Twenty years ago as the Twin Towers disintegrated into a cloudy gray mass of ash, I was on a Lufthansa plane diverted to Gander, Canada. There, on the ground, inside the airplane we sat in stunned silence for twelve hours. Outside our window were scores of other planes similarly diverted. Before any of us could disembark, Canadian Customs had to process untold and unexpected thousands. The flight crew fed us leftover snacks. Passengers remained eerily silent save those few who conversed in hushed tones. “It’s bad,” someone whispered behind me.
Cellular communications were primitive then compared to today. The airplane’s passenger phone service did not work. Only one man could connect, and he shared his cell phone with others who desperately needed to touch base with loved ones. My son was in college in New York City. His dorm was not near the towers, but still I was worried. Had he visited friends who were in dorms nearby? I could not reach him.
Finally, at 1 AM, we cleared customs and boarded a yellow school bus bound for an elementary school. For the first time we saw the horrific events unfold like scenes stuck in instant replay, looping continuously on the school’s TV screen. We sat mesmerized for hours. At 4 AM and sleep deprived, I staggered to my assigned first grade classroom and slept on the floor, cushioned by blankets and sleeping bags brought in and arranged by the kind residents of Gander who also nurtured us with food nonstop. Many locals even welcomed us into their homes so we could shower and clean up.
First chance I got, I lined-up to use one of the school’s computers with Internet access. Upon checking my email, I exhaled with great relief when I saw my son’s, which said, “I’m okay, are you okay?”
For security reasons, we did not have access to our luggage and could only bring our carry-ons. I had my airplane neck pillow, moisturizer, and my laptop. I started documenting our days. My article was published in The Washington Post while I was still in Canada en route back home to DC after almost a week in Gander, thanks to my son who was able to call the editor and relay my story. While the entire world was mourning losses, this article shed a glimmer of light on human kindness during a tragedy. To read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/09/18/a-new-perspective-courtesy-of-newfoundland-samaritans/33755790-4cda-4fc3-a925-85884edf5fc3/
With a few exceptions, my experience was similar to that depicted in the play, Come From Away, still on Broadway. It’s theater that excels in highlighting the drama and friendships made that unfolded on an American Airline flight also forced to land in Canada. Unlike those the American passengers, who were not told why they had to change their route, our pilot had alerted us immediately, “There’s been a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are being diverted to Gander.” I doubt I’ll ever forget those words. That said, I was engrossed in the play for something it reveals I never thought about then: the massive behind-the-scenes efforts the town made to accommodate all of us with such grace.
The abundance of compassion from strangers is something I will never forget.