From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

A Fishing Village Opens
Its Heart to Surprise Guests

On September 11, once government officials realized that planes were being used as missiles, thirty-eight international flights were immediately rerouted to the emergency airfield at Gander, Newfoundland, a city of ten thousand on the Atlantic coast of Canada.

Bellevue Police Lieutenant Steve Cercone, who had been in Europe for a family funeral, was one of about 1,000 passengers then driven about twenty-five miles east to Gambo, a fishing village of 2,200.

What was supposed to be a temporary layover—while governments and airlines worked out logistical details of reopening U.S. air space—turned into a five-day adventure for passengers and townsfolk alike.

They huddled around televisions; drank “screech,” the native dark rum, at the town’s one tavern; ate moose stew and cod filets; and slept in the town’s churches and schools. Townspeople quit their jobs that week to attend to the visitors.

“In the midst of this huge tragedy, we were fortunate enough to see the other side of life, the other side of human nature,” Cercone recalls. “The kindness of complete strangers who took us in, gave us showers, fed us, did our laundry . . .

“Five days in Gambo. It would make a great movie script.”

United Airlines Flight 929—London to Chicago—was 38,000 feet in the air when Cercone heard the news.

The pilot, Captain Mike Ballard, told the 198 passengers that there was a major emergency in New York City and American air space had been shut down.

Fuel was dumped because the plane was too heavy to land otherwise and the emergency landing gear dropped. “Our imaginations were running from A to Z,” says Cercone, a twenty-year police veteran and former supervisor of the Bellevue SWAT team.

The small ground crew at Gander, used to a quiet routine as a cargo-plane stopover, was suddenly welcoming 6,500 passengers.

“Around midday, we were told that planes were coming out of the skies and to expect some of them,” says Claude Elliot, Gander’s mayor. “We had an emergency plan, so we put everything in motion.”

Churches, schools and civic organizations opened their doors. Elliot went on radio and television, urging people to donate clothes, bedding, food, pillows and sleeping bags. The city’s bus drivers, who were on strike, put down their picket signs and offered to ferry the passengers around.

“Everyone watched the news that morning, everyone knew that these people were stranded from home or had loved ones working at the World Trade Center,” Elliot says. “We just tried to make their stay as comfortable as we could.”

Gander took in the bulk, about 4,200 passengers. But some of the burden was shouldered by satellite towns—Gambo, Glenwood and Benton.

The strangers began arriving in Gambo that afternoon, four planeloads, still reeling from news of the attacks.

They were divided up quickly among the Society of United Fisherman, Smallwood Academy, the Lions Club and assorted other churches and civic groups. Passengers from Flight 929 slept on cots and pews at the Salvation Army citadel.

The town’s population had just jumped by 50 percent. And the world had become a little closer.

“We saw it that morning on TV,” says Wycliffe Reid, Salvation Army captain. “But like everything else that happens in the U.S., it’s at a distance. On the same day, these people are here, right here on our doorstep, and now we’re involved. We’re called on to provide a service. We became a part of these people and what went on.”

But first, Reid’s immediate concern was: How are we going to feed them all?

Donations came from grocery stores and restaurants. Fishermen donated 150 pounds of cod.

The Home League Ladies, two dozen strong, prepared and served the meals.

“We understood the severity of the situation,” says Kevin Noseworthy, Lions Club president. “We just got together, pulled down a shift. Someone would cook one meal, someone would cook another. It was overwhelming at times. But we got through it.

“When I’m older and in the rocking chair, it will be a highlight. I did something good for mankind.”

The town’s only tavern is a single-story bungalow called the Trailway Pub.

Graham Thompson bought it three months ago and was remodeling Tuesday afternoon—moving the bar from one side of the cabin structure to the other. Suddenly, twenty-five people walked in, then twenty-five more and twenty-five more after that.

“We had 150 people in there, for four nights in a row,” Thompson says. “The club was upside down with these people, hectic, warm and hot. We made a lot of good friends out of it.”

The television was tuned to CNN, and the frantic staff of seven couldn’t serve enough beers.

The bar played host to a ceremony in which outsiders are recognized as honorary Newfoundlanders. They explain it this way: Get on your knees; kiss a codfish on the lips to recognize the area’s abundant fishing industry; eat a cake of the local hard bread—so hard it needs to be soaked in water; pound down some “screech,” the dark heady rum; and praise Newfoundland.

“That’s basically it,” Noseworthy says. “You’ve drank our liquor, you’ve kissed our fish, you’ve eaten our bread. Now you’re an honorary Newfoundlander.”

Locals estimate about 90 percent of the town pitched in. And then just like that, the visitors were gone.

Security checkpoints had been cleared and Flight 929 was ready to come home.

The return flight was quick and everyone uneasy. Captain Ballard pulled Cercone aside and told him: Don’t let anyone get through to the cockpit.

Flight 929 landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago around 1:00 P.M. September 15, the last of the diverted planes to touch down.

Members of the United ground crew had formed a corridor with their trucks; they were waving United States flags and clapping.

“It just hit you right here,” Cercone says, pounding his stomach. “Everyone was hugging, everyone was crying.”

Later he had a steak dinner at Gibson’s on Rush Street and a good night’s sleep at a nearby hotel. On Monday, Cercone was back in Seattle, back to his life, back to his routine.

Michael Ko

[EDITORS’ NOTE: The visitors have responded by donating $51,000 to the town of Gander, and passengers from one particular flight started a scholarship fund worth $19,000 and “still growing.”]

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