metal bottle caps to clink and the head’s ropy dreadlocks to sway. I took the stick from his hands and pounded the floor, sounding like a petulant child with a piggy bank.

Larry grew up in a small southeastern town in Newfoundland that has more seabirds than people. In his youth, he would dress up for the Mummers Festival, a Christmas tradition, and visit neighbors’ homes wrapped in what he hoped was a cloak of anonymity. However, his costume wasn’t fooling anyone. Friends immediately knew who was beneath the get-up, identifying Larry by his footwear.

“We only had two pairs of shoes,” he said of his humble upbringing, “one for school and one for all the other times.”

On 9/11, Canada accepted more than 200 planes forced to reroute when the U.S. government closed its airspace. Halifax, Nova Scotia, accepted the most aircraft, with 47, followed by Gander and Vancouver. More than 20 planes landed in St. John’s. I asked Larry if the museum had an exhibit documenting the unprecedented event. “We wouldn’t want to steal Gander’s thunder,” he said. But he was more than happy to share his own experiences.

He told us about a Connecticut family with a baby who were returning from Belgium. The mother was afraid to board a plane, so they traveled home by car and ferry. After the concert, Larry handed me a printout of a letter from the couple.

“Never have we felt so surrounded by warmth and good will as we did during those days following 9/11 in St. John’s,” they wrote. “Actually we feel a little guilty because we had such a good time enjoying the people and learning about the heritage and culture of Newfoundland.”

The museum was closing, and Larry likely had some programming and public engaging to do before heading home. Instead, he spent several minutes sketching out an itinerary for us: Signal Hill, Cape Spear and Petty Harbour, fish and chips at Duke of Duckworth, live music at O’Reilly’s. (Of all small-world coincidences: The Flynns’ son owns the pub.) If Larry hadn’t had a full schedule of meetings the next day, I am fairly certain he would have loaded us into his car and taken us around himself. He probably would have packed us lunch, too.

Fortunately, St. John’s is compact and the road signs are in British English, not Newfoundland English. On the drive to the Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site, I spotted a large white shape offshore. Closing in on the object, I experienced a swell of emotion, from dread (Is that Styrofoam?) to elation (No, it’s an iceberg!). I parked and followed a cliffside trail, leaning in as much as possible without tumbling into the Atlantic. A local man and his friend, who had moved to New Brunswick 40 years ago, were critiquing the iceberg.

“It is small and nicely shaped,” the man said.

“I think it looks like an origami bird,” I added.

The friend called her husband at home to gloat. The pair said they had heard of a second iceberg sighting at Petty Harbour. In the nearby fishing village, I could even buy a bag of ice chipped from a berg, which seemed like a humiliating finale for a floe that had likely faced whales, cargo ships and sunshine on its journey from Greenland. I could only hope that the St. John’s berg didn’t succumb to a similar fate and spend its final moments on Earth chilling in someone’s orange juice glass.

Downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Before 9/11, Gander was primarily known for its airport and strategic location on the east coast of Canada. During World War II, more than 20,000 Allied fighter planes and bombers took off from Gander’s airport, destined for battles across the Atlantic. In 1942, the Canadian military gained control of the airfield but returned it to civilian hands after armistice. By the 1950s, Gander was operating one of the busiest international airports in the world, though few passengers ventured beyond the terminal. The airport was basically a pump-and-go station for flights needing fuel for the ocean crossing. Locals would hitchhike up to the airport to buy ice cream and search for famous faces waiting to reboard, such as Elvis Presley; Frank Sinatra, who unsuccessfully tried to cut the food line; and Johnny Cash, who drunkenly fell off his bar stool at the Big Dipper Bar.

The advent of long-haul jets put an end to Gander’s golden aviation age, though a few planes, mainly from communist countries, continued to arrive. Often times, the aircraft left with empty seats, when defectors claimed political asylum on Canadian soil. The Concorde also used the airport to test its supersonic technology. As a thank you, the company treated the airport staff to lunch in England; they arrived back in Gander a half-hour before their departure time in London, a feat accomplished by time zone.

Gander, whose main economies are aviation, government and health care, was just doing its small-town thing when terrorists attacked its southern neighbor. After all the passengers departed on Sept. 16, residents returned to their routines; even the bus strike that had been suspended resumed. In 2011, a pair of strangers showed up at the 9/11 commemoration. Seeking material for their musical, Canadian composers and lyricists Irene Sankoff and David Hein interviewed hundreds of residents and passengers about their experiences. (Michael Rubinoff, an associate dean at Sheridan College, deserves credit for the concept.) The married couple turned the conversations into “Come From Away.” In a plot twist few anticipated, come-from-aways who had seen the show started flocking to Gander — and tourism flourished.

Last year, the Flynns started offering Meet the Flynns on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the warmer months. The official season begins in July, but they received requests for June and adjusted their calendar accordingly. They’re thoughtful in that way.

A few days before our visit, Dianne sent me their address in Appleton, including distinguishing features of their house. I instructed my mother to look for three flags, but nearly every resident on their street accessorized with flags. I drove up to one house and saw a man dressed in a “Come From Away” baseball cap and T-shirt. Found it.

Derm greeted us with a big bear hug. Dianne followed, adding a kiss on the cheek. I don’t normally exchange affections with strangers, but Newfoundland was slowly turning me into a hugger. I returned their embrace. We entered their kitchen, and I noticed a photo of their grandchildren scanned onto a blanket. We chatted about grandkids and how fast they grow. (The Flynns were attending their grandson’s high school graduation in Nova Scotia the following weekend.) Derm led us to a “Come From Away”-themed photo assemblage on the wall and started naming names: director Christopher Ashley, Rubinoff, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The couple, as well as other locals dramatized in the play, often attend the show’s openings and walk the star-studded red carpet.

After admiring the indigenous art collection in their living room, we descended into the basement, known as Flynn’s Whisky Bar in the musical. The writers were not embellishing; there was definitely a bar and a lot of bottles of booze.

Derm, who retired two years ago after 24 years as mayor, told us that they decided to open their home to (paying) strangers because of a growing interest in the event. But they also wanted to tell the unsung version of the story.

If You Go
The Rooms. The St. John’s cultural center celebrates the history, traditions and people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Explore the multiple exhibits and check the calendar for special events, such as live music, food samplings and films. The on-site cafe serves local specialties including cod tongues and a touton breakfast with pan-fried bread and kettle baked beans. The center is closed Mondays from Oct. 7 through May 3. Admission fee is $10 Canadian. 709-757-8090.

Beyond Words Tour. The 9/11 tour visits several sites connected to the 2001 terrorist attacks, including the airport and town hall. The three-hour excursion also includes a visit with a resident who assisted the plane people in some capacity. The $99 Canadian fee includes admission to the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Available in the summer season. 709-256-2923.

Meet the Flynns. Dianne and Derm Flynn, who hosted six passengers, invite guests to their home in Appleton for conversation and a snack. The former mayor of Appleton and his wife also take guests to the Appleton Derm Flynn River Front Peace Park, which displays a piece of steel from the twin towers. Cost is $50 Canadian; cash only. 709-679-2232.

“ ‘Come From Away’ is more current; 9/11 is getting fainter in people’s minds,” he said. “No one will ever forget the serious part of 9/11, but we don’t want anyone to forget the people who were here and taken care of.”

After the thousands of passengers deplaned in 2001, Derm and Dianne each invited three guests to stay over, surprising each other. “We weren’t talking to each other because we were too busy,” said Derm. The passengers included an Israeli couple on their honeymoon, a New York sports reporter and a New Yorker who later became a billionaire. They also hosted Tom McKeon from New Jersey. In the musical, he is the nervous man who worried about his wallet getting stolen (fact) and collected grills from the neighbors’ backyards for a cookout (also fact).

“I told Tom that his name is now Bob,” said Derm. The reason for the name change was to avoid confusion, he explained. The husband of American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass is Tom, too.

The Flynns also shared a startling piece of information: The government had apparently directed the planes to less populated areas in case the aircraft blew up. Officials wanted to minimize the number of casualties. “We were disposable,” Dianne said with a tinge of sadness.

(Alexandre Desjardins, a spokesman for Transport Canada — Canada’s department of transport — wrote in an email, “In any decision related to the diversion of a flight to an alternate airport, the factors considered include, but are not limited to: the type of the aircraft, the number of passengers, runway length, fuel on board, urgency of the situation, weather, and services such as Canada Border Services Agency, police and Canadian Air Transport Security Authority screening.”)

After a snack of Newfoundland specialties, we followed the Flynns in their car to the Derm Flynn River Front Peace Park. It was after 9 p.m., and the sky was still strikingly blue. We entered the park, which the town built with funds donated by the grateful guests. We walked over to a long piece of rusted steel that resembled a whale. The U.S. government and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had sent a section of the World Trade Center as a thank you gift to Appleton. In true humble fashion, a plaque said that Appleton shares the honor with Gander, Gambo, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and the other communities that cared for the stranded passengers.

“If it happened again,” Derm said, “we’d be ready to respond.” The bugs were biting, so we didn’t linger for too long. But we braved the insects for one final hug.

Waves crash at Bay Bulls, south of St. John’s.
Yvonne Perrin and Lisa Crane dance at Christian’s Bar in St. John’s.
Luke Mercer plays the accordion at O’Reilly’s in St. John’s.
Clockwise from top: Waves crash at Bay Bulls, south of St. John’s; Luke Mercer plays the accordion at O’Reilly’s in St. John’s; Yvonne Perrin and Lisa Crane dance at Christian’s Bar in St. John’s.

My mother and I showed up at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, asking for Bonnie. Instead, we were introduced to Edgar Allan Poe, Cooter, Adam and Eve, and Squash, a giant tabby with Velcro paws. We were so busy playing with the rescue cats, we nearly forgot our mission: to meet the woman who defied orders for the sake of the animals.

When Bonnie Harris, the center’s manager, heard about the planes idling on the tarmac, she asked airport officials if any pets were onboard. The response was no. She didn’t accept the answer and persisted. She eventually discovered 19 animals, including two bonobo chimpanzees, in the cargo hold. She and several volunteers set to work, crawling into the tight, dark space to clean the crates and feed the animals. She soon received permission to move her charges to a hangar on airport grounds. In the musical, Bonnie learns that one of the chimps was pregnant and lost her baby. This is true, as was the birth of a healthy baby bonobo two years later by the same mom. The Columbus Zoo named him Gander.

Bonnie shrugged off the attention. This is what we do, she told us, a refrain we heard repeatedly. (Gander’s former mayor, who invited us over to his house, explained it this way: “We’re just ordinary people doing what we’re supposed to do. This was our upbringing.”) In fact, when Petrina Bromley, the Newfoundland actress who portrayed the animal rescuer on Broadway, was in town, Bonnie wasn’t available to meet the star. She had to run off to help a young orphaned moose.

In Gander, the Beyond Words Tour promises a conversation with a resident who will share personal stories from that week in 2001. Bonnie was too busy assisting other species, and our guide Katerina Lane was only 2 years old then. (The tour’s organizer, Abby Moss, was barely older, at 6.) But Katerina’s family, like the rest of the community, was very involved: Her parents worked at the airport; one grandmother made sandwiches; one grandfather was a bus driver; and the other set of grandparents volunteered with the Salvation Army.

Five of us piled into a van at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum and drove the short distance to the airport, our first stop. Inside the main hall, Katerina showed us a fragment of the World Trade Center that had traveled from New York City with a motorcycle escort of a dozen first responders. By the time it reached Gander airport, the entourage had grown to 70 riders. “It is our healing piece,” she said of the metal chunk.

For me, as an American, seeing the 9/11 artifact brought back the horror of that day and the overwhelming grief I felt for the victims and our country. But, to my surprise, I also experienced a rush of happiness. Gander’s airport was like a vortex, and I soaked up the positive energy emanating from the walls and floors of the passenger waiting room.

Katerina led us to a tunnel with a clear view of the international terminal, which opened in 1959 and resembled a “Mad Men” set, with mid-century furnishings in blue, brown and gold. She pointed out the 72-foot-long modernist mural “Flight and Its Allegories,” by Kenneth Lochhead, and the province’s first escalator, which was period-paneled in wood.

Although Katerina’s mother works for customs — she interrupted herself to wave at her mom — she did not have the authority to take us inside the terminal, which in its heyday accommodated up to 4,000 passengers daily. But Jerry Cramm does. The airport site manager, who leads free tours, will even escort you inside the women’s bathroom, where Queen Elizabeth II, who blessed the terminal 60 years ago, powdered her royal nose.

We were running behind, and Katerina pushed us along. The tour van pulled up in front of the town hall, which houses another piece of the World Trade Center plus several notebooks bulging with letters of gratitude. We entered the council meeting room and were greeted by a towering man with a pink face and a white mustache that curled down his lip like a woolly bear caterpillar. He wore the blue attire of authority. “We have been following you like groupies,” Nadia Reece, who was visiting from Toronto, shouted at Oswald “Oz” Fudge.

The retired municipal police officer spoke with us for about an hour. He told us where he was on the morning of 9/11: staking out speeding cars by the curling club. When he heard the news on the radio, he thought the report was an Orson Wellesian hoax. He still seemed in awe of the town’s speedy response. He had made a quick call to the principal of Gander Academy and, less than four hours later, volunteers had moved 1,000 desks, disinfected the elementary school (germy kids) and set up beds for 800 passengers. So many people heeded a call for toilet paper, a local news reporter had to go back on air to call off the request. When a passenger staying at Gander Collegiate expressed a curiosity about tasting moose, 20 pounds of meat showed up at the high school shelter.

Retired police officer Oswald “Oz” Fudge, center, who was on duty on 9/11, talks with tourists at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander.

“We’ve always been a Newfie joke. We were known as the welfare province,” Oz said. “But now it’s cool to be a Newfoundlander.”

In the musical, several passengers participate in a screeching-in ceremony, which turns visitors into honorary Newfoundlanders. Oz asked us if we wanted to be initiated and called Beulah Cooper, a volunteer with the Royal Canadian Legion, to make the arrangements.

“Who are ya screeching in?” we heard Beulah ask him.

They ran down the list of mandatory items: Vienna sausages, capelin, peppermint nobs, bread.

“I can pick up some Jam Jams at Walmart,” said Oz, referring to the cookie.

I asked if we could bring anything. Oz said no. Again, Gander’s residents would take care of everything for everyone. After two days in town, I was growing accustomed to their acts of generosity. And I wanted to return the gesture, even if it was as simple as donating a bag of sweets.

Later that day, we met at the Royal Canadian Legion hall, surrounded by photos of soldiers with the Canadian flag rippling behind them. Beulah had screeched-in two visitors the day before and was preparing for two busloads of tourists over the weekend.

“How many people has Todd the Cod kissed?” Oz asked of the fish pulled out of the freezer for the ritual.

“I don’t know. I’ve lost count,” Beulah responded.

Oz handed us yellow rain hats made fashionable by Gorton’s fisherman and a Newfoundland flag that we draped around our shoulders like Olympians. He seated us in a row beneath a sign that read “Lest We Forget” and began the induction.

“You’re going to have to talk like us,” he said. He and his assistant, Carl Waterman, demonstrated several scenarios. Two fishermen are passing by each other on their respective boats. Fisherman One asks if the cod are biting.

“Arn,” Oz said.

Fisherman Two replies they aren’t.

“N’arn,” Carl responded.

Now our turn.

Next, we had to stomach a buffet of traditional foods passed on down the line: bologna, also known as Newfie steak or Walbologna (“It’s best when it’s burnt,” advised Oz); smoked capelin eaten head first; ship’s biscuit, part of the old seafarer’s diet; Vienna sausage; Purity’s peppermint nobs, “to clean the palate”; and Jam Jams, also by Purity, the Newfoundland snack maker. After making sure our ritualistic foods stayed down, we had to open our mouths again to repeat the phrase, “Deed I is, me old cock. And long may your big jib draw.” Translation: “Yes indeed, my friend. Long may your big sail draw wind.” And now, the kiss.

The first participant kissed Todd the Cod as if it were a great-aunt with a heavily rouged face. “It doesn’t say peck the cod,” Carl said. The participant tried again with more passion.

As the last to go, I was required to kiss Todd the longest. At this point, both of us were melting — for different reasons. I smooched Todd and then begged for the shot of Jamaican rum to obliterate the taste. One, two, three — we downed our screech in “Come From Away” shot glasses. Beulah handed me my certification and a card that stated that I was an honorary Newfoundlander.

I have visited some of the most monumental sites on the planet, including the pyramids in Egypt, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia. I have ridden a reindeer in Mongolia, drunk beer with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia and chatted up the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. All of these experiences have wowed me. Only Gander, which has neither world-renowned landmarks nor wondrous natural attractions, has moved me.

I asked Oz what were my responsibilities. “It’s not that you should come back,” he said. “Now you have to come back. You are family.”

As a newly minted emissary of kindness, I had a sacred tradition to uphold. With Todd the Cod as my witness, I wouldn’t let my family down.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that passengers on a Concorde flight would have been in London a half-hour before their departure time in Gander. They would have arrived in Gander a half-hour before their departure time in London.

Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post staff writer.

Credits: Story by Andrea Sachs. Photos by Jennifer Roberts. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Mark Gail.