This Tiny Newfoundland Town Adopted Thousands of Americans Stranded at Its Airport On 9/11

We write about air travel sometimes here on The Drive, but obviously, today is a bit different. There’s not going to be any spilled coffee diverting flights today, or snarky comments about how Boeing can’t seem to catch a break—no. Instead, we’re going to talk about Operation Yellow Ribbon. More specifically, how the people of a small town in Canada’s province of Newfoundland rose to the occasion when dozens of diverted airliners landed in their small town on that fateful day in September 2001, nearly doubling their population. There was grief, there was confusion, but the actions of the people of Gander are still a bright spot on what was one of the darkest days in American history.

You’ve probably seen the short clip of what air traffic over the United States looked like after the attacks on the morning of Sep. 11—there wasn’t any. For the first time in history, air space over the U.S. was reserved for military aircraft only. However, something not often mentioned along is that the work air traffic controllers had to do to make all of that possible. This was stressful for large airports due to the incredible traffic and heightened risk of air or ground collisions—and not to mention the fear that another imminent terrorist attack—but it was an even bigger problem for small airports such as Gander and others in the island of Newfoundland.

In Gander, this meant receiving dozens of trans-Atlantic flights that were close enough to the North American coastline to justify not sending them back to Europe, which was considered a safer option. For a regular airport, this would’ve been less of an issue, however, Gander International airport—a leftover airbase from World War II—only had three air traffic controllers on duty. As the flights began to pile up, that number ballooned to 14.

All in all, 38 airliners and four military aircraft landed at Gander that day, and 6,595 people had to be screened before they stepped off their planes—which reports claim took over 24 hours. After that arduous process had ended, there was still a big problem: housing, feeding, and providing basic necessities to all of those people, especially considering they weren’t allowed to retrieve their checked baggage from the planes due to security concerns and overall logistics.

For the citizens of Gander, a town of around 10,000 at the time, however, the answer was simple. They had homes, they had food, and they had beds.

The townspeople sprung into action, making thousands of meals, arranging places for the stranded passengers to stay, and opening their storefronts to those in need. Clothing, pharmaceuticals, everything was given out to the small town’s American guests for no charge. Folks needed it, the people of Gander had it, and they gave it to them. It was that simple. These stranded travelers weren’t seen as an inconvenience or troublesome foreigners, but as worldwide neighbors in need.

This was also not just an overnight occasion. Many passengers were forced to stay in the town for as long as six days, meaning many would’ve had to live out of their carry-ons if not for the generosity of the Newfoundlanders. Much of that generosity was reciprocated in the aftermath as well, and at least one couple ended up marrying after meeting in Gander. A scholarship fund for local highschoolers was set up by passengers of the flights who stayed in Gander in the aftermath of 9/11, and as of 2010, the fund nears $1,000,000 and has sent over 100 students to college.

A man reaches to touch a piece of the World Trade Center after a memorial ceremony Sunday, September 11, 2011, in Gander, Newfoundland

When their stay was over, some returned home missing a loved one, others were still in a state of shock from what happened. I can barely remember 9/11 now—I was just four at the time—but I do remember the sense of confusion, fear, and mourning that occurred for the days, weeks, and years following. Everybody in the tri-state area likely knows somebody who suffered a loss or has a story about why they just happened to miss work that day.

But the suffering and loss of life that occurred on that day were accompanied by actions of courage, kindness, and sacrifice that are still remembered. It’s a reminder that even a small act of kindness or compassion can make a difference. You don’t need to be at ground zero to help those in need—it can be as simple as listening to somebody, trying to put yourself in their shoes, or offering them something to eat. 

The actions of the people of Gander, Newfoundland should remind all of us that we aren’t as divided as we think, we have more in common than not, and despite being in the midst of something as disheartening and discouraging as a pandemic, there are still many good people doing good things for each other. More importantly, it’s a reminder that it’s not hard to lend a hand and be one of them.

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