I never throw out emails. That’s why I can’t really rely on a web based email account such as yahoo or google despite all gigabytes of space that they might offer. I have tens of thousands of emails in my mailboxes – literally almost every email I got or sent since Nov/1999, when I moved to Canada.
Browsing through some old emails, I came across this report, published on The Guardian on 14 Sept 2001. The story of how the people of the small town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada pulled together all their resources to shelter, feed, and take care of thousands of passengers stranded there after the Sept 11th attacks has become well known but it’s never tiring to hear…
‘It’s great to be alive, isn’t it?’
The Guardian’s Siobhain Butterworth was on a flight from London to Washington DC on Tuesday when the terrorists struck. Her plane was diverted to Gander airport in Newfoundland, Canada. This is her story.
Friday September 14 2001
Five hours into our flight from Heathrow to Dulles, Washington, our captain, who sounds more like a country vicar than an international pilot, tells us that “for operational reasons” we will be landing in Canada – Gander, in Newfoundland. We respond with a statutory groan.
The plane circles for a good while and, chatting to my neighbour, who works for the IMF, I indulge in the wildest explanations I can think of.
“Bush has been assassinated and there has been a hijack so Washington is closed,” I suggest. We agree that the explanation was bound to be more commonplace and certainly commercial. Coming into land we peer through the tiny window, spotting Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa and other famous airline names. We are surprised to learn that Gander is an international airport.
The landing is tight. I hold onto the headrest of the seat in front. When we have landed the captain makes the announcement, in faltering speech, that there have been “incidents” in the US and that US and Canadian airspace are closed.
The incidents were “beyond description” says the captain. Too terrible to describe. The response is silence. He struggles to tell us, his voice teary, that a plane has hit the World Trade Centre, two planes from Boston had collided and another was missing in Pittsburgh. He tells us wearily that this was thought to be the work of suicide bombers.
Collective sharp intake of breath. Some break down in tears, hands covering faces. The captain continues. There is a freeze on fuel and we are “basically impounded” by the Canadian authorities who for “understandable reasons” are concerned about security in their own airspace.
After the announcement we are on our own. We cannot use mobile phones. We have no access to the media. I feel like a bit part player in a cheesy American disaster movie, only this time Bruce Willis didn’t show up.
We sit on the tarmac for eleven hours or so. We are not allowed off; we are a potential threat. The captain tells us we need to conserve our food and asks us nicely to keep our plastic cups because we don’t know how long we will be here. He thanks us for being “super passengers”. He is sympathetic; we are growing fond of him.
Peering through the tiny plane windows we see some fine countryside. The airport is surrounded by forests of fir trees, the land around is flat, the grass has a yellow post-summer tinge. A white golf ball observatory sits away on a hill. We talk about the carnage in New York, the terror the passengers must have felt; it’s not hard for us to imagine this, sitting on a plane. The motivation of the suicide bombers defeats us. There is consensus that this is a declaration of war.
Looking out, the traffic is light and snail’s pace-slow but the islanders are not just careful drivers; we are a tourist attraction. The captain explains to his attentive congregation that Gander has a community of 10,000 people and the 40 or so European planes grounded here are big news. We can see it’s a warm day; car windows are wound down, arms and elbows hang casual and when the drivers get out to take a picture or peer through binoculars they are wearing shorts. This is somehow encouraging.
A couple of hours into our stay, the stewardesses open two doors on the lower deck. It’s a long drop down onto the tarmac and there is only a ribbon of yellow cloth across the door. We don’t get close. We stand around in groups taking in the warm air. I chat to a stewardess, a law graduate. She tells me that by the time the crew knew about the terrorist attacks it was too late for us to turn back – we would have run out of fuel.
We’re lucky, she says, that we have very few children on our flight and we are not full. Another plane stranded here was headed for Orlando full to the brim with families of holiday makers. I think about my own children and how difficult it would be for them to be tinned goods on a runway for several hours after a long flight.
There’s not much to say, we’re preoccupied, worried about people who, we know, will be worrying about us. I’m hogging the air; I go back to my seat and let someone else take a turn. The plane is stuffy and the toilets are getting whiffy.
A lone police car circles the plane. His sunglasses tilt up at us as he passes the open door. Later the cop gets out and chats with other cops across the wire perimeter fence. From time to time a passenger gives a cheery wave to the tourists.
The captain tells us that Gander airport is full. Canada will not let anyone take off or land without cast iron security checks in place. We’re going to be here for several hours and then we are going to have to provide security clearance that is acceptable to the FBI, whether we go back to the UK or on to Washington. The US and Canada have sealed their borders. If we stay here, a lavatory cleaning service will be provided. Inward sighs of relief. No one is complaining. The captain tells us that he has decided to stand down the cabin crew.
Darkness falls and the doors are closed. Another announcement from the captain: no more news but we’re going to have afternoon tea. He tells us that although there has been inactivity on our part, “the ground staff have been working like Trojans”. The town of Gander has been mobilised: schools and church halls are being prepared. We clap at this unexpected news of generosity. But nothing happens. It’s dark and cold, the lights inside the plane go down. We doze collectively.
The captain wakes us with another announcement. He is sorry to bother us – he wanted us to get some rest, but we are going to be “deplaned”. When we have been cleared by Canadian customs we will be billeted and taken to church halls and primary schools in school buses. There is even a mobile McDonald’s. “I don’t know about you but I could murder a McDonald’s,” says the captain. There is more applause for this man who is taking care of us.
In the dark, we deplane onto yellow school buses. The air smells good. “But it’s great to be alive isn’t it?” says a cop to a middle-aged American passenger who expresses relief at getting off the plane at last. The ground staff are flat out; it’s past midnight here and there are dozens of planes left to unload.
In the airport terminal Frank is singing Mack the Knife. We are crisis managed with precision by the Red Cross and local volunteers. Tables are set up, on either side of a hall, some loaded with food and drink. In order: we register, we are invited to take a snack and a drink as we pass the food and then we are loaded back onto the yellow buses. People with Fargo-like accents greet us with smiles and ask how we’re doing. We’re doing very well. We’re being looked after.
The lights are on in Gander Academy and a team of volunteers, wearing name badges, are ready and waiting to fulfil our every need. The tannoy welcomes us and tells us to ask if we need anything. This logistical operation is a triumph. There are three plane-loads of people billeted here, that’s 750 people, arriving at two in the morning.
The volunteers are cheery. We are tired and submit ourselves to their care. There is no signal for mobile phones and everyone desperately wants to call home. No problem -phone lines have been set up in the school office so that people can make collect calls. And just in case people get carried away a notice tells us to limit calls to two minutes and this rule is enforced politely by volunteers on phone duty.
I go to the loo and am astonished to find that the basin area is loaded with goodies; toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, deodorants, even pantyliners are provided. The level of thoughtfulness that has gone into this touches me.
I spend the rest of the night in a TV room with a hundred or so others watching CNN. There are cries of horror and sobbing when people see the clips of the suicide attack on the World Trade Centre for the first time. We are glued to the TV; we cannot stop watching these horrible scenes and we are transfixed by the eyewitness accounts. Fresh coffee is provided throughout the night and tables are piled high with food.
The tannoy voice tells us that all flights are grounded until at least noon tomorrow and even then there is only a slim chance we will get out. It says the air is filled with fighter planes.
Breakfast is provided by the salvation army in the morning. There is a surfeit of food.
In an IT classroom there are e-mail facilities for eighteen people. I speak to Jeanne, a teacher at this primary school, like many of the other volunteers. She tells me that the janitors are on strike and so the teachers cleaned the school themselves before we got here. I’m choked. I thank her. She says “you’re very welcome” and really means it.
In the morning we are greeted by a spectacular red sunrise. It doesn’t feel like the end of the world.
People are desperate for flight information and to stay in touch with loved ones. The computers are in constant use – I’ve had to write this in slices because there is always a queue. It’s a beautiful day and I go for a walk with two fellow passengers. The air is warm and the sky is low slung and blue. We are greeted with smiles wherever we go. This is the sort of place where you greet each other on the street and city dwellers are having difficulty remembering that you really shouldn’t pass another human without even looking them in the eye.
The town is so pretty we could be on a film set. White weather-boarded houses with green lawns and pink flowers, surrounded by forest. It is irresistible. We have only hand luggage and need some clean clothes. We stop off at Riffs, ‘the value leader’ – the population of the town has doubled and they are selling t-shirts and trainers like hotcakes. Women like me who arrived in kitten heels need sensible footwear and no one wants to smell bad.
There are cold showers at the school and people from the town are driving the evacuees back and forth to their homes for hot showers and clean towels. The generosity and patience of people here is boundless and humbling.
The town is church heavy for such a tiny community. We pass small churches for several denominations, Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witnesses. At seven in the evening I attend mass at the local Catholic church. There is music and singing but this is a solemn affair. The priest tells us that among the congregation are a couple, also stranded here, whose son is one of those missing. Peace and forgiveness are the themes. There are people weeping throughout the service, glad of the chance to let go.
There is a huge choice of hot food provided for us at Gander Academy, but we decide to have dinner at Lillian’s which has been recommended to us as the best restaurant around. We are happy with our choice but too tired to make a night of it. We’re back to our quarters at ten. We find a place to sleep. I am lucky enough to have a double airbed and a pillow.
We’re up again at 6am. A notice on the board in the main hallway tells us that we may fly out today. Around eleven the tannoy voice tells us that the captain wants a meeting with all the passengers on our flight. We meet in the room where I slept last night. The captain tells us that we are fourth in line to leave and if we go to London we will be leaving in six hours.
We are divided. There are two groups – those who want to go on to Washington and those who want to go back to the UK. The captain says we will have a poll. The result will be a factor in his decision making.
I am hopeful; there is a large group of cardiologists from the UK on our flight, who were going to a conference in Washington. They should swing the vote for us. But there’s another problem – a couple of passengers are rumoured to have decided to make their own way to the US. They are said to have left Newfoundland by ferry. If this is true we will not get security clearance. We may not be going anywhere.
People have gone a mile for us here. The volunteers have worked day and night taking care of us. They are getting tired. I can’t help thinking that if we were in England we’d be sitting in a school hall with milky tea, custard creams and no toilet rolls. One of the teachers tells us that we are not the only people to have been stranded here. Thank you Gander, providers of shelter.
Siobhain Butterworth is head of legal affairs for Guardian Newspapers Ltd. She is still in Gander, Newfoundland.
Gander airport on Sept 11, 2001:
The Gander Connection. Site created by passengers who got stranded in Newfoundland to acknowledge the efforts of the town to receive them.
Another article here.