Friendships formed in shadow of 9/11 attacks

Former travellers forced to land in Canadian town when US airspace closed on 9/11 return to reunite with locals.


    For residents of the town of Gander in Newfoundland, off Canada's east coast, the events of September 11, 2001, are not altogether negative. 

    The town was flooded with nearly 7,000 passengers from trans-Atlantic flights that were forced to land when US airspace was abruptly closed.   

    The local population spiked from 10,000 to almost 17,000 in just a few hours. Overall, Canada received more than 200 aircraft and in excess of 30,000 passengers. In Gander, the giant airport took 38 commercial airliners and the Plane People - as they were known - stayed for almost a week.   

    During their enforced lay-over, lasting friendships were formed with locals.  

    Now, 10 years on, the events of that week have been turned into a musical play called, "Beacon of Light". 

    The playwright, Dean Burry, says his work is an attempt to understand the many different perspectives of that day. 

    "People will listen to your message more when they're engaged and you can engage them more when they're entertained. As an artist you have to be able to reflect anything that happens in the world, whether it be the lowest points or the highest points." 

    At first, the Plane People were kept onboard their jets for fear that more hijackers might be among the passengers, but eventually they were allowed into the town. Thousands were accommodated in school classrooms, community centres and other public meeting places.

    Every need was met by local people who really stepped up - clothing, toiletries, toys for the kids - you name it. Many Plane People spent a few nights in private homes. 

    Canadian hero

    Gander's Mayor Claude Elliott has become something of a Canadian hero. He speaks with a strong Newfoundlander accent and has the charming local habit of adding an "H" to every vowel.  So "Air Canada" becomes "Hair Canada". 

    Click here for more of Al Jazeera's 9/11 coverage

    Claude says the town's folk watched the Twin Towers fall and the smoke rise from the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania and felt helpless - until they realised so many aircraft were heading their way. 

    "Those people were strangers but all of a sudden there was friendships and all of a sudden they become part of the community because there was some [way] we could make a difference." 

    Among those returning for the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, are Maureen Murray and Sue Riccardelli from New Jersey.   

    They were on an Air France flight heading to the US from Paris and have been coming back to Gander for reunions with the friends they made here every other year since 2001.  

    "It is the one bright spot in the whole tragedy, it shows that tragedy can breed, you know good things, kindness, people helping each other and bringing people together," Maureen Murray told Al Jazeera. 

    Tears filled the eyes of Murray and Riccardelli's friend Mac Moss, who said he was reminded of a poem he read recently in St Paul's Church near "Ground Zero" while on a recent trip to New York. 

    "They were so tired and confused and hungry that we had to think of everything they needed and give it to them before they knew what they wanted ... and that was our experience here." 

    Celebration of friendships

    So why did so many commercial airlines land in Gander? 

    The answer is that Gander - a fully functioning regional airport - is on permanent standby to receive aircraft that get into difficulty, such as a medical emergency or mechanical failure, while crossing the Atlantic. Such flights land there surprisingly regularly - just not in the number seen 10 years ago. 

    The airport was built in the 1930s by Newfoundlanders who could see a bright future for trans-Atlantic aviation. It flourished during World War Two as a base to ferry aircraft to Europe. In pre-Boeing 707 days, of the 1950s and 1960s, it was a refuelling stop for earlier commercial flights that could not make the trans-Atlantic journey in one hop as they can today. 

    The day I visited Gander's runways - among the longest in Canada - it was quiet with only a handful of aircraft movements scheduled.

    Ten years ago, however, it was a "parking lot" for almost 40 trans-Atlantic flights. 

    Tom Young of Canada's air traffic control service, NAVCANADA, said he and his colleagues had the job of bringing them all down one-by-one and they watched with amazement as the "blips" on radar screens began to thin out. 

    "They would disappear one at a time until finally there were none left and they were all safely on the ground," he said.

    Tom showed us a fascinating video of the radar screen showing the skies above Gander that day. We could clearly see each plane disappearing until the skies were empty, with no more "blips" coming in from Europe. It was an eerie sight. 

    The world's media has turned up in Gander for the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.     

    The play I mentioned is just one of multiple events Gander has planned to mark the anniversary - an anniversary that in this part of the world will be both a commemoration for those lost and a celebration of new friendships found.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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