When dozens of planes were forced to land in a tiny Canadian town after New York’s 9/11 attacks, locals billeted thousands of stranded travellers. Over the next five days, lives were changed forever.
I know you think you have a September 11 story worth telling – about where you were when you heard the news, how transfixed you became as New York’s Twin Towers fell in rushes of bloodied rubble. But your flashbulb memory of that awful day, and the terrible reckoning of its enormity that followed, probably doesn’t compare to that of the residents of Gander, a tiny Canadian town on the island of Newfoundland, which rests quietly at the most eastern point of North America, surrounded by the dark expanse of the North Atlantic.
On September 11, 2001, something extraordinary happened up here – something many are only now learning about, through a sleeper smash-hit stage show coming to Australia in July – and I’ve come a long, long way to hear that story in person.
The short version? When American airspace was closed for the first time in history, 38 commercial aircraft carrying 6579 passengers from 92 countries were diverted here, to a town of 9651 residents (and four traffic lights). They came here for a number of reasons. The historic airport boasts a massive but underused airstrip. Newfoundland is close to the “great circle route” flight path that so many planes follow when flying between America and Europe. And, of course, Gander is isolated
and little populated – a small target in the event that any further planes had been weaponised by terrorists.
That’s the cold logic behind why the aircraft landed, but what happened in the five days they remained grounded is an epic parable of warmth, compassion, and the kindness of strangers in a strange place…