The following article was published on the front page of the Boston Globe on Saturday, December 23, 2001
Canadians befriend Sept. 11 guests
by Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff
LEWISPORTE, Newfoundland - When Shirley Brooks-Jones returned to this land of moose and evergreen last week to reunite with Bill and Thelma Hooper, all three buried their heads in each other's shoulders and wept with joy. Yet these friends had known each other, in person, for only three days in September.
That is the enduring magic of what happened in Lewisporte and other small towns on the Island of Newfoundland throughout and after the dismal week of Sept. 11.
Brooks-Jones, like thousands of other people, was flying over the Atlantic Ocean when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Shortly thereafter, the United States closed its airspace. Pilots were instructed to put their planes on the ground as soon as possible, anywhere but on American soil.
[PIC 1 "Shirley Brooks-Jones (left) of Columbus, Ohio, arriving for a reunion last week at the home of Bill and Thelma Hooper in Lewisporte, Newfoundland."]
In three hours time, about 200 planes touched down in Canada. Thirty-eight, including Brooks-Jones's Delta flight from Frankfurt, landed at Newfoundland's Gander International Airport.
Gander, population 10,300, found itself with some 6,500 unexpected guests of all nationalities.
It would be more than 24 hours before the last of the travelers were allowed off their planes - and four days before they could go home. In the meantime, Newfoundlanders gave them a welcome worthy of the history books, and one that offered the Americans deep comfort in a time of extraordinary vulnerability.
"They taught me the meaning of the word 'friend,'" said Denise Gray-Felder, vice president of the Rockerfeller Foundation, whose flight from Milan was diverted to Gander. "It's someone who is there for you whenever you need it, no questions asked. They were our friends. The fact that they didn't know who you were didn't matter to them."
As soon as the visitors were back in the skies four days later, they started looking for ways to express their gratitude. On Brooks-Jones's flight home, a fellow passenger suggested passing the hat to create a college scholarship fund for their Newfoundland hosts, something that would grow every year.
Breaking airline rules, the pilot allowed Brooks-Jones on the PA system. By the time the flight landed, they had $15,000 in pledges, and the fund has grown steadily since. It's currently at $35,000.
Meanwhile, the Rockerfeller Foundation donated $67,000 to the town, most of it to be used to build a new computer lab in the middle school.
Lewisporte residents are preparing visits to their American friends, and passengers are planning vacation returns. Letters and e-mails and gifts have flown across the border. And there have been passenger reunions in New York, England, and Italy. "We'll be friends until we die," said Brooks-Jones of Columbus, Ohio. "There's no doubt about that."
[PIC 2, 3 - Lloyd George and his wife, Marlene, shown preparing meals and gifts for low-income residents, opened their Salvation Army facilities to 176 stranded travelers on Sept. 11. At left, bus driver foreman Clyde Raike and his crew, (from left) Cyril Perry, Eldon Stride, Rick Foss, Ray Potter, and Ted Jenkins. The striking drivers left their picket line Sept. 11 and for 24 straight hours shuttled the diverted passengers to various shelters. ]
[PIC 4 - Stranded in Newfoundland map ]
Nothing to do but talk, doze, worry and wait
Four hours into Delta Flight 15's journey from Frankfurt, the pilot announced that the plane had a problem with an indicator light and needed to land in Gander for repairs. Only when the plane was on the ground did the captain tell passengers about the terrorist attacks, the real reason for the diversion.
Passengers and crew were kept on board the plane, which sat in the middle of the tarmac, for 24 hours. Concerned that terrorists might be hiding on stranded flights, officials painstakingly processed each planeload of people through security and immigration.
For passengers, locked in a tiny space, trying to understand what was going on at home, it was a grim incarceration. Lines were too jammed for most people to get through to loved ones on cell-phones. There was nothing to do but talk and doze and worry and wait.
The air grew so stale it felt like a layer of plastic cling wrap, one passenger said. Food ran out. Brooks-Jones helped a flight attendant rummage through a cart of dirty trays from an earlier meal to retrieve all unopened packages of cheese, crackers, or potato chips. They served them for breakfast.
But then, when they were finally allowed off the flights, the hungry and bedraggled travelers were greeted with a feast cooked by locals - fried chicken and over-stuffed sandwiches, piles of desserts and soft drinks and coffee.
Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the attacks, Lewisporte's Salvation Army officers and Mayor Bill Hooper had heard from Gander officials that they might be needed to help the stranded passengers. They quickly calculated how many they could put up in makeshift living quarters at churches around town and places like the Lions Club.
They put out a request for volunteers and supplies on an AM country music station. Residents brought stacks of linens, including homemade quilts.
Striking bus drivers came off their picket lines, working more than 24 hours straight to drive the accidental tourists to shelters in Gander and nearby towns like Lewisporte, a bayside community of 3,930 that took in 773 passengers.
"In times like this, that's what Newfies believe in - helping people," said bus driver foreman Clyde Raike.
The 117 passengers of Continental Flight 45 from Milan were taken to the Philadelphia Pentecostal Church in Lewisporte, where each pew had been turned into a bed for four. "Some little girl had given me her My Little Pony comforter," said Tony Aiello, a New York television reporter on Flight 45. "It was very clear right away we were in very good hands."
Indeed, as Aiello and his fellow passengers flocked to the television set up in a classroom, they passed the piles of linens next to big bins of shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, items bought by volunteers. The toiletries were necessary because travelers were not allowed access to their checked baggage.
More services were available across the street at the Lewisporte Middle School: showers, more televisions, computer and e-mail access. All three of the town's schools canceled classes for the week. Teachers bought a new cell-phone so those who didn't have long-distance calling cards could call home.
Meals bordered on decadent, with volunteers in the kitchens from morning until night. No sandwiches, no cereal: Breakfast was eggs and bacon and toast with homemade jam.
Other meals included stews and chilis and beef and mashed potatoes and salads, apple pie, and chocolate chip cookies. The biggest hit was a local specialty, "Jigs Dinner," a stew of salted beef cooked with potatoes, turnips, cabbage and carrots.
Travelers caught without prescription medications were taken to doctors and pharmacists, who refused to accept money. So did pretty much everyone in town, despite efforts on the part of some passengers to offer payment.
"We felt like we were helping the victims. The passengers were part of everything that had happened that day, too," said Major Marlene George, a Salvation Army pastor in Lewisporte. "We wanted to express our sympathy to those who were hurting."
Many passengers stuck close to the television, but others took up offers from Lewisporte residents to go bowling or take a ride around the bay. For a group of nine Italians, one middle school teacher cooked a feast of moose, caribou, mussels and crabs and served it with homemade blueberry wine. Sixteen visitors volunteered for a hazing ritual required to become an honorary Newfoundlander: Kissing a frozen cod on the mouth.
'They literally stopped their lives' to help
The elderly, families with children, pregnant women, even a few newlyweds were whisked into private houses. High school teachers Susan and Trevor Tetford put up two New York-area couples with babies, even loaning the Americans their cars.
The Tetfords cooked for their visitors and drove them around to some little fishing villages, lucking into a moose sighting.. one of the Americans, a native of Italy, made a spicy homemade tomato sauce that wowed the Newfoundlanders. Between this Pentecostal couple and two Jewish families from New York, friendship blossomed quickly.
Now, the New York families are begging Susan and Trevor to visit them, and the Tetfords are aiming to come during their school break in January.
"They literally stopped their lives to take care of us. IN New York and New Jersey, people don't pay attention to anyone else," said Elizabeth Rosso, one of the Americans who stayed with the Tetfords. In Lewisporte, "They don't have a lot of money, but I've never in my life met people so generous and so giving."
Indeed, Newfoundland is Canada's poorest province, with an unemployment rate of almost 17 percent. Passengers didn't need to see government figures, though, to know that it's not a wealthy place. They saw town residents putting purchases on their tabs at the Bargain Giant. They saw that the local architectural style can be summed up as the vinyl-sided box.
Lewisporte is a shipping town. But improved roads in remote parts of Eastern Canada have cut deep into the shipping business and passenger traffic, while the dwindling of the cod fisheries has spelled trouble all over Newfoundland. But then, life was never easy on this remote northern island.
"Historically, Newfoundland's had it rough," said Marlene George's husband, Lloyd, also a Salvation Army pastor. "Working on the sea or cutting pulp wood, we depended on each other for survival."
Passengers and locals have their own Web site
Brooks-Jones's visit last week was the first of many promised returns. The trip was actually paid for by a Canadian documentary company filming a public television show about Canada's hospitality during Sept. 11. But Brooks-Jones would have visited soon anyway, both because of her work spearheading the Delta Flight 15 scholarship project and her instant bond with Bill Hooper, the mayor, and his wife, Thelma.
They've e-mailed or talked almost daily, so when they saw each other last week, the trio acted like long-lost best friends, trading gossip about the passengers and intimate stories of health problems and family hardships.
Aiello set up a Web page for the flight while they were still in Newfoundland, something that's helped everyone keep in touch. Nine passengers, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, met for dinner in Times Square in early October. Aiello and his wife are holding a holiday party for Continental Flight 45 at their home on Dec. 30.
Gray-Felder and her Rockerfeller colleagues were looking for a way to pay back their hosts, especially since they'd managed to stay connected with their New York office all week from the computer lab at Lewisporte Middle School.
So the Rockerfeller contingent looked around and noticed that while one computer lab was hardly state-of-the-art, the other was so obsolete it was being used as a storage room for the chocolate to be sold in the school fund-raiser.
The school expects to complete the new computer lab by Easter. And in June, a Lewisporte High School senior will receive the first scholarship from Delta Flight 15.
The Newfoundland experience has had more subtle effects, as well. After her stay with Susan and Trevor Tetford, Rosso has tried to slow down and spend a little less time on work.
"I told my husband, I don't do enough for charity or for other people, or just saying hi to people on the street," Rosso said. "It gave me hope to realize there are actually good people in the world. It made me want to change the way I live my life."
[PIC 4] Shirley Brooks-Jones (right) of Ohio returned to Newfoundland last week to visit Bill and Thelma Hooper. "We'll be friends until we die," she said. "There's no doubt about that."