An oasis of kindness on 9/11: This town welcomed 6,700 strangers amid terror attacks

GANDER, NEWFOUNDLAND - They still don't know what all the fuss is about.

Sixteen years ago, this small Canadian town on an island in the North Atlantic Ocean took in nearly 6,700 people – almost doubling its population – when the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington forced 38 planes to land here.

Their simple hospitality to the unexpected house guests drew worldwide accolades and even inspired a Broadway musical.

“Everyone looks at us and says that’s an amazing thing that you did, and the bottom line is I don’t think it was an amazing thing, I think it was the right thing you do,” says Diane Davis, 53, a now-retired teacher who helped 750 people housed at the town's elementary school.

In a world today seemingly fraught with division, terrorism and hate, they’d do it all over again. Kindness is woven into the very fabric of their nature — they don’t know any other way to live.

“What we consider the most simple thing in life is to help people,” says Mayor Claude Elliott, who retires this month after serving as the town’s leader for 21 years. “You’re not supposed to look at people’s color, their religion, their sexual orientation — you look at them as people.”

To give you a glimpse of life here, start with this: Many Ganderites don’t lock the doors to their homes or cars. Everyone says hello to everyone. People know their neighbors. “My love” or “my dear” adorn every other sentence — except the Newfie accent makes the “my” sound like “me.”

Still, there’s a wariness here: Not for the town itself, nor its future, nor the anchor of civility it represents. Instead, there’s a concern for the rest of the world, especially the U.S., as it faces terrorism, rogue nations and violent protests in the streets.

“I'm scared at the way we're going and what the world will look like in 10 years,” says Elliott, 67. “If we keep on going, we’re going to set our world back 100 years.”

A sinking feeling

When Garry Tuff, then acting manager of safety and security for emergency response services at Gander International Airport, saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center, he knew his town of 10,000 people would be impacted. The airport here marks the closest point between Europe and the U.S. and is a preferred emergency landing spot for medical and other emergencies.

The 38 planes came “fast and furious” into the airport a short while later.

After figuring out how to park all the planes, some of which later started sinking into the pavement because of their weight and the warm temperatures, officials spent the next 24 hours unloading luggage and people. Passengers faced intense scrutiny as they passed through customs. “Everybody was a suspect,” says Des Dillon, 75, then the manager of the Canadian Red Cross in Gander.

But everyone was a guest, too. Beyond the basics of food and water, some passengers on board needed medicine. Many left prescriptions in checked, inaccessible luggage. Pharmacists in town worked around the clock, calling dozens of countries to fill prescriptions.

Then, there were the smokers on board, unable to get a fix for hours. “We bought every bit of nicotine gum that was in town,” Tuff says.

Welcome to Gander, casserole city

To say this town of 10,000 people and its surrounding communities welcomed the passengers and crew from nearly 100 countries with open arms is an understatement. The town all but shut down for the “plane people,” inspiring the Tony-award winning Broadway musical Come From Away.

“We did not know how we would be affected, if these people were staying, if the people who were coming were good people or not so good people,” says Linda Sweetapple, 54, business manager and partner at Sweetapple Accounting Group. “We just knew that we had to make room for them and take care of them. They were here, and they needed our help.”

As the planes, still packed with passengers, sat for hours at the airport, the town bustled with activity. Volunteers readied makeshift shelters — every school, gym, community center, church and camp, any place that could fit a planeload of people. Gander’s 500 hotel rooms were reserved for pilots and flight crews.

Bus drivers in the middle of a nasty strike laid down picket signs. Donations of toiletries, clothes, toys, towels, toothbrushes, pillows, blankets and bedding piled up. For security reasons, passengers weren’t allowed to take checked bags.

Gander residents began cooking — a lot. Grocery store shelves went bare. The Walmart ran out of nearly everything — underwear was a particularly hot commodity — and the local hockey rink transformed into the world’s largest refrigerator.

“It was like casserole city,” says Reg Wright, 43, president and CEO of Gander International Airport.

'Poster child for hospitality'

Stuck on planes for up to 31 hours since taking off from Europe and in the age before smartphones and social media, many passengers didn’t know exactly what caused their diversion to this tiny Canadian province. Those who did still couldn’t fathom the terror attacks in the U.S. without seeing them.

When passengers finally saw the destruction, Gander Police Constable Oz Fudge, 62, remembers the gasps.

“You hear this ‘huh’ when the plane hit the towers,” says Fudge, the town’s police constable. “That sound I hear all the time, of the shock that’s on their faces as they’re standing there looking at this TV and the look of loss on their faces.

"I’ll live with that for the rest of my life."

The outpouring of kindness in the town only multiplied over the next five days. Gander residents took passengers sightseeing, moose hunting, berry picking and barbecuing. They entertained with music, stopped anyone walking down the street in case they wanted a ride and brought strangers into their homes for showers or even as guests for a few nights. They refused to accept money, though passengers later donated thousands to the town.

“They couldn’t comprehend what we were doing,” says Dave Blundon, 67, who took in one of the families. “The way they looked at you — they almost wanted to touch you to make sure you’re real.”

Robert Steuber, 55, stranded with his wife and elderly father-in-law after their Paris to St. Louis jet diverted, never felt like an outsider.

“That whole community is the poster child for how hospitality and just a sheer act of humanity should be because they had such a high level of open arms, and come in and welcome and here’s my house,” says Steuber, whose St. Louis family eventually ended up with the Blundons. “It just absolutely floored me.”

The 'come from aways'

Israel, Austria, Spain, Poland, France, the Philippines, Iran, Italy, England, Germany, Thailand, Belgium, Ukraine, Africa, Hungary, Uganda, Senegal, Russia, United Arab Emirates and just about every state in the USA. The “come from aways,” as Newfoundlanders call anyone not from the island, were from all over the world, and despite the intense situation, no one in Gander batted an eye — prejudice against anyone is an entirely foreign concept here.

Today, the crosswalk in front of Gander’s town hall is painted as a rainbow, and churches raised thousands of Canadian dollars to welcome four Syrian refugee families into the community, with a fifth scheduled to arrive next year. Many here don’t understand the division and hate in other parts of the world.

“One thing this world is lacking today is common sense, that’s going out the door. We have to set more of an example and show the world we can all live in harmony regardless of what we are,” Elliott, the mayor, says.

That lesson wove its way into and changed Kevin Tuerff’s life. Sixteen years after his Air France flight from Paris to New York  diverted to Gander, Tuerff, 51, is a character in the musical, author of the book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 and the force behind a Pay It Forward 9/11 movement that urges everyone to perform acts of kindness each year.

Gander is like a second home to him. “They are a shining beacon for how America once was kind to strangers, immigrants and refugees, and we need to get back that way,” he says.

Yet, over and over again, residents here say what happened in Gander isn’t unique, that anyone would lend a hand in a crisis, even pointing to residents in Texas and around the U.S. who helped during Hurricane Harvey.

“No matter where you go people are good. I truly believe that in my heart. There’s 1% arseholes everywhere and if this happened where you live, you would help,” says Karen Mills, 54, manager of the Comfort Inn in Gander. “But Newfoundlanders, we’re a different breed in a lot of ways."

© 2017, USA Today


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