Let Me Remind You…About the Plane People of Gander
The plane captain comes over the tinny radio, a short burst of static then the hum behind his words:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize in advance, but we will be making a slight detour to an open runway. We’ve encountered some instrumental issues aboard. Nothing to be alarmed about, but we will be landing shortly.”
The people grumbled about missed flights and delayed reunions, some were nervous; their hearts starting to race, all the possible thoughts of “instrumental issues” flipping through their minds—none ending well.
Meanwhile in the cockpit, the pilots fidgeted with the radio, looking for an open runway to land. But, they weren’t the only ones; over 230 planes from all over the world, in what would be called “Operation Yellow Ribbon” were looking for a place to land mid-morning on September 11, 2001.
On 9/11, after the towers were struck, all US airways were shut down and anyone in the air or coming from another country were essentially stranded and had to be diverted. 11 Canadian provinces agreed to allow the planes to land without knowing if any of the planes were compromised. It was agreed they would remain on Canadian soil, full of passengers until the “threat was neutralized”.
One of the cities that took in 53 planes & over 7000 passengers, was a small town in Newfoundland called Gander. Normally just an airport used for long-haul, international fueling stations, and a population of 10,400, the amount of people they would shelter for 2 days was almost the same as their own population.
When the plane finally landed, people looked out the small windows to see a sea of planes, all lining up symmetrically, allowing room for the next plane to land. The same pilot came on the intercom once again and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, I’m sure you’re wondering how all these planes came to have the same instrument issues as us…” He went on to explain the situation that had been happening on land, which lead to their diversion: what we now know simply as “9/11”. The passengers were shocked and horrified, not knowing what to think and unable to contact their loved ones due to a service differences since they were in Canada.
It would take nearly 23 hours to get everyone off the 53 planes. At 6pm, they were told they would be deplaning at 11am. They were handed blankets, pillows and the flight crew tried to make them as comfortable as possible for the night (side-note: could you IMAGINE if this happened to you while you were flying with kids? Anyways…). With the amount of weight from the planes and the warm tarmac, the planes actually started sinking. Luckily, nothing too drastic happened before they were offloaded.
As the passengers got to know one another and settled in for the evening as best they could, the people of Gander rallied. The Mayor spread the word to everyone and one of the greatest acts of kindness, empathy & selflessness prevailed. The people of Gander & Lewisporte (a town nearby) closed schools & churches, and turned any meeting hall, or open area into shelters. They rounded up as many necessities for the “Plane People” (as they would become dubbed) as they could and pulled cots, beds and sleeping mats into these areas. The local hockey rink was turned into the largest refrigerator in the world and Pharmacy’s worked with the Red Cross to distribute medications that were brought for what the passengers thought was just going to be a short trip.
Many families of Gander cooked and didn’t stop cooking until everyone was fed. They donated time and toiletries. They even took them out hiking and sight-seeing and even on mini boat trips. The bus drivers in the area were on strike that week, but once they heard what happened, they banded together and went back to work to make sure the Plane People were able to move around relatively freely.
Many of the citizens of Gander and Lewisporte went much farther, inviting some of the stranded individuals to stay in their homes and use their cars to sight-see. To this day, some remain friends with the people they housed; many going back every year to visit.
One couple, the Marson’s even met during their period in Gander and were married within a year!
After about 2-days, it was time to go back to their destinations. The goodbyes were tearful and the Plane People tried to give money to the residents of Gander, none would have it. But neither would one of the passengers: Ms. Brookes-Jones. When she got back on the plane, Delta flight 15, she asked the captain if she might make an announcement to the passengers. In an act of good faith, going against the rules, the captain agreed.
She came over the intercom and reminded the passengers of the altruism and gratitude they had just received from a bunch of strangers in a country they are not even from. She expressed that she would like to start a scholarship fund for the students of Gander and Lewisporte and by the time the plane landed, she had over $15,000! Today, according to CitiesofPromise.com, over 2 million has been donated to the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund.
Many reenactments have been made about this, including a musical called Come From Away and even a TV series called Diverted.
If you wish to donate to the Flight 15 scholarship fund, you can do so at columbusfoundation.org.
Kristina is the author of The Pecan Trees, a novel set in Texas that has nothing to do with “fun facts” like the blog. Enjoy!