Nfld. & Labrador

Gander area ambivalent about 9/11 anniversary

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks shut down U.S. airspace and sent thousands of unexpected visitors to central Newfoundland, residents in the Gander area have mixed feelings about celebrating the anniversary.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks shut down U.S. airspace and sent thousands of unexpected visitors to central Newfoundland, residents in the Gander areahave mixed feelingsabout celebrating the anniversary.

While hundreds of homes in the Gander area took in stranded travellers in the wake of the co-ordinated attacks, community leaders say they struggle with the need to keep the occasion solemn, and the feeling that one of the most important events in the area's history should somehow be recognized.

"I don't know if we should celebrate. It's not something that you celebrate," said Lloyd Noseworthy, mayor of Gambo, a community about 45 kilometres away from Gander.

"But we certainly should probably honour it, you know— give it some sort of distinction."

On Sept. 11, 2001, dozens of flights were quickly directed to 15 Canadian airports, most of them in Atlantic Canada, when authorities shut down airspace.

Of the 40,000 international travellers that were diverted to Canadian airports, about 6,600 of them landed at Gander, a town of about 9,500 residents.

On the first anniversary, the event was marked solemnly, with then prime minister Jean Chrétien leading a delegation to Gander.

Since then, local communities have marked the anniversary in a low-key way.

In fact, no official activities were planned for Gander this year until the town learned that David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, was visiting this week. An ecumenical service is planned for Wednesday.

"Most people said: 'I done it. I did it out of the goodness of my heart. I did it to volunteer, to make those people comfortable. I've done my job, they're gone now— that's all. I'm here if you need me again,' " said Gander Mayor Claude Elliott.

Though not a large town, Gander has an airport that large cities would envy. It was built during the Second World War, and— until the advent of jet engines— was a fuelling stop for countless flights.

Withenough tarmac to accommodate the 39 jets that landed, Gander's crew had to hustle as the horror of the day's events unfolded.

"We literally had to drain the sky in a short time," Gander air traffic controller Don O'Brien recalled Monday.

"We did our part … [but] we really didn't know how much more of this evil was going to unfold," O'Brien told CBC News. "It was unprecedented, and it probably will never happen again — hopefully not."

To accommodate the passengers, Gander called upon schools, churches, homeowners and especiallyneighbouring communities to provide shelter for its unexpected visitors.

Over the week that followed— until airspace was reopened and travellers could rebook new flights— friendships were forged that became the stuff of legend.

In Lewisporte, for instance, a fund created by Ohio native Shirley Brooks-Jones has provided scholarships for graduating high school students.

"Each year, I just have to come back to Lewisporte because had it not been for the people of Newfoundland, I don't know what we would have done," said Brooks-Jones, who has raised more than $800,000 in cash and pledges.

"The people there are such wonderful, kind people. I don't ever want to forget them."

Jim DeFede, a Miami-based author, wrote the bestseller The Day The World Came To Town about Gander'sSept. 11experiences.

"It's a sad anniversary but it doesn't necessarily have to be a completely sad anniversary, when you keep in mind all the wonderful things that happened because of 9/11 and surrounding 9/11," DeFede said.

"It's a mixed-feeling day."

Appleton, a village of about 575 residents near Gander, will mark theSept. 11anniversary this year with a quiet service at a peace park that was built in part with donations from grateful passengers.