I know the title sounds like an oxymoron. No doubt, you are thinking how could anything positive have emanated from the horrific and cowardly attacks of 9/11? Read on, and you will see.
I would guess that not many of you have heard of Gander, Newfoundland, and even fewer of you are cognizant of the role this small Canadian town played in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. You may recall that immediately following the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers everything was in total disarray, if not out and out panic mode, especially air travel. No one knew what, where and when other terrorist surprises were planned, and there were hundreds of planes airborne, which made them and their passengers extremely vulnerable. One of the top priorities was to somehow clear the skies. Anything airborne was considered a potential target, as were the major airports, themselves, in both the US and Canada. Both the FAA and its Canadian counterpart were frantically searching for less vulnerable locations to which they could divert these airborne planes.
One chosen destination was the Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. Few people had heard of Gander, much less could find it on a map. As I said, that’s probably true today as well. Gander was a small town of some 10,000 people located at the northeastern tip of Newfoundland. Despite its small size, it happened to have an international airport capable of servicing large jets. I think it’s fair to say that Gander owes its very existence to its strategic location and value as a military and civilian air base. The town has a rich aviation history, and, indeed, many of its streets bare the names of famous aviators, such Eddie Rickenbacker, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager.
The airport was first constructed in the mid 1930s to provide a fueling and maintenance stop for military planes flying between North America and Europe. Its value expanded greatly during WWII. After WWII, it became a civilian airport, again as a refueling stop. Remember, at that time, planes generally did not have the capacity to fly across the Atlantic non-stop.. It became such a popular stop that it became known as “The Crossroads of the World.” Over the years, the town of Gander grew up around the airport.
Fast forward to 9/11. As I mentioned, Gander International Airport was selected as an emergency destination. As part of what was dubbed Operation Yellow Ribbon, a total of 42 planes carrying some 6,600 passengers and crew descended on a town of 10,000 with only some 500 hotel rooms and limited resources. (As an aside, one of the American Airlines pilots was Beverley Bass, who was the first female pilot in the airline’s history.) In addition, the planes were carrying a wide variety of cargo that had to be stored and maintained, including two chimpanzees that were bound for the Columbus, Ohio zoo. Furthermore, no one was sure how long it would be until normal operations would resume.
How could the town possibly accommodate all these people, the cargo and the equipment?
- First, the town’s mayor, Claude Elliott, declared a “state of emergency.” Then, everyone pitched in. “I didn’t go home for five days,” Elliott remembered.
- The hotels were, of course, overwhelmed, so the town converted public buildings, such as schools, into temporary dormitories to lodge the overflow. In addition, some residents took in borders, free of charge (no small accommodation in a town where people were used to not having to lock their doors at night).
- Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers provided free meals, as needed. Some of the “guests” had special dietary needs, such as kosher meals for Jewish people, that had to be accommodated.
- The town’s hockey rink was donated for use as a giant walk-in refrigerator to store perishables.
- Local hospitals, doctors, and nurses provided free medical services. A local veterinarian cared for the various cargo animals, including the aforementioned chimps.
- Shortages in basic goods had to be resolved. For example, Elliott later recalled that the town literally “ran out of underwear.” Replenishments had to be trucked in from St. John, which was over 200 miles away.
- Gradually, many “guests” became integrated into the town’s customs. For example, Newfoundlanders have a custom known as “screeching in.” The inductee “wears a yellow “sou’wester,” eats hard bread and pickled bologna, kisses a cod on the lips, and, then, drinks the local rum, called “screech,’ while onlookers bang an ‘ugly stick’ covered in beer bottle caps.” Sounds delightful, but I’ll pass.
After five days, the crisis was over and the flights resumed. By that time, as Elliott put it, “we started off with 7,000 strangers, but we finished with 7,000 family members.”
Some final points:
1. Gander’s residents really rose to the occasion. They exhibited the finest in human spirit during a terrible crisis, and did so out of the kindness of their hearts. Afterwards, the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, in recognition of their contributions, told them “You did yourselves proud… and you did Canada proud.”
2. The two chimps made it to the Columbus Zoo in good health. A few years later they had a baby chimp named, you guessed it, Gander.
3. The story is now being portrayed in a Broadway play called “Come from Away.” Elliott and others attended the opening, met the cast, and got to take a bow on-stage. A nice and fitting tribute. I have seen the play. It captures the “can do” spirit of the townspeople and the camaraderie that developed between them and their “guests.” It is most uplifting. I recommend it.