NL·9/11: 20 Years Later

N.L. famously embraced the world on 9/11. There's an untold story about what happened before

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador are globally renowned for their kindness during 9/11. But according to a Gander author and a Red Cross volunteer, that response owes much to decades of assisting air crash victims and refugees.

An influx of refugees, a history of airline tragedies and even Y2K prepared Gander for 9/11

When thousands of stranded passengers arrived in Gander during 9/11, volunteers were ready to co-ordinate a large-scale emergency response. (CBC)

Twenty years have passed since thousands of international travellers famously took refuge in Gander, Stephenville, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, St. John's and surrounding communities in Newfoundland and Labrador after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Over the years, stories about the kindness and generosity displayed by this province have spread far and wide — thanks, in large part, to a certain Broadway musical.

But beyond the outpouring of warmth documented in Come From Away — and the countless other stories of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians offering up baked goods, meals, the keys to their homes, you name it — another narrative about this province's 9/11 response remains largely unknown, according to Gander author Mac Moss.

That narrative concerns the remarkable degree of preparation that allowed the province — and especially, Gander — to spontaneously feed and house thousands of visitors.

And in Moss's new book, Flown into the Arms of Angels: Newfoundland and Labrador's Unsung Heroes of 9/11, it's this story of emergency preparedness that takes centre stage.

"It didn't amaze me that Newfoundlanders responded by bringing people into their homes," Moss said. 

"What amazed me was the level of planning and preparation and how well this emergency management plan worked in that situation. It was absolutely, absolutely phenomenal."

Gander resident Mac Moss says the story of emergency preparedness is key to his new book, Flown into the Arms of Angels: Newfoundland and Labrador's Unsung Heroes of 9/11. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Air crashes led to 'heightened sense of responsibility'

When the U.S. closed its airspace soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 238 planes were diverted to Canadian airports. Seventy-five of those were sent to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gander, with its vast runways, took in 38, according to data from NAV Canada. 

Gander's emergency management plan took effect after the province asked all municipalities to create emergency strategies in 1997. In Gander, Moss said, individuals from many different organizations were involved, including key players in the town's 9/11 response from the Red Cross, the Department of Social Services, the hospital, the RCMP and the Salvation Army.

Once Gander's emergency plan was hatched, the team started practising.

"They used to do tabletop exercises, all the group together," Moss said. "'We have declared an emergency of such and such' — they'd call the group together and go through the management of that particular emergency."

At the time, Moss said, plane crashes were top of mind as an emergency that could occur in Gander. And with local tragedies like the 1967 Czech airline crash and the 1985 Arrow Air crash in living memory, Gander knew to take these exercises seriously.

Alena Zimova, pictured above, survived the 1967 Czech air crash in Gander, N.L. (Julia Cook/CBC)

Betty Mullaly-Moulton, a retired social worker who volunteered with the Red Cross in Gander during 9/11, helps communities around the province develop disaster emergency management plans and has written her own manuscript tracing emergency preparation in Gander over the years.   

"The airplane crashes in Gander were very tragic and very, very emotional for many of the responders as well as, of course, for the passengers," Mullaly-Moulton said.

Mullaly-Moulton links Gander's history of responding to plane crashes with the town's organizational capacities during 9/11.

"Through these events, the responders in Gander developed a system and a process of activating emergency operation centres, co-ordinating relief efforts and transporting supplies to different crash sites," Mullaly-Moulton said.

"But what was really important is that, you know, we developed over time a heightened sense of responsibility to these individuals."

Gander's airport hosted 38 planes, carrying about 6,600 passengers, after they were forced to land in Canadian airspace after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. (Nav Canada/Canadian Press)

Gander's legacy as a haven for refugees

Both Mullaly-Moulton and Moss believe Gander's history of assisting refugees also played a significant role in the 9/11 response.

Until 1987, the province's sole international airport was in Gander. It operated as a truly global hub, especially since transatlantic flights often stopped to refuel there. (Fidel Castro was even photographed tobogganing in Gander.) 

During the Cold War, flights from Soviet bloc countries were especially likely to refuel in Gander while en route to Cuba. At the time, passengers on these refueling flights were permitted to deplane, explore the airport's lounge and proceed to claim refugee status or ask for political asylum. 

I think people here do disaster relief every day. Because everything was so organized.- Allison Brustin 

Moss said what began as a trickle of refugee claims in the late 1970s became a flood by the late '80s.

"There were as many as 32 flights per week landing in Gander from these Soviet bloc countries," Moss said. "Sometimes the only people left aboard the aircraft were the flight crew.… Everyone else would defect."

At first, the then provincial Department of Social Services placed these individuals in hotels while they waited for their refugee hearings. But before long, the hotels just couldn't accommodate everyone — so the department searched the province for schools, churches, town halls, fire halls and anywhere else that could host those claiming asylum.

"And so when 9/11 happened … they knew what was in the geographic area that could accommodate thousands of people," Moss explained.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, many residents of Soviet bloc countries deplaned and claimed refugee status in Gander. (CBC)

Mullaly-Moulton, who worked for the provincial government during the 1980s and early 1990s, said the department's experience co-ordinating with the airport and federal Department of Immigration at the time — along with their organization of accommodations, food, medical support and interpretation services — directly translated to the 9/11 response, especially since the same people who worked during the refugee influx also arranged matters during 9/11.

"I think it's important for people to recognize … there was a community capacity that was built over decades that allowed us to not only welcome and provide kindness and caring and social integration, but also to co-ordinate a large-scale response in a very short time frame," Mullaly-Moulton said.

Y2K bug has a benefit

On top of all that, the Y2K scare leading up to 2000 had prepared the Gander airport to park dozens of planes at once without a hitch. For a time, airports around the world had planned to keep airplanes grounded while the clocks rolled over to the year 2000.

"So when 9/11 happened, [the air traffic controllers] didn't even have to pull out that plan because it was so fresh in their minds," said Moss.

"They knew how to park 50 aircraft safely in their airport. And it was the same thing for St. John's and Stephenville and Goose Bay."

Betty Mullaly-Moulton volunteered with the Red Cross at the Gander International Airport during 9/11. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

All this co-ordination did not go unnoticed.

In 2019, stranded passenger Allison Brustin told CBC, "I said to my husband at one point, I think people here do disaster relief every day. Because everything was so organized."

But by and large, Mullaly-Moulton and Moss suspect few recognize the depth of experience underpinning the province's response.

For his part, Moss was occupied during 9/11 with the care of 438 passengers at the College of the North Atlantic's campus in Gander. He was too busy to take in all the moving parts. But after interviewing hundreds of individuals for his book over the course of three years, he came away with a deep sense of awe.

"Even the people involved in these emergency operations did not know the capability they had by working together. They weren't aware of it. And the general public was totally unaware of it," Moss said.

"It's absolutely amazing how well the province as a whole was prepared for this type of emergency." 

This is an artist's interpretation of flights being diverted to Gander International Airport. (Submitted by Seattle Repertory Theatre )

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andrea McGuire is a journalist working with CBC in St. John's.

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