The caregiver: Helping others a way of life for Beulah Cooper

Ten years after she was asked to put together a plate of sandwiches, Beulah Cooper is still hearing "thank you" for her efforts helping airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland after 9/11.
Monica Burke of Seattle, Wash., is flanked by her mother, Cheryl Helbing, left, and Beulah Cooper in Gander, N.L. on Sept. 10, 2002. Burke's flight from Dublin to New York was diverted to the Newfoundland town on Sept. 11, 2001, and Cooper took her into her home. Burke's mother travelled from Hinesville, Ga., to meet the woman who took care of her daughter after U.S. airspace was closed. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

It all started with a plate of sandwiches.

Ten years after she was asked to put together that bit of food, Beulah Cooper is still hearing "thank you" for her efforts helping airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland after 9/11.

But Cooper's efforts went well beyond the egg and ham and cheese sandwiches she took to the Royal Canadian Legion hall in Gander on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. And in those efforts — which saw her go without sleep for 28 hours and become something of a surrogate caregiver to strangers — she struck up lasting friendships that will be renewed as the town marks the 10th anniversary of that day.

Cooper was one of hundreds of Newfoundlanders who put their own lives on hold to help those passengers from transatlantic flights who became stranded when U.S. airspace was closed following the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

A decade on, people are still contacting her to offer their appreciation.

Her reputation was fuelled in good part by her participation in a NBC do

cumentary by Tom Brokaw, which focused on the Gander experience and was broadcast in the U.S. during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

For Cooper, the attention has been heartwarming, and humbling.

"I'm just flabbergasted by what's going on," she says. "I can't believe people, after all this time, they're still being so kind."

Second nature

The kindness went both ways. And, for Cooper, it was second nature.

"When I heard the planes were coming here, I said, 'Well, I know one thing — they'll be looked after,' " Cooper recalls.

"It's just part of our way of life. Helping someone else just comes naturally."

That way of life came as a great comfort to Monica Burke of Seattle, one of the stranded passengers for whom Cooper opened her home, cooked breakfast and became a moral support through those confusing days after the attacks.

Aer Lingus passengers gather outside the Royal Canadian Legion in Gander, where they stayed after their plane was stranded in the town after 9/11. (Courtesy Beulah Cooper)

Burke was flying home from Dublin, via an Aer Lingus flight to New York. When the plane touched down in Gander, she had little knowledge of where she was: just somewhere in Canada that had a weird time zone.

After 11 hours on the tarmac, Burke was among the passengers who were taken by bus to the Legion hall in Gander.

Sometime later, Cooper appeared at the door of the shelter, asking if anyone needed a ride to a pay phone (this being a time before the ubiquitous cellphone).

Burke and two other women took Cooper up on the offer, and she drove them to a local hotel. Burke called work and home.

'Everything hit me'

"Finally, everything hit me and I just broke down crying," Burke recalls. Cooper gently draped her arm over Burke's shoulder and offered her the chance to come to her house.

"She literally took me home after she knew me for maybe 15 minutes."

Ten years on, Burke remains struck by "just how unselfish" Cooper was.

And it gives her pause for thought.

"I couldn't believe she just said, 'Hey, do you want to come to my house.' I'd like to think that I would offer people the same help, but as far as letting them come to my house, I don't know that I'd be that generous. I really didn't think of it at the time."

Burke and Cooper have kept in touch through letters and email. Burke returned to Gander in September 2002, and will be back in the town for the 10th anniversary.

Remembering the kindness

Cooper is eagerly anticipating the visit and the chance to see Burke again: "She feels like part of the family."

For Burke, the visit is equally significant, and a chance to let Cooper and others who helped her know that she hasn't forgotten their kindness.

"Everybody in that town basically put their lives on hold to help us," she says.

"I just think it's important to remember this part of 9/11 because it just stands in such contrast to what was happening in America.

"It's like the worst of times and the best of times. It's like the worst of people and then the best of people."