Looking at what is going on in the world, it's hard not to yield to despair and defeatism. But every once in a while, a bright ray of sunshine breaks through the dark clouds and dispels the gloom. The following account, written by a nameless flight attendant in the wake of 9/11 and released into cyberspace like a note in a bottle thrown into the sea, is just one of such rays of sunshine, an uplifting and heartwarming story that restores, if only for a while, one's belief in mankind.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Delta Flight 15 was flying over the North Atlantic, five hours out of Frankfurt, Germany, when a message arrived from Delta's main office in Atlanta alerting the captain that the entire airspace over the Continental United States was closed to commercial traffic, and advising him to land ASAP at the nearest airport. The nearest airport was 400 miles away, in Gander, Newfoundland. As the flight crew prepared the airplane for landing, another message arrived from Atlanta, and then another, telling of the terrorist hijackings. The Canadian traffic controller without hesitation granted approval for a route change. To avoid panic on board, the captain told the grumbling passengers that the plane would have to land in Gander to take care of a minor instrument problem.
Delta Flight 15 landed in Gander at 11:00 EST. There were already about twenty other airplanes on the ground from all over the world that had taken this detour on their way to the U.S. Once the plane was parked on the ramp, the captain made the following announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have. The reality is that we are here for another reason."
He told the passengers what little was known about the situation in the U.S. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. The captain informed the passengers that no one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground, other than the airport police, was allowed to come near any of the planes. In the next hour or so, more aircraft landed, and Gander ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, including 27 U.S. commercial jets. Meanwhile, bits of news started to come in over the aircraft radio, and for the first time, the crew and passengers learned that airplanes had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in D.C. People were trying to use their cell phones, but they were unable to connect due to a different cell system in Canada. Some did get through, but they were able only to get to the Canadian operator who would tell them that the lines to the U.S. were either blocked or jammed. In the evening the news came that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacking had resulted in a crash. By now the passengers were emotionally and physically exhausted, not to mention frightened, but everyone stayed amazingly calm. They had only to look out the window at the 52 other stranded aircraft to realize that they were not the only ones in this predicament.
At 6 PM, Gander airport told Delta Flight 15 that its turn to deplane would come the next morning, around 11 AM. The airport authorities promised medical attention if needed, water, and lavatory servicing. The passengers prepared for the long and uncomfortable night in their seats. The next morning, about 10:30 AM, a convoy of school buses showed up. According to the local Red Cross, the town of Gander has a population of 10,400 people and they had about 10,500 passengers to take care of.
The crew was separated from the passengers and did not find out what had happened to their wards until two days later, when the U.S. airports reopened and they were brought back on board their airplane and reunited with the passengers. What they found out was incredible, writes the author:
Gander and all the surrounding communities (within about a 75-kilometer radius) had closed all high schools, meeting halls, lodges, and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities to mass lodging areas for all the stranded travelers. Some had cots set up, some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up. ALL the high school students were required to volunteer their time to take care of the "guests." Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 kilometers from Gander where they were put up in a high school. If any women wanted to be in a women-only facility, that was arranged. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were taken to private homes. A young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy was put up in a private home right across the street from a 24-hour Urgent Care facility. There was a dentist on call and both male and female nurses remained with the crowd for the duration. Phone calls and e-mails to the U.S. and around the world were available to everyone once a day.
Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the schools. People were driven to restaurants of their choice and offered great meals. Everyone was given tokens for local laundromats to wash their clothes, since luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words, every single need was met for those stranded travelers. The generous hosts also tried their best to entertain the stranded passengers, offering them all kinds of excursions. Some guests were taken on boat cruises of the lakes and harbors. Some went for hikes in the forests. Finally, when U.S. airports had reopened, they were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single passenger missing or late. The local Red Cross had all the information about the whereabouts of each and every passenger and knew which plane each needed to be on and when all the planes were leaving. The author continues her tale:
Passengers were crying while telling the crew these stories. When the passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise. Everyone knew each other by name. They were swapping stories of their stay, impressing each other with who had the better time. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a chartered party flight. Passengers had totally bonded and were calling each other by their first names, exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses.
And then one of the passengers approached the flight attendant and asked if he could make an announcement over the PA system. In normal times it is absolutely forbidden, but that was not a normal time. She handed over the mike:
He reminded everyone about what they had just gone through in the last few days. He reminded them of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He continued by saying that he would like to do something in return for the good folks of Lewisporte. He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15. The purpose of the trust fund is to provide college scholarships for the high school students of Lewisporte.
He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travelers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, the total was for more than $14,000! The gentleman, a MD from Virginia, promised to match the donations and to start the administrative work on the scholarship. He also said that he would forward this proposal to Delta Corporate and ask them to donate as well. As I write this account, the trust fund is at more than $1.5 million and has assisted 134 students in college education.
The author concludes her story with these words: "God Bless America ...and the Canadians." What can one add to this?