9/11 survivor shares experience of landing in Newfoundland
September 15, 2018
Gander, Newfoundland, is out on the edge of North America, the population of just 10,000 spent many years isolated from most of the world. Their language is English, with a dialect created from a heritage of Irish, French, and indigenous ancestors and is truly one of a kind. Newfoundland has a reputation for being friendly, warm and welcoming. However, that's not the reason it was chosen to receive some 6,700 airlines passengers and crew members on Sept. 11, 2001.
The morning's terrorist attacks caused flights heading into the U.S. to be diverted to various locations around Canada to help neutralize any lingering threats in what was dubbed, "Operation Yellow Ribbon." It wouldn't have made much sense to pull them away from American airspace only to route them to Canada's major centers, so the ideal landing spots for these planes had to be relatively remote, while also having a large enough airport to accommodate all the traffic. That's when Gander International Airport came into play. What the little town lacked in population size, it more than made up for in airport capacity having previously served as a refueling stop for transatlantic flights and use during World War II.
Last Sunday night the Sierra Nevada Republican Women hosted their annual evening remembering the tragic events of 9/11. The guest speaker was Shirley Brooks-Jones. one of an estimated 8,000 air passengers who lived through the incredible Gander experience. She shared her first-hand experience with the audience at Carson Valley Inn, Minden.
Brooks-Jones, a fundraiser for Ohio State University, was returning to the U.S. from Europe on Delta Fight 15, when her plane was diverted to Gander along with 38 other jumbo jets. Gander ended up receiving 38 flights, second only to Halifax's 47 diverted flights. Brooks-Jones shared her incredible story from the moment the plane landed on the ground at Gander. The captain immediately came back to explain to the passengers what was going on stateside and why it was necessary to dump thousands of gallons of fuel in order to make an emergency landing. He had a calming and reassuring presence and continued to spend time conversing with them throughout the 28-1/2-hours spent on the tarmac waiting to deplane. When they finally were allowed to leave, they could not bring their luggage, only whatever they had carried on. Passengers were amazed to see the townspeople there to greet what they referred to as the "plane people." The travelers were sent to the surrounding villages to be housed and fed (the town has only 550 hotel rooms). Locals brought them pillows and blanket from their own homes to make them comfortable. Striking bus drivers rushed out to transport them. Hot meals had been thoughtfully prepared and were ready for them when they arrived at their various housing locations. Pharmacies filled needed prescriptions at no charge. The empathy and generosity of the residents and businesses were overwhelming.
As a child, Brooks-Jones noted she had very poor vision and needed glasses. However, as one of many children, her family was unable to afford them. The Lions Club International Sight Programs, which has been in existence since 1917, came to her aid with glasses. Then in Gander, with awe, she realized she was being housed in a Lions clubhouse and thought, "The Lions are still taking care of me."
So strong was the bond formed with the people of Gander that many of the passengers return to visit them several times since 2001 and Brooks-Jones, each spring. When it was time to go home the passengers tried to repay the townspeople for their endless generosity but no one would accept a penny, saying merely, "You would do the same for us." So, on the return flight, Brooks-Jones came up with an idea to fund a scholarship for the young people of Gander since they experienced a high rate of school dropouts. Every adult on the plane signed a pledge form to donate and by the time they landed they had $15,000 toward a fund which is now over $2 million and known as The Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund. To date, they have given 270 scholarships from the Gander endowment fund.
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