The whole world wasn’t watching

A new book profiles the generosity of a small town during a bleak time.

Katie Wilber

Many stories have arisen about the kindness shown on that fateful day two Septembers ago, and one of the few that might not have garnered as much attention concerns the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

Once a bustling hubbub for U.S., Canadian and British military planes, the Gander airport refueled more than 20,000 fighter planes and heavy bombers during World War II. Hundreds of people from Cuba and Eastern Europe defected to Gander during the Cold War; Fidel Castro dropped in on Gander so many times that locals have forgotten the exact number. Some say a helpful Newfoundlander even took the dictator on a toboggan ride.

The jet engine, though, was the bell tolling the end of Gander’s status as a major commercial airport. Planes could carry more fuel now and didn’t need to stop, and Gander property values plummeted. With its longer-than-normal runways it’s a perfect stop today for corporate and private jets, and seeing celebrities and heads of state is nothing new to airport employees.

In the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, with all U.S. airspace closed, the only options open to the more than 250 planes in the sky over northern North America were to either land in Canada or return to Europe. The trouble with returning to Europe was that if one plane made a 180-degree turn it would force other planes to change their courses to avoid a collision, and then the rest of the planes would have to avoid the ones avoiding the one that turned.

If the planes landed in Canada they would pass let any remaining terrorists into Canada, but the 15 Canadian airport controllers understood the risks and let the planes land. The 38 planes that landed in Gander deposited more than 6,500 passengers in a town of fewer than 10,000.

Jim DeFede journeyed to Gander to meet the people who put their lives on hold for almost a week to take care of the stranded travelers. He relates how the citizens brought people home to shower and sleep, took them shopping at one of the town’s two stores, and cleaned out their pantries to help feed the travelers. He shows the selflessness of those who donated towels, sheets, clothes, whatever they could, without worrying if they’d ever get it back.

The book is a trip back to a time when house doors were left unlocked and a town only needed two police constables. No, it’s not 1950s suburbia; it’s a small Canadian town that took the golden rule to heart when its next-door neighbor was blindsided.