The Town of Gander: Opening hearts and homes in a time of need
They prepared for the worst, and it brought out the best in small-town Canada.
When U.S. airspace was closed immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the citizens of Gander, N.L., found themselves the unexpected hosts to about 6,700 travellers from 38 passenger jets that had to get out of the sky.
Five days later, the last of the visiting jumbo jets flew away.
But for town that had once been a strategic airbase during the Second World War and later a global refuelling hub, there remained a legacy of lasting friendships, and a sense that something positive could come out of even the darkest moments.
At first, as the initial news of the attacks were broadcast, Gander had no idea what was in store for it. But within an hour and a half of that first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center, the first of the 38 planes was on the ground at the Gander airport.
"I think what got us ahead is we prepared for the worst-case scenario," says Claude Elliott, the mayor of Gander since 1996.
For a town with a population just shy of 10,000, the worst-case scenario was the prospect of thousands of passengers having to stay in a place with a total of only 500 hotel rooms.
Add to this the fact that police didn't want residents opening up their homes to strangers "because they didn't know how widespread this terrorist attack might be," recalls Elliott.
Not opening their homes, however, was a non-starter.
"You don't tell Newfoundlanders that. We're going to take people in when we see people with nowhere to go. That's just the way we are here," says Elliott.
Town staff contacted every organization, every church, the schools and the halls to set up places for these downed passengers to stay.
Elliott went on TV asking for donations of bedding. That first night, all the guests had at least a blanket. By the second, the Canadian Forces had flown in cots.
The Salvation Army co-ordinated the food, and volunteers went round-the-clock without sleep to help their guests feel as comfortable as possible.
"We have a great community. We have a fair amount of infrastructure here," says Elliott. "But the greatest resource is our people. We know that when we need them, they'll be there for us.
"Technology might fail, but people won't."
Even those who felt they weren't up to active volunteering made sure they played a role, whether it was making a casserole, or opening the spare bedrooms in their homes.
By the second day, town officials realized Gander proper could not look after everyone — the town would need help from surrounding communities.
While about 4,000 passengers were looked after in Gander, the remaining people were taken on school buses to much smaller towns such as Gambo and Lewisporte.
Ten years on, Elliott bears witness to the "lifelong friendships" created by those five days in 2001, whether they are between passengers and people who helped them, or a general feeling of friendship toward the community as a whole by people who have never been there but heard about its hospitality.
In Elliott's mind, one particular reaction among the passengers themselves stands out: They were impressed that no one was charging or gouging them for food or a place to lay their head.
Fast facts on Gander
When it was completed in 1938, Gander was largest airfield in the world.
Nearly all the town's streets are named for famous aviators.
Gander was designated an alternate landing site for NASA's space shuttle program.
Air traffic controllers at Gander deal with all North Atlantic flights, whether the planes land there or not.
"Most of the people on those planes could have afforded to pay for every bit they had eaten."
But everybody was treated the same, and Elliott figures accolades should also go to the passengers, who made no demands on their hosts.
Some anticipated problems didn't materialize: While there were people from 95 countries on the planes, language was never really a barrier.
"A lot of the passengers could speak multiple languages," says Elliott.
Also, "the weather gods were with us because it was probably the best five days we ever had. People could get out and walk around," he says.
The mayor is looking forward to the town's efforts to mark the 10th anniversary of Gander's role on Sept. 11.
Big family gathering
While the events will take notice of the lives lost in the U.S., they will also focus on remembering those five days as impromptu hosts, and will include a breakfast where returning passengers will have the chance to turn the tables and serve the food themselves.
Elliott likens it to a big family gathering.
Town residents "never really got to spend a whole lot of time talking to the passengers because they were too busy cooking, cleaning and making sure they were comfortable.
"This will be an opportunity for people to be able to relax, sit down, chat and get to know each other, and I think it will be an opportunity for those who want to say thank you to the community."
If there's one legacy Elliott hopes the community helped forge, it is "that there's good people still left in the world.
"I think that people went away from here with a new sense of hope and a new attitude towards life compared to what they had the day they landed.
"That was sufficient enough for us that we restored some faith in people."