Yesterday, in the middle of the Saturday afternoon Olympic coverage, I happened to catch a piece by Tom Brokaw about a little town in Canada called Gander. I searched for a link of the video and at finding nothing have decided to send a request to NBC to air it again. In the meantime I will try to retell it here, though Tom told it so well; this surely won’t even compare.
Gander, population just under 10,000, is located in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The story starts on the morning of September 11, 2001 and continues for the several days that followed, when the town was given a rare task or even test perhaps, at being neighborly.
Moments after the planes hit the World Trade Center, North American airspace had to be cleared and all transatlantic planes heading westbound to the US had to be redirected to land immediately. 39 of them touched down at Gander Airport unloading 7000 people, who for the next four days were stranded with the clothes on their backs. Heightened security procedures were not allowing anyone to remove luggage from cargo.
For the town of Gander, the first issue was to find accommodations for the flood of unexpected guests. With all of the hotels combined, there were still only 500 beds. So, the schools and legion halls opened their doors. Next it was transporting the guests from the airport to the temporary shelters. There was bad news on this front, because the best option—the school buses—were of no help; the drivers happened to be on strike.
That’s when the kindness began. The mayor got on the phone explaining the quandary, and within minutes, the drivers put down their fight, got in their buses and started driving. Next it was food. And then blankets, and toiletries, and clothing and prescriptions. The people of Gander had to pull together. Local television and radio stations announced the need for assistance and soon residents started pouring in with support. Stores opened, letting people come in and take things off of shelves without paying. Pharmacies filled emergency prescriptions free of charge. Strangers offered their homes for stranded guests to take showers. The outpouring of generosity was overwhelming and for the people of Gander, it was seemingly second nature.
While the stranded guests mourned for their country, their Canadian hosts consoled them. One elderly couple worried for days whether their son, a New York City firefighter was alive or not. A Gander woman walked with them to church each day to pray.
When the airports opened up again stranded guests were in tears leaving their hosts-turned-friends. The common reaction was that after such a display of evil, people’s faith in humanity had been restored thanks to the people of Gander. As a token of appreciation for the hospitality they were shown, the stranded guests started a scholarship fund that has since raised nearly $900,000 and had assisted in sending 11 high school graduates to college.
Having been in New York on that horrible day there was little aside from the tragedy that I focused on in the aftermath. I certainly had no idea of the goings-on in Gander. I am so glad I happened to catch this piece Tom Brokaw did, and though my eyes were far from dry and I felt great sadness being reminded of 9/11, I felt happiness at such a heartwarming story of neighborly kindness.
Thank you Gander. Thank you Canada.