Transatlantic friendship forged in 9/11

For one man from England and one from Canada, the arrival of diverted planes in Gander, N.L., on Sept. 11, 2001, meant the beginning of an unexpected transatlantic friendship a decade in the making.
Steve Badcock, left, and Steve O'Hehir forged an unexpected friendship out of the aftermath of 9/11. (Courtesy Steve O'Hehir)

One after another, the tiny lights in the sky slowly turned into jumbo jets.

Looking out the window at work, Steve Badcock watched as airplane after airplane touched down on the airport runway in Gander, N.L.

"It was a beautiful sunny day, and from my office I could watch a light form in the sky and the light would form into a plane and it would land and then another light would come and it was just amazing."

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Badcock, a civilian employee at Canadian Forces Base Gander, had a front-row seat as Gander and other communities across Canada were about to host thousands of stranded transatlantic airline passengers.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, planes were ordered out of the sky and Gander, blessed with a long runway that could accommodate an abundance of jets, was a logical landing spot.

In the aftermath, the warmth and kindness so many Newfoundlanders showed to their unexpected guests became legendary. But for Badcock, the arrival of the planes meant the beginning of an unexpected transatlantic friendship that has only become stronger in the decade since.

Among the almost 40 planes on the tarmac at Gander was a Delta flight out of London and bound for Cincinnati. On board was Steve O'Hehir, a software salesman from Winchester, England.

Welcome to Gambo

The Delta flight was one of the last planes unloaded and, nearly 36 hours after touching down, O'Hehir and the other passengers were finally ushered off the jet, through security checks and onto yellow school buses that took them out of town and about 30 kilometres down the Trans-Canada Highway.

"We didn't know where we were being taken, but we ended up in Gambo," says O'Hehir.

Steve O'Hehir, standing, was among the Delta passengers put up by St. George's Anglican Church in Gambo, N.L. (Courtesy Steve O'Hehir)

At St. George's Anglican Church, trestle tables were set up and food was waiting, along with a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and a towel for everyone.

"There was a warm, warm welcome," recalls O'Hehir. "We made the best of it as we could."

O'Hehir eventually found a quiet spot to settle down behind the pulpit. He couldn't sleep, so he pulled out a book he had with him, a biography of a British actress.

That book caught the eye of Badcock's father, George, an elder at St. George's, who was helping make sure the passengers were content and settled. The two got talking, and the next day George introduced O'Hehir to his son.

Steve Badcock invited O'Hehir back to his home for a chance to grab a shower, freshen up and get away from the "organized chaos" of 112 people in one big room at the church.

'A very unusual friendship'

They also took a little tour around town and discovered they had many similar interests.

"Our friendship just seemed to click from there," says Badcock. "It was very strange, a very unusual friendship.

"We just talked a bit about different things and realized we had the same interests in cars and World War I history and things like that."

Particularly striking was a link to Beaumont-Hamel, a First World War battleground in France where the Newfoundland Regiment suffered huge casualties on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Coincidentally, just the week before 9/11, O'Hehir's interest in WWI had taken him to visit Beaumont-Hamel.

When it came time to leave Newfoundland a few days later,O'Hehir urged Badcock to visit him in England. While that trip didn't happen for a few years, the two men did keep in contact via email.

"It seems like the more we kept in touch, the more we had in common," says Badcock.

Quarterly email exchanges evolved into Skype chats every week or two.

Visits back and forth

Badcock and his wife, Fran, have visited O'Hehir and his partner, Sonia, in England, and they all went to Beaumont-Hamel last year.

Plans are in the works for trips back and forth in 2012.

Steve O'Hehir, left, and his partner, Sonia, of Winchester, England, and Steve Badcock and his wife, Fran, of Gambo, N.L., have become fast friends after the Steves met in Gambo 10 years ago. (Courtesy Steve O'Hehir)

"Sonia and Fran just get on astonishingly well as well," says O'Hehir. "The four of us have a great rapport."

Both O'Hehir and Badcock treasure their friendship, and the way it has evolved.

"It's quite unusual the way we came together," says O'Hehir. "I wouldn't see life without them being part of our close sort of family."

Badcock says the bond between him and his wife and O'Hehir and Sonia is very strong, although he struggles a bit to put in words what the friendship means.

Changed outlook

"I keep using the word strange because I don't know how else to describe it. It's one of those friendships that I would probably never have formed for myself or ever thought that I would, and I treasure it dearly."

The events of 9/11 and the friendship he formed have changed Badcock's outlook. He's travelled a bit, and now he looks beyond the anonymous crowds at airports and wonders what kinds of friendships he could form.

O'Hehir's "abiding memory" from 9/11 is the outpouring of kindness and friendship he encountered in Newfoundland.

"Despite the tragedy of what happened in New York, you've got the converse of what happened all across Canada and particularly in Gander, in Newfoundland, in Gambo. That hand of friendship is one I will take to my grave."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.