One terrifying week in September of 2001, a remarkable experience
unfolded in a remote locale of maritime Canada

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On September 11, 2001, the United States shut down its airspace in response to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania.  At that moment, there were still hundreds of international flights crossing the Atlantic and Pacific bound for destinations now closed to them. These planes were too far along to turn back, and were ordered to land in Canada.

The government of Canada and the Canadian people responded with what has come to be known as “Operation Yellow Ribbon”.  Canadians came to the aid of Americans on September 11 and the days that followed, managing the crisis in the skies and then welcoming thousands of passengers into their communities and homes.

Nowhere was this story played out more dramatically than the town of Gander, in the island province of Newfoundland, one of many locations where Canadian spirit and generosity were on full display.  This town of just 10,000 people played a significant role because of its specific place in aviation history, its outsized response in relation to its small population, and the lasting bonds formed by its citizens and the stranded passengers for whom they provided a safe port.

Once a busy refueling stop for trans-Atlantic military flights, by 2001 Gander International Airport had faded to insignificance, receiving no more than a few flights each day.  But on September 11, Gander’s airfield incredibly landed 38 jumbo jets in a matter of hours, the planes lining up the runways literally wingtip to wingtip.  Nearly 7000 passengers and crew were on board – a number that would nearly double Gander’s population.

Over the next several days, the people of Gander and surrounding communities responded with countless acts of kindness and generosity, providing food and clothes and beds and showers and places to stay and, perhaps most important, emotional comfort — until U.S. airspace reopened and their thousands of stranded guests could finally return home.

9/11 will live long in memory as a day of terror and grief.  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.”

     Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chrétien
     Memorial service held at Gander, Newfoundland
    September 11, 2002

In Gander and in scattered hamlets for miles around, everyone has a part of it to tell — how half a dozen or so isolated communities opened their hearts to strangers who dropped from the sky and changed their lives.

Greg King was there when it started.  An air traffic controller, he was on duty on Sept. 11 at Gander, once the hub of North Atlantic air travel, but now an airport that sees few commercial aircraft on the ground while still directing them overhead.  Late that morning, when he was preparing for the daily ”wall of airplanes” from Europe heading for arrivals in New York and other cities, Mr. King suddenly received an order to shut down the sky.

Thirty-eight planes were told to land immediately, and for a couple of hours Mr. King barely had time to call his wife and say he would be bringing strangers home for the night.  At some point, he recalls, he also registered a fleeting image of an Air France Boeing 747 that was ”bigger than the airport terminal” itself.

Gander, a town of 10,000 people with 550 hotel rooms, had to find beds and food for 6,579 passengers and crew members.  Other airstrip towns in Newfoundland and Labrador also had unexpected company, but none on this scale.

”This never happened before in the history of aviation,” said Terry Parsons, then the chairman of the Gander International Airport Authority.  Fortunately, Gander — created as a military airfield and a trans-Atlantic refueling point in the 1930’s — has a long runway, and a disaster plan. It also has churches, service clubs, doctors and shop owners with small-town, good-neighbor values long out of date in many places, including other parts of Canada.

”We’re used to helping people,” said then-Mayor Claude Elliott, speaking of a region that lives with rough seas, harsh weather and an uncertain economy.  ”I guess our biggest problem was trying to explain to people where they were.”

Jake Turner, the town manager, went into action as soon as the planes started landing.  Des Dillon of the Canadian Red Cross was asked to round up beds, along with Major Ron Stuckless of the Salvation Army, who also became the coordinator of a mass collection of food that emptied refrigerators for miles around.  Employees from the local co-op supermarket arrived with a refrigerated truck full of meat and other provisions. At St. Martin’s Anglican Church, Hilda Goodyear spent 48 mostly sleepless hours organizing bedding and priming the parish hall’s kitchen for a Lufthansa flight.

People from as far away as Twillingate, an island off the coast of Newfoundland, prepared enough sandwiches and soup for at least 200 people and drove an hour and a half to Gander to deliver it to dazed and frightened passengers being herded off planes without luggage and under intense scrutiny.

Responding to radio announcements, the residents and businesses of Gander and other towns supplied toothbrushes, deodorant, soap, blankets and even spare underwear, along with offers of hot showers and guest rooms.  The local telephone company set up phone banks for passengers to call home.  A cable TV company wired schools and church halls, where passengers watched events unfolding in New York and realized how lucky they were.

There were some with special needs.  One local couple obtained kosher food through an airport caterer and a new set of kitchenware for an orthodox Jewish family from New York.  At the Gander Baptist Church, parishioners dealt with the needs of four refugee families from Moldova who spoke no English and were bewildered by events.

High school classes were cancelled in Gander and the surrounding small communities within a 75-kilometer radius, as were scheduled activities at meeting halls, lodges, and other places of gathering.  These facilities were then outfitted, some with cots, and others with sleeping bags or blankets and pillows.  High school students were summoned to mandatory service providing assistance to their “guests.”

All of the passengers from one aircraft – 218 in all – were transported to a town called Lewisporte, about 45 kilometers from Gander, where they were sheltered in the community’s high school.  Women preferring to be housed in a women-only facility were provided one.  Families were kept together.  Elderly passengers were given no choice but to be lodged in private homes.  A pregnant woman was lodged in a home directly across the street from a 24-hour urgent care facility.  Doctors were on call and nurses were on hand at all times.  Telephone calls and emails to the U.S. and Europe were made available for every one once each day.

The passengers, who left with tears and hugs, have responded with their own astonishing acts of generosity.  Lewisporte, a seaside town where 4,000 people made room for 773 unexpected guests, received new lighting for the church and a scholarship fund which, now in its tenth year, has provided 134 college scholarships and grown to nearly $1.5 million.

Thousands of dollars in gifts have been donated so far to Gander, a town where no one asked to be paid for their hospitality.

Those five days in September, and the stream of e-mail messages, gifts, photographs and invitations that still pour in, have given an incalculable lift to the Newfoundlanders — the ”Newfies” who are the butt of rube jokes in the rest of Canada.

”It gave the people a sense of self-worth,” said a retired teacher and school librarian. ”Newfoundlanders have often felt put down. They speak funny. There are all those ‘goofy Newfie’ jokes.

”We are all appreciated,” he added. ”We are good people.”

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The reception that stranded travelers received in the central Newfoundland communities near the Gander airport has been one of the most widely reported positive stories — and one of the most reassuring — surrounding that memorable and tragic day.

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 The following eight-minute video from ABC News provides another telling of this timely and worthwhile story.

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This article was adapted from a story by Barbara Crossette, among other sources.