9/11 at Gander
Thought this was an interesting insight into what happened to those airplanes diverted from our airspace on 9/11. It is a journal of one of those planes. The story is also the basis for the new Broadway hit "Come From Away".
We were 5 hours out of Frankfurt over the North Atlantic. I was in my crew rest seat taking my rest break. The curtains parted violently. I was told to go to the cockpit, NOW...to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed that the crew had one of those "All Business" looks. The captain handed me a printed message. I quickly read it and realized its importance. "All airways over the Continental US are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination." When a dispatcher tells you to land immediately without suggesting an airport, one can assume that the dispatcher gave control of the flight to the captain. We knew it was a serious situation. We needed to find terra firma quickl7.
The nearest airport - 400 miles away - was Gander on the island of Newfoundland. A quick request was made to the Canadian traffic controller and a right turn, directly to Gander, was approved immediately. We found out later why there was no hesitation by the Canadian controller approving our request. We, the in-flight crew, were told to get the plane ready for an immediate landing. Another message arrived from Atlanta telling us about some terrorist activity in the NYC area. We briefed the crew about going to Gander. We went about our business "closing down" the airplane for landing. Later I went back to the cockpit to find that some airplanes had been hijacked and were being flown into buildings all over the US. We decided to make an announcement and LIE to the passengers. We told them that an instrument problem had arisen on the plane and we needed to land at Gander to have it checked. We promised more information after the landing. There were many unhappy passengers but that is par for the course.
We landed about 40 minutes after the start of this episode. There were about 20 other planes on the ground from all over the world. After we parked, the captain made the following announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these planes have the same instrument problem as we have. The reality is that we are here for a good reason" Then he went on to explain the little bit we knew about the US situation. There loud were gasps and stares of disbelief. Local Gander time was 12:30 pm, 11 a.m. EST. Gander control told us to stay put - no one allowed to get off. No one on the ground was allowed to come near aircraft. Only a car from the airport police would come around once in a while, look us over and go on to the next plane. In the next hour or so, all the airways over the North Atlantic were vacated and Gander alone ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, out of which 27 were flying US flags. We were told that every plane was to be offloaded one at a time, foreign carriers given the priority. We were No. 14 in the US category. We were also told that we would be given a tentative time to deplane at 6 p.m..
Meanwhile bits of news started to come in and for the first time we learned that planes were flown into the World Trade Center in NYC and into the Pentagon in DC. People were trying to use their cell phones but were unable to connect due to a different cell system in Canada. Some got through but were only able to get the Canadian operator who told them that the lines to the US were either blocked or jammed - try again. Some time late in the evening, the news filtered to us that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacking had resulted in a crash. The passengers who were totally bewildered and emotionally exhausted - stayed calm. There were 52 other planes with people on them in the same predicament. We also told them that the Canadian government was in charge. True to their word, at 6 p.m.., Gander airport told us that our turn to deplane would be 11 am. That took the last wind out of the passengers, they resigned themselves and accepted the news and started to get into the mode of spending the night on the plane. Gander had promised us any and all medical attention if needed..medicine, water...lavatory servicing. They were true to their word. We had no medical situation during the night. We did have a young lady who was 33 weeks pregnant. We took REALLY good care of her. About 10:30 a.m., we were told to leave the aircraft. A convoy of school buses showed up at the side of the plane. The stairway was hooked up - passengers taken to the terminal for "processing". We, the crew, was taken to the same terminal - different section - where we were processed through immigration and customs and then registered with the Red Cross. After, we were isolated from our passengers and taken in vans to a very small hotel in Gander. We had no idea where our passengers were going.
Town of Gander - population 10,400. Red Cross told us they were going to process about 10,500 passengers from all the planes forced into Gander. We were told to relax at the hotel and wait for a call to go back to the airport. We were told the total scope of the terror back home only after getting to our hotel and turning on the TV...24 hours after it all started. Meanwhile, we enjoyed ourselves going around town discovering things and enjoying the hospitality. The people were so friendly and they just knew that we were the "Plane People". We all had a great time until we got that call, 2 days later, on the 14th at 7 a.m. We got to the airport by 8:30 a.m., left for Atlanta at 12:30 p.m. (Gander is 1 hr, 30 min ahead of EST, yes!) But that's not what I wanted to tell you. What passengers told us was so uplifting and incredible and the timing couldn't have been better. We found that Gander and the surrounding small communities, within a 75 kilometer radius, had closed the high schools, meeting halls, lodges and any other large gathering place. They had converted all these facilities to a mass lodging area. Some had cots set up, some had mats w/sleeping bags and pillows set up. All the high school students HAD to volunteer taking care of the "GUESTS". Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 kilometers from Gander. There they were put in a high school.
If any women wanted to be in a women only facility, that was arranged. Families were kept together. Elderly passengers were taken to private homes. Remember the pregnant lady - she was put up in a private home across the street from a 24 hr Urgent Care facility. There were docs on call and they had both male and female nurses available who stayed with the crowd for the duration. Phone calls and Email to US and Europe were available for every one once a day. During the days the passengers were given a choice of "excursions". Some went on cruises of the lakes and harbors...some to see the local forests. Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by residents and brought to the school for those who elected to stay put. Others were driven to the eatery of their choice and fed. They were given tokens for the local laundromat. Their luggage was still on the aircraft. EVERY need was met for the unfortunate travelers. Passengers were crying while telling us their stories. They were delivered to the airport on-time and without one missing. All because the local Red Cross had the information about the goings on back at Gander and knew which group needed to leave for the airport at what time. INCREDIBLE! Passengers boarded. It was like they had been on a cruise. Everybody knew everybody by name. They swapped stories, impressing each other with who had the better time. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a party. We stayed out of their way. The passengers had bonded, exchanging phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses. And then a strange thing happened. One of our business class passengers approached me and asked if he could speak over the PA to his fellow passengers. We, NEVER, NEVER, allow that. But something told me to get out of his way. I said, "of course". The man picked up the PA and reminded everyone about what they had just gone through. He reminded them of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He further stated that he would like to do something in return for the good folks of Lewisporte. He said he was going to set up a trust fund under the name of DELTA 15 (our flight number). The purpose of the fund would be to provide a scholarship for high school students of Lewisporte to help them go to college. He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travelers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addressed, it totaled $14,500 American. The gentleman who started all this was an MD from Virginia. He promised to match the donations and to start the administrative work on the scholarship. He also said that he would forward this proposal to Delta Corporate and ask them to donate as well. WHY ALL THIS? Just because some people in far away places were kind to some strangers... who just happened to literally drop in among them.
Check out our new COME FROM AWAY tour>> launching spring 2017