The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

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I was a senior in high school on 9/11. I was in my high school government class when the first plane hit the twin towers. I didn’t know anything had happened until third block when the principal made an announcement on the loudspeaker. At that point, the TVs went on and we started discussing what had happened in New York and the Pentagon.

I didn’t know anyone currently living in New York. I was sad for the people involved but never really stopped to think about all of the repercussions for everyone traveling that day since my life didn’t really change.

I was listening to a podcast this summer where the host recommended the book The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede. My local library had a copy and I decided to check it out. I was so fascinated by this book that I read it in a few evenings.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

After the planes hit the twin towers, US airspace was closed for several days. I never stopped to think about what happened to all of the planes that were in the air at that time. Most of the planes heading from Europe to the United States were diverted to Canada. Several of them went to an airport in Gander, Newfoundland.

Gander used to be a big airport. Due to it’s location it was a very popular fuel stop for planes heading from the United States or Canada on it’s way to or returning from Europe during the World Wars. The runways are actually the biggest in the world because of the types of planes that would go through there. With the advance in technology, the airport isn’t used very often anymore because planes don’t need a fuel stop there on their way to or from Europe.

On 9/11 38 of the 250 planes that were diverted to Canada landed at the Gander Airport. There was one hotel nearby that slept about 500 and that was to be reserved for the pilots and flight crews so that they could be near the airport, rested, and ready to go at a moment’s notice once the airspace opened up. The passengers were bused (by school bus drivers who stopped their strike to volunteer to drive them) all over the island to small town churches, schools, and lions clubs. Each flight of passengers was sent to the same location. The population of the island doubled the day the passengers landed.

The people on the island were so hospitable to the passengers on these flights. Everyday citizens brought food, sheets, and towels to the makeshift shelters for these passengers that they had never met. The pharmacies donated the medications that the passengers needed free of cost. The local stores donated things like the toothbrushes, shampoo,and  diapers the passengers needed.

The book is divided into chapters based on each day during the week following the tragedy of 9/11. The passengers arrived in Gander on Tuesday and the last passengers left Monday morning. It chronicles several different people over the different days from a couple who was bringing their daughter home after adopting her from Kazakhstan to a couple on their way home from a trip to Ireland who had a son who was a firefighter in New York City.

I was fascinated by the stories of the passengers as well as how the town interacted with them. One plane was on it’s way from Europe to Orlando and several children were planning to go to Disney World for their birthday. When the staff of the school that those families were staying heard that, they set up a carnival for those kids, complete with a birthday cake and presents so that they still had a good birthday. Several families opened their homes to let passengers come in and take showers. People volunteered to drive passengers anywhere on the island they needed to go to run errands (think buy underware from walmart).

Most families in the book had a happy ending. They were incredibly inconvenienced but their lives mostly remained the same when they eventually made it home. There were a few stories of families who lost loved ones in the attacks but didn’t know for sure until they were home weeks later.

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