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That Surreal Detour to Gander

Posted by The Curmudgeon on February 28, 2010

The most compelling 9/11-related story you probably never heard.

Toward the end of the recent onslaught of Olympics coverage, NBC aired a—…well, I’m not sure exactly how to categorize it. I suppose it’s loosely considered a “human interest” story.

Unlike most such fill-in pieces, though, this one was more. Much more.

There were several vignettes shown during the two weeks of the Olympics games; video of contestants as children, grinding training regimens, background information, local color, etc. The usual stuff.

This one, though, was nothing like that. It had nothing to do with the Olympics. In fact, one must wonder why it was included as part of the accustomed array of fillers, at all.

It deserved to stand alone.

For those who missed it, I urge you to find someone who recorded it. Watch it. It’s worth it. Tom Brokaw outdid himself—and it’s a story that deserves much more attention than it has received.

When we think back to the events of 9/11, we typically recall several things. These items vary somewhat from one individual to another, but there are some fairly common features. We were stunned at seeing the World Trade Center struck by airliners hijacked by fanatical killers. We seethed with a violent, impotent rage. We tried to think of something — anything — that we could do to help those affected. We heard of carloads of volunteers from across the nation who went to New York — nurses, paramedics, relief workers — without waiting to be asked for help. We wept at others’ staggering losses.

Somewhere in that mix (if you think hard enough), you might recall hearing about all those incoming transatlantic flights that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland when the U.S. airspace system was shut down. You might even recall hearing about how the local residents opened their homes and their hearts to aid the stranded passengers and crews. Sadly, much of that story was overlooked (or soon forgotten) in the myriad events of the time; most of us know very little about one of the more compelling stories to arise from the horror of the 9/11 attacks.

Brokaw provided us with a poignant reminder.

A town of roughly 10,000 residents, two traffic lights, and exactly one four-lane roadway, Gander boasted a grand total of only a little over 500 hotel rooms; the good citizens of Gander and the surrounding area (notably Lewisporte) somehow managed to see to the needs of nearly 7,000 stranded voyagers—and they did it with a rare style. They didn’t have months to prepare; it just happened — as did pretty much everything else that happened that fateful day — without warning. Their response was immediate—and it was as heart-warming and inspiring as any on record.

For every traveler who needed a place to sleep, one was provided; no one was left wanting. Schools and community centers became improvised dormitories, with blankets, bedding, and pillows provided by the locals. Families traveling together were kept together—wherever they ended up. Special needs were met; needed medications were provided, kosher meals were arranged, elderly passengers were placed in private residences, and a pregnant traveler was taken-in by a family conveniently located immediately adjacent to a clinic. Other townspeople took empty-handed strangers into their homes, as well. They fed them. They gave them clothing. They prayed with them. They wept with them. They consoled them.

When they ran out, they got more. Lacking storage facilities for perishable goods, they improvised and temporarily turned a local ice-skating rink into what one humorously described as “the largest walk-in refrigerator in the country.” Nearby merchants opened their shops to those who lacked basic necessities—and much of the merchandise was simply given away.

They played the perfect hosts for three days—even becoming tour guides, entertaining their unexpected “guests” during the most trying of times. They furnished telephone service, email access, and televisions.

They asked nothing in return. When showered with thanks and accolades, they seemed to shrug it off as simply the right thing to do.

By the time the immediate crisis had ended and the “plane people” (as they’d come to be called) resumed their journeys, many enduring friendships had formed—the kind of friendships often spawned under the most adverse of circumstances. Some of the plane people in the years since have alternated between returning to visit their onetime hosts and playing hosts themselves to those who opened their homes to strangers in need. And two previously unacquainted travelers thrown together by adversity found romance; they married shortly thereafter.

When the plane people first arrived in Gander, they were told by a local official: “If there’s anything you need…anything at all…just ask. It will be taken care of. Bottom line.”

It seems safe to say that claim was backed up.

It’s been said that there’s no limit to the good that one man can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.

It seems safe to say that assertion received some validation, as well.

____

 

Many of the once-stranded travelers sought ways to express their gratitude for the kindness that had been shown; one — Shirley Brooks Jones, by name — provided them with an avenue to do so. A retired Ohio State University fund-raiser, she proposed a scholarship fund and circulated pledge sheets shortly after her flight’s departure from Gander; by the time the much-delayed Delta Flight 15 finally landed in Atlanta a few hours later, some $15,000 had been pledged—but that was only the beginning.

Today, the fund lives on—now with a value on the order of nearly a million dollars.

 

For more information, see the Snopes entry: Snopes.com: Gander and Stranded Americans

There’s also a site for the scholarship fund: Gander Flight 15 Scholarship Fund

________

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10 Responses to “That Surreal Detour to Gander”

  1. GrannyLin said

    Wow, Jim. I did see this human interest story, felt warm and fuzzy for the Canadians, and then forgot all about it. Thank you for giving this remarkable event the dignity and remembrance it deserves.

  2. Lynne Z said

    So glad you wrote about this, Jim. Reminds me of Ann Murray’s song, “A Little Good News Today.”

  3. Laura S said

    Well, I neglected to proofread my previous posting and there isn’t a way to edit. Not well phrased.

  4. Sophie said

    Where can I see the actual video on the gander story??? I missed it. I was a passenger on the lufthansa flight.

  5. Jim Seeber said

    I’ve tried looking for it online; it doesn’t seem to have been posted (might not make it onto YouTube since it’s about forty-five minutes long).

    You might try contacting NBC directly. I was surprised to see that it wasn’t posted on their site.

  6. Jim,

    Hell of a job on this article, and thank you for sharing such a wonderful post regarding the hopes of trying to get the NBC Tom Brokaw Gander Yellow Ribbon story aired. I am originally from Lewisporte, and I didn’t even know they were mentioning my town in this segment.
    Your description of Gander is fairly accurate although I am pretty sure there is more then two traffic lights, and I guess the one four lane would be a small part of the trans Canada Highway that rolls through town. 2 lanes on each side, and undivided. In any event, it is different living back there and not all for bad. You Americans appear to be in awe by the generosity that was bestowed on your fellow people, however people back home are equally in awe from the generosity that has been returned to Newfoundland.

    I wrote a piece to try and help stir people to press NBC to show this story and hopefully you and anyone who is willing to read it can help the cause. Remember and promote the twitter Hashtag: #NBCairBrokawGander9/11 and I hope you enjoy the piece and videos about this story and Newfoundland.
    http://jaretmanuel.com/nbc-please-show-the-tom-brokaw-gander-operation-911-yellow-ribbon-story

    • Thanks, Jaret, for the comments and the link.

      That part about the “two traffic lights and one four-lane” came from the NBC segment as it was broadcast (as someone who lives out in the sticks, I’m partial to such off-the-beaten-path places).

  7. […] Wikipedia, 1 y 2; New York Times, 1 y 2; Snopes, Another Write-Wing Conspirator, CBC News, Canadian Snowbird Association. También en Youtube (1, 2 y 3). Hay una película que […]

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