Fifteen years ago, on the day the World Trade Center fell, the Pentagon burned and almost 3,000 people died, hundreds of aircraft carrying thousands of frightened passengers were ordered to land.
Any one of the planes in the air that morning of Sept. 11, 2001, could have been another death missile. Who knew how big this terrorist attack was?
When the United States shut down its airspace, tiny Gander International Airport in Newfoundland opened its runways, taking in 38 wide-body planes on trans-Atlantic routes.
And this is where one of the many inspiring stories of Sept. 11 unfolded.
It’s okay. Love this touching story of Gander, revel in it. Because every year, as Sept. 11 reminds America of the unfiltered evil in our world, it’s also necessary to remind ourselves of the human capacity for kindness, selflessness and generosity.
The people of Gander, a town of no more than 10,000, looked at all those planes lined up on the airport’s runway and didn’t think of terrorism, didn’t see potential attacks. They just wanted to help.
It was a logistical challenge. They didn’t have hotels or restaurants to take in nearly 7,000 passengers, and they knew that the people from more than 100 countries stuck on those planes were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers. Just like the Newfoundlanders were.
Christa Folkes, who’d just became a grandmother, was on one of those planes.
She was returning from a solo trip to visit her family in Germany and was on her way back to Norfolk, Va., when her plane was diverted to Gander, said her daughter-in-law, Amy Folkes.
The family was frantic, wondering if grandma was OK. She was.
“She had a fantastic experience there, everyone treated her very well,” Folkes said. Her mother-in-law, who just turned 80, was on the road again, and couldn’t be reached to tell the story herself.
But Amy and the rest of the family remember that their matriarch was shown kindness, comfort and compassion in those fraught days.
The people of Gander and surrounding fishing villages filled their schools, community rooms and churches with cots for Christa Folkes and the other stranded passengers.
The town’s bus drivers, who were on strike that day, walked off their picket lines and went back to work. Bakeries went into overdrive production, hospitals staffed up and many of the townspeople opened their homes and offered their beds to the “plane people.”
They found a way to care for the 17 dogs and cats and the two great apes who were also aboard the planes.
There, on a Canadian island of green hills and rocky coasts, humans were at their best.
None of the townspeople would accept money. So after the passengers were finally able to reboard their plane, Shirley Brooks-Jones, 80, a longtime fundraiser at Ohio State University, had a mid-air idea. She passed around a notebook and asked each of the passengers to contribute to a scholarship fund for the children of Gander.
They had $15,000 when they landed.
Brooks-Jones did this for a living. So she helped turn that into more money — the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship fund has grown to about $2 million.
“As of this year, the scholarship has been received by 228 graduates of Lewisporte Collegiate” high school, Brooks-Jones said.
There were 28 scholarships this year. Brooks-Jones has returned to Newfoundland 26 times and often meets with students who got the scholarships, including one who is now a town doctor.
Most of us still have vivid memories of the horror of that day. We relive our fear those terrorists instilled in our society every time we take off our shoes at the airport, go through a metal detector at a museum or maneuver past ugly concrete bollards.
But let’s also consider the incredible acts of bravery we witnessed that day. And the days that humans were at their best in a small town in Newfoundland.