Okay, let me give the consumer warning up front–do not attempt to read this book without a box of Kleenex on standby. There. Got it? Good.
I saw Come From Away in NYC last month, the musical about the 38 planes that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11, and I immediately googled to see if there was a book about it. There is, this one, although it’s missing some of the stories the playwrights found in their series of interviews on which they based the play (in particular the story of Captain Beverley Bass who is mentioned only in passing here. Bet DeFede was mad at himself for missing that.). It is still an amazing story, and you end it hoping that if your community is ever called upon in such a crisis that you and it will respond even half as well.
The gist is this: The US instituted a full ground stop after the 9/11 attacks and refused to let any aircraft into the U.S. This meant that literally hundreds of airplanes already en route have to land somewhere else. Thirty-eight aircraft landed in Gander with almost 7,000 people from 97 countries on board. Gander has a population of 10,000, and it sounds like every single citizen, along with the people of all the surrounding, much smaller towns as well, threw open the doors to the strandees.
When I say doors I mean not only the emergency shelters put together at local churches and Salvation Army buildings and schools, I mean their own homes. The “plane people,” as they were called by the locals (“Hey, are you the plane people?” Ganderites would shout out from their cars, and would immediately offer the walkers a ride to wherever they were going, Walmart, the pub, the Arrow Air memorial, which image is on the cover of this book) were offered the use of showers and shelters and beds and the kids got toys and the ones with birthdays while they were on the ground got parties and presents. Schools in every community were shut down so the plane people could use the showers and the kitchens and the computers and phones to call and email loved ones, most of whom had no idea where they were. Of course, some of the plane people didn’t know where they were, either.
A volunteer had taped a large map of the world to the wall and with a crude red marker drew an arrow pointing to Gander. YOU ARE HERE, the volunteer wrote on the map. Exhausted passengers would stop and stare at the map for several minutes, trying to regain their bearings.
It wasn’t just the people, it was the businesses, too.
The local Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway sandwich outlets, as well as the local pizza joints, sent carloads of food to the airport on Tuesday and Wednesday to help feed the passengers stranded on the planes…Newtel, the telephone company for Newfoundland, set u a long bank of tables on the sidewalk in front of its offices and filled them with telephones so passengers could make free long-distance phone calls to their families…Rogers Communications, which provides cable-television service to Gander and the surrounding area, made sure every shelter had cable television so the passengers could watch CNN and the other round-the-clock news stations.
Not forgetting that the local hockey rink did duty as a walk-in refrigerator. The local pharmacies banded together and
In the first twenty-four hours…filled more than a thousand prescriptions. All at no cost to the passengers.
More stories like this one are on every single page. One stranded passenger told one of the Canadians ‘how wonderful everyone in town had been. It made her feel part of a family.’
We’re all Americans tonight,” replied McKeage.
Kleenex. Lots of it.
And if you get a chance, see Come From Away. You will laugh and yep, you will cry, and it will have been so worth it.
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.