Nfld. & Labrador

Gambo, a town that became a haven for stranded airline passengers, remembers 9/11

The students of Smallwood Academy in Gambo don't remember when their school became a temporary haven for hundreds of stranded airline passengers.

Smallwood Academy students receive scholarships from stranded passengers

Staff and students at Smallwood Academy constructed this sign for their 9/11 memorial ceremony. First responders and children decorated it with candles. (Leigh Anne Power)

The students at Smallwood Academy in Gambo don't remember when their school became a temporary haven for hundreds of stranded airline passengers.

Grade 10 student Brooklyn Bixby hadn't even been born when American airspace closed after the terror attacks of 9/11, but that didn't stop her from pouring her heart into a poem she read at the school's memorial service.

"I sat down in my room last night, and I know I wasn't alive during 9/11, but my teachers and my mother also, they're huge on the history and they always tell us about the importance of it," she explained. "And I've seen Come From Away I think four or five times, including on Broadway in New York, and it truly did touch me."

"I just wanted to try my best to commemorate the people who were so generous, but also the people who were so courageous throughout that hard time."

Former Smallwood vice principal Murray Fudge does remember the drama after a call from Gander informed his staff there'd be busloads of traumatized passengers coming, in need of shelter and care at their school.

They immediately pulled out all the gym mats they had to use as emergency mattresses. They had only 40, so they called the school in nearby Hare Bay, and their staff arrived with 60 more.

The French teacher — the only person who spoke a language other than English — greeted the international guests, although Fudge laughs when he recalls the first people to arrive spoke only German.

From left to right: Former Smallwood Academy vice principal Murray Fudge, former principal Dennis Lush, American passengers Marvin and Allison Brustin, current vice principal Joanne Broders and principal Maxwell Pike. (Leigh Anne Power)

He says there weren't many laughs on that day 18 years ago, however.

"One of the teachers had set up a television because at that time we didn't have cable in the school. He brought in his satellite," he recalled. "And when the passengers came in, for the first time they saw what was happening. The emotion was unbelievable."

"And I think it was that that set the tone for the way they conducted themselves after, because they had no complaints whatsoever. They looked at the images on television and realized, hey, this is a drastic situation."

Chicago lawyer Marvin Brustin and his wife Allison were among those who called Smallwood Academy home for those days in Sept. 2001.

Part of a display of 9/11 memorabilia shows stranded passengers bunking down in Smallwood Academy's gym. (Joanne Broders)

They returned to attend the school memorial ceremony, with gifts of scholarships worth $10,000 USD and money to build a monument at the Gambo town hall.

"I'm a very patriotic American, but I'm also patriotic in the sense I appreciate when people are nice to us," Marvin told the assembly. "And you can't just say, 'Thanks, see you around.' We should do something for it tangibly. So some scholarships and a monument are something I think at least tangible that won't be forgotten so easily."

Allison Brustin is still amazed at the reception she received in Gambo.

"I said to my husband at one point, I think people here do disaster relief every day. Because everything was so organized," she said. "Anything you could think of. You could go get prescriptions refilled. If you needed clothes, they took you. At one point I said I always loved Newfoundland dogs. The next day there was a Newfoundland dog."

A full house at the Smallwood Academy gym for the school's 9/11 memorial ceremony. (Leigh Anne Power)

Former principal Dennis Lush remembers the other side of that effort.

"There was people bringing in food. There was clothing being brought in there," he said. "The store, we called it, was set up and you had toiletries, used clothing, new clothing. And people were browsing around and 'shopping.' And this became a community unto itself. An international community."

He says the school's staff even prepared a "honeymoon suite" for a newlywed couple who had been on their way to celebrate their nuptials in New York.

Current vice principal Joanne Broders was responsible for planning the commemorative ceremony.

"When we remember, we preserve history," she explained. "And of course, what happened in Gambo and all the surrounding towns during 9/11 was a huge effort. I wanted to make sure ... because it is 18 years ago ... for the community and the people from the United States to understand that we have not forgotten, and we will remember."

Display map listing all the countries from which the stranded passengers hailed when they arrived in Gambo on 9/11 (Leigh Anne Power)

Grade 11 student Jasmine Neal wasn't there when all those passengers arrived at her school from 39 countries, places as diverse as Afghanistan, Togo and Haiti.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't understand the importance of what her community did or remember through the stories and mementos of those who offered hospitality when it was so desperately needed.

"I do feel very proud. I feel very honoured to be part of Gambo and that legacy we have," she said.

The school staff plans to make a commemorative ceremony an annual event.

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