Fourteen years ago, flights carrying thousands of people were diverted to a town that most had never heard of and were housed with people they had never met.
“It was quite a trying time, but we knew we had to make them feel comfortable and give them the best temporary home that we could,” Gander mayor Claude Elliot said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States shut down its airspace after two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre. As a result, 38 commercial flights and four military planes, carrying 7,000 passengers, were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I was just sitting around having a normal conversation with some friends and all of a sudden someone said there was a plane that crashed into the World Trade Centre,” Mayor Elliot, who was also the Mayor at the time, recalls. “Shortly after, we got word there was a second plane crash. That’s when we knew things were about to turn upside down.”
Elliot said locals were quick to take action, converting a hockey rink into a refrigerator to store food, striking bus drivers lowered their pickets to transport passengers and pharmacies provided prescriptions, free of charge.
With only 500 hotel rooms in Gander, Elliot declared a state of emergency, to ensure the flight crews would have a place to rest, until it was time to load back up and depart. Elliot said the passengers flooded into community centres, churches and even the houses of locals.
“The people of Gander wouldn’t sit by while others were in need,” Elliot explained. “They began housing them and feeding them, and not just for one day, but five.”
Gander resident, Beulah Cooper, was at home when she received a call from the Royal Canadian Legion, asking her to bring a tray of sandwiches to the hall.
“I remember bringing three women back to my home to call their loved ones, and one of them, named Monica, started crying after she got off the phone,” Cooper said. “When I asked what was wrong, she told me she was tired, so I asked her if she wanted to stay the night.”
The women stayed with Cooper until the airspace was reopened five days later and they were safe to travel home, however this would not be the last time Cooper would see or hear from them.
“Monica and her mom come visit and every time they do, they stay with me,” Cooper said. “I’ve kept in touch and visited others as well. They’ve all become very, very dear to my heart.”
According to Mayor Elliot, the population increases every September 11, as people from all over the world return to the island to visit the individuals who took them in, during that “dark time.”
“I believe these people found strength during this tragic time because of the unlikely friendships that were formed,” Elliot said.
“It just goes to show, no matter how much pain hatred and terror can bring, love and compassion for others will always outweigh it,” he added.