Guests Who Dropped in from the Sky

Guests Who Dropped in from the Sky

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Guests Who Dropped in
from the Sky

Shirley Brooks-Jones relaxed in her seat. She and her friend Jo were returning from a satisfying trip to Denmark, where they attended a board meeting of People to People International, an organization created by President Dwight Eisenhower to foster international understanding and friendship.

On the way home to Atlanta, they stopped overnight in Frankfurt to dine with Jo’s granddaughter. The next day was September 11, 2001.

Delta Flight 15 was four hours out of Frankfurt when suddenly the pilot announced that an indicator light was giving cause for concern. They had received approval from Canadian air traffic control to land in Gander, Newfoundland, the nearest airport.

Fortunately Gander was created as a military airfield and a transatlantic refuelling point in the 1930s and so has a long runway. Shirley knew of the Canadian town and its strategic significance during World War II, but little else. She wondered how long they would be there, but when the plane touched down, she realized there was something more going on than just concern over an indicator light. Already on the tarmac sat planes from many of the world’s major airlines. As the Delta passengers watched, a steady stream of aircraft continued to land.

Upon landing, over the intercom the captain apologized to his passengers and explained there was no equipment problem. He calmly told them that because of a national emergency, U.S. air space had been closed and was controlled by the military. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. Local time in Gander was 12:30 P.M. (11:00 A.M. New York time).

No one was allowed to leave the plane. For the next few hours the captain updated the passengers every fifteen minutes, slowly detailing the horrific events that had unfolded in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania that morning. Although naturally upset and anxious, the 218 passengers remained calm. The crew carried on their duties as if they were still in the air, and all was normal. People spent their time talking, or trying to call home on their cell phones. Shirley began to jot down notes of the experience.

Delta Flight 15 was one of the first American airliners to land in Gander on September 11. Eventually, there would be thirty-nine aircraft parked on the airport’s tarmac and runways. Once darkness began to fall, Shirley realized this was not a mere twilight stopover. In the wee hours of the morning, when she spotted passengers disembarking from a neighbouring aircraft, she knew they weren’t flying anywhere soon.

By the time all the people were off all the planes, approximately 6,500 people had converged on Gander, a town of just more than 10,000. With no word of when the planes would be able to leave, the community found itself in an emergency situation. However, in this region that lives with rough seas, harsh weather and an uncertain economy, helping others is part of the way of life.

Volunteers, community agencies and many other organizations all went into action to receive the passengers from all over the world, and provide them with hospitality, accommodation and welcome. The town’s half dozen hotels and motels were instantly full. Schools, clubs, lodges and other large gathering places were converted into temporary hostels with mats, cots and sleeping bags. Many people opened their homes, and the oldest passengers were taken there. No passenger was left without a bed.

But the response went well beyond Gander. As the word went out, towns and hamlets nearly an hour’s drive east and west also welcomed unexpected guests, bussed in by school board drivers who came off picket lines to assist. Those communities too far away to receive visitors sent whatever they could—blankets, clothing, toiletries and food. The passengers of Delta Flight 15 were taken to Lewisporte, a town much smaller than Gander but just as big in generosity.

Shirley and Jo, along with a few others from their flight, went to the Lewisporte Lions Club. Their hosts realized that after sitting for so many hours on a plane, cut off from the media, the weary travellers would be anxious to see the historic events with their own eyes, so they set up cable TV.

When the passengers walked in, they dropped their bags, stood there and said nothing as they watched what seemed like Hollywood special effects. Some went into silent shock. Others broke down crying. All experienced an emotional catharsis that helped to purge some of the pent up horror and grief and create a special bond amongst everyone there.

The Newfoundlanders responded to the passengers’ needs with extraordinary generosity. The people in this region of Canada are so often in a “have-not” situation. Still, local volunteers worked tirelessly to meet every need they could anticipate. They cooked meals, provided all the basic necessities, and even made sure medical prescriptions were refilled. Special needs for clothing came from the local’s own wardrobes.

In Lewisporte, Shirley learned that the man tirelessly running around with a clipboard was the mayor, Bill Hooper. She told him how impressed she was with the way Lewisporte was handling the emergency. She was surprised when he explained that like any small community, they had never even dreamed of such an eventuality, let alone practised for it!

To keep the passengers occupied and distracted from their anxieties, excursions such as boat cruises were arranged during the day. Soon, passengers and hosts began to feel as if they had known each other for years, almost forgetting the terrible tragedy that had brought them together in the first place. Magically, people who might have never spoken to each other were drawn together, finding amazing connections.

The local Red Cross tracked every passenger in every group, making sure everyone was back at the airport at the right time. When the time came to leave, no one missed their flight.

Shirley and her new friends were happy to be going home, but the people of Lewisporte had shown them so much love, there was a real sense of regret in leaving. In a way, the town reminded her of the small community in Ohio where she grew up. It was raining the day they left, and Shirley was glad—for it hid many tears.

Four days after the travellers dropped out of the sky on the Canadian coast, Delta Flight 15 took off for home. Once in the air, people walked about the aisle, sharing experiences and hundreds of stories. Everyone knew everyone else by name as they exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Shirley spotted a man that she remembered seeing on September 11, but hadn’t seen since. Dr. Robert Ferguson was one of the fortunate ones to find comfort in a hotel room, and Shirley teased him in a friendly way about missing an enriching and humbling experience.

As they chatted, another magical connection emerged. In spite of the good fortune of a hotel room, Dr. Ferguson told Shirley he had experienced the pure beauty of the Newfoundlanders in their response to the crisis. But Canadian warmth was nothing new to him. While he now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he was born in Ottawa. He then spoke about Newfoundlanders; how the province has so little, yet the people are so giving. They both noted how no one would accept any compensation or payment for what they had done for the visitors. When they began to discuss what they could do to show their appreciation, Dr. Ferguson told her he had already started.

His idea was to start a scholarship fund for the young people of this community, where opportunities are not as abundant as in other parts of Canada. Earlier, he had quietly put together a statement and makeshift donation form for passengers to pledge money toward the cause. The form was already circulating through the first-class passengers. When she heard this, Shirley offered to lend her talents as an experienced fund-raiser in whatever way she could.

The effort was going well, but Atlanta was getting closer and closer. Shirley couldn’t wait to be back on U.S. soil, but suddenly it was coming too fast. There was no longer enough time for all the passengers to see the form and make a pledge before they descended into Georgia.

There was another option they had not yet considered. It was unheard of for a passenger to speak on the public address system in an aircraft—it’s stringent airline policy. But surely these were unusual circumstances. Why not ask?

Dr. Ferguson was uncomfortable asking such a thing of a flight crew, especially in light of recent events. Shirley felt the crew, let alone the captain, would never go for it. Even so, she asked a flight attendant if she would look over the statement and read it to the passengers. After reading it, with tears in her eyes she went to ask the captain. Perhaps it was because of the way he had treated his charges during the crisis, Shirley was sure he would say yes.

And he did! The captain thought it was wonderful, but suggested one of the passengers should read it! As Dr. Ferguson was reluctant, and so was everyone else, it fell to Shirley to address the 218 passengers. She was nervous and hesitant, but with so many other people doing such extraordinary things, it seemed the least she could do.

Before Delta Flight 15 touched down in Atlanta, those aboard had pledged $15,000 U.S. to the people of Lewisporte for a scholarship fund. An anonymous donor later matched that, and the fund grew to roughly $35,000. It is now overseen by the Columbus Foundation in Ohio, and the first scholarship was awarded June 21, 2002.

The opportunity to be of real service during the tragedy of September 11 has given everyone involved an incalculable lift and a new sense of self worth and appreciation. E-mail messages, gifts, photos and invitations continued to pour in to the folks in this area from their former guests. And all because Newfoundlanders, with small-town good neighbour values, were kind to some strangers who just happened to drop in from the sky.

Paul Banks
editor, The Beacon Newspaper
Gander, Newfoundland

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