This is a tale of what happened to the passengers of Delta flight 15 when returning to the US from Germany on September 11th, 2001. It's a heartwarming read. Thank you Gander.
TOLD FROM THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT'S PERSPECTIVE
We were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt flying over the North Atlantic and I was in my crew rest seat taking my scheduled rest break. All of a sudden the curtains parted violently and I was told to go to the cockpit, right now, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed that the crew had one of those "All Business" looks on their faces. The captain handed me a printed message. It was from Atlanta, addressed to our flight, and simply said, "All airways over the Continental US are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination."
Now, when a dispatcher tells you to land immediately without suggesting which airport, we knew it was a serious situation and we needed to find terra firma. It was quickly decided that the nearest airport was 400 miles away, behind our right shoulder, in Gander, on the island of Newfoundland. A quick request was made to the Canadian traffic controller and a right turn, directly to Gander, was approved immediately.
We briefed the in-flight crew about going to Gander and we went about our business 'closing down' the airplane for a landing. A few minutes later, I went back to the cockpit and found-out that some airplanes had been hijacked and were being flown into buildings all over the US. We decided to make an announcement and LIE to the passengers for the time being. We told them that an instrument problem had arisen on the airplane and that we needed to land at Gander to have it checked. We promised to give more information after landing.
We landed in Gander about 40 minutes after the start of this episode. There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over the world. After we parked on the ramp the captain made the following announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have. But the reality is that we are here for a good reason." Then he went on to explain the little bit we knew about the situation in the US. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. In the next hour or so all the airways over the North Atlantic were vacated and Gander alone ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, out of which 27 were flying US flags.
Gander airport told us that our turn to deplane would come at 11 a.m., the next morning. That took the last wind out of the passengers and they simply resigned and accepted this news without much noise and really started to get into a mode of spending the night on the airplane. Gander had promised us any and all medical attention if needed; medicine, water, and lavatory servicing. And they were true to their word. Fortunately we had no medical situation during the night. We did have a young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. We took REALLY good care of her. The night passed without any further complications on our airplane despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th we were told to get ready to leave the aircraft.
A convoy of school buses showed up at the side of the airplane, the stairway was hooked up and the passengers were taken to the terminal for "processing". We, the crew, were taken to the same terminal but were told to go to a different section, where we were processed through Immigration and customs and then had to register with the Red Cross. After that we were isolated from our passengers and were taken in a caravan of vans to a very small hotel in the town of Gander. We had no idea where our passengers were going.
The town of Gander has a population of 10,400 people. Red Cross told us that they were going to process about 10,500 passengers from all the airplanes that were forced into Gander. We were told to just relax at the hotel and wait for a call to go back to the airport, but not to expect that call for a while. We found out the total scope of the terror back home only after getting to our hotel and turning on the TV, 24 hours after it all started.
THE GOOD NEWS
But that's not what I wanted to tell you. What passengers told us afterwards was so uplifting and incredible and the timing couldn't have been better. We found out that Gander and the surrounding small communities, within a 75 Kilometer radius, had closed all the high schools, meeting halls, lodges, and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities to a mass lodging area. Some had cots set up, some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up. ALL the high school students HAD to volunteer taking care of the "GUESTS".
Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 Kilometers from Gander. There they were put in a high school. If any women wanted to be in a women-only facility, that was arranged. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were given no choice and were taken to private homes. Remember that young pregnant lady, she was put up in a private home right across the street from a 24 hour Urgent Care type facility. There were DDS on call and they had both male and female nurses available and stayed with the crowd for the duration. Phone calls and emails to US and Europe were available for everyone once a day. During the days the passengers were given a choice of "Excursion" trips. Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbors. Some went to see the local forests. Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the school for those who elected to stay put. Others were driven to the eatery of their choice and fed. They were given tokens to go to the local Laundromat to wash their clothes, since their luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words every single need was met for those unfortunate travelers. Passengers were crying while telling us these stories. After all that, they were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single one missing or late. All because the local Red Cross had all the information about the goings on back at Gander and knew which group needed to leave for the airport at what time. Absolutely incredible.
When passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise. Everybody knew everybody else by their name. They were swapping stories of their stay, impressing each other with who had the better time. It was mind-boggling. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a party flight. We simply stayed out of their way. The passengers had totally bonded and they were calling each other by their first names, exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses.
And then a strange thing happened. One of our business class passengers approached me and asked if she could speak over the PA to her fellow passengers. We never, never, allow that. But something told me to get out of her way. I said "of course". She picked up the PA and reminded everyone about what they had just gone through in the last few days and of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. She further stated that he would like to do something in return for the good folks of the town of Lewisporte. She said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15 (our flight number). The purpose of the trust fund is to provide a scholarship for high school student(s) of Lewisporte to help them go to college...and she wanted donations.
When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, it totaled to $14.5K or about $20K Canadian. More was added to the kitty and today, that trust fund is valued at over $1.5 million dollars. More than 140 of Gander's children have used it to go to college.
The woman that had the foresight to set up the scholarship fund is Shirley Brooks-Jones. When interviewed about the people of Gander and Lewisporte, she says "They're the kindest, most-gentle, fun and funniest people you'll ever run into, but they wouldn't accept any money from us. They simply told each and every one of us, as we tried to leave some money with them, that we would do the same thing for them."
A special website - ThankstoGander - was set up by the people of Flight 15 to thank the people of Lewisporte and Gander. There are over 800 posts and it's a pleasure to read them.
September 11th, 2001 is a day that I remember with great sadness and more than a little bit of anger. Like many of you, I have friends....and friends of friends...that were murdered that day. I mourn for them and their families. I will never forget.
But anger and sadness is not the only emotion I feel.
Because I also feel thankful for the amazing things I watched happen afterwards.
There is goodness in the world. We saw that, first hand, in the actions of the firefighters and police that saved lives that day. We watched the news reports about the coffee shops and diners in NYC whose staffs worked feverishly to feed and care for the first responders in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the twin towers. We watched as citizens from other states dropped everything to go to New York and Washington DC and help. We saw it in the outpouring of public support from Great Britain, France and other countries around the world.
Even later, we saw that greatness continue in the little things. At my family's favorite pizza restaurant outside of Charlotte, NC (Brooklyn South), policemen and firefighters were not able to pay for a meal....because the diners in the restaurant always picked up the tab. Always.
And now, we read about the wonderful acts of kindness by our friends in Canada. Truly amazing stuff.
While I will never forget the evil acts that were committed that Tuesday morning, I also will never forget the goodness in people that showed itself so magnificently afterwards.
When you're out and about this Friday night, I'd like to ask that you make a quiet toast and remember those that died fourteen years ago, those that live, and to celebrate the amazing potential for kindness and greatness that resides in each of us.
And definitely remember to celebrate! They would have wanted that.
Speaking of celebrations, I am making it a short day at the office. My son Jon turns 21 on Saturday. He's in California going to college and I'm flying there for the party! If you know him...or even if you don't... wish him a happy birthday at firstname.lastname@example.org. You'll make his day.
Oh, and try not to tell him I'm coming. It's supposed to be a surprise. Surely if I post this all over the place, he'll never read it because it's from me (fatherhood, who knew?).
Hold them close.
PS - The video below has Tom Brokaw telling the story. I encourage you to watch it.
Entrepreneur, financial guy, husband and father of two great kids.