Heart-warming story: “Plane People” on September 11, 2001

Delta Flight 15, a true story about 9-11

This is not political. It is a little-known true story about 9-11 and a good read. This read will make you proud of the vast majority of humanity. Here is an amazing story from a flight attendant on Delta Flight 15, written following 9-11-2001.

Frankfurt Flight diverted
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, we were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt, flying over the North Atlantic. We were more than half-way to our destination in the USA, suddenly the aisle curtains parted and I was told to go to the cockpit, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed that the crew had that strained business look on their faces. The Captain handed me a printed message from Delta’s main office in Atlanta, ‘All airways over the Continental United States are closed to commercial air traffic. Land a.s.a.p. at the nearest airport. Advise your destination.’

No one said a word. We knew it was a serious situation and that we needed to land quickly. The Captain determined that the nearest airport was 400 miles behind us in Gander, Newfoundland (Canada). He requested approval for a route change from the Canadian traffic controller and approval was granted immediately. We found out later, of course, why no questions were asked and there was no delay in getting the request approved.

Delta 15 map

While the flight crew prepared for landing, another message came through from Atlanta telling us that there had been some terrorist activity in the New York area. A few minutes later the news got a bit clearer when we were told about the hijackings and the attacks on New York. We decided not to tell the passengers any of these bits while we were still in the air. We told them the plane had a minor technical problem and that we needed to land at the nearest airport, Gander, to check it out.

More planes grounded at Gander 
We promised to give the passengers more information once we’d landed in Gander. There was quite naturally a bit of murmuring among the passengers which is understandable. Forty minutes later, we landed in Gander; at 12:30 p.m.! [11:00 a.m. EST]. As we were landing, the passengers couldn’t help noticing that there were already around 20 other airplanes of different world airlines on the ground that had also taken this detour on their way to the USA. Did all of them have technical problems at about the same time?

Gander 4

After we had parked on the ramp, the Captain made the much-awaited announcement, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same technical problem as we had. The reality is that we are here for a totally different reason.’ Then he went on to explain the little bits we were told about the situation in the USA. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. The Captain then informed the passengers that Ground Control in Gander had informed all aircraft to stay put.

The Canadian Government was in charge of our situation and no one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground either was allowed to come near any of the aircrafts. Only airport police would come around periodically to look us over. In the next hour as we waited more planes landed, and soon Gander had 53 airplanes cramped into the little airport, 27 of which were US commercial jets.

The ‘plain truth’ of the situation
Meanwhile, bits of news started trickling in over the aircraft radio and for the first time we learned that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York and into the Pentagon, in Washington DC. Some passengers were trying to use their cell phones, but were unable to connect due to a different cell system in Canada. Some did get through but were only able to get to the Canadian operator who would tell them that the lines to the USA were either blocked or jammed.

Some hours later, in the evening, the news filtered to us that the World Trade Centre 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. We had only to look out the window at the 52 other stranded aircraft to realize that we were not the only ones in this predicament.

We had been told earlier that they would be allowing people off the planes one plane at a time. At 6 p.m., Gander airport authorities told us that our turn to deplane would be 11 a.m. the next morning. The passengers were not at all happy about this but stayed calm as they prepared themselves to spend the night on the airplane. The Gander authorities promised us medical attention, water, provisions and satisfactory toilet facilities. They were true to their word. We had no medical situations to worry about, but we did have a young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. Many of the experienced mothers and medically trained women stepped forward to take really good care of her. The night passed without incident in spite of the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.

No ‘Red Alert’ – but Red Cross
About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th September a convoy of school buses showed up. We got off the plane and were taken to the terminal for Immigration and Customs. We then had to register with the Red Cross who took charge. We (the crew) were then separated from the passengers and taken in vans to a small hotel. We had no idea where our passengers had been taken. The Red Cross told us that the town of Gander which had a population of 10,400 people was faced with the challenging task of taking care of about 10,500 passengers who had got off the planes! The Red Cross told us to relax in our hotels and that we would be contacted when the US airports opened again, but that we should not expect that call for a while. Only after we got to our hotels and turned on the TV, 24 hours after it had all started, did we really find out what had actually happened.

Gander 2
The “plane people”

Meanwhile, as we began to settle into our situation, with quite a bit of time on our hands, the passengers soon found out that the people of Gander were really an extremely friendly bunch. They started by calling us ‘our friends the plane people’. We enjoyed their hospitality, explored the town of Gander and ended up comfortable and cared for, almost as though we were back in our homes. Two days later, we got that call and were taken back to Gander airport. Back on our planes, we were reunited with our passengers and began finding out what care and kindness they had experienced over the two days that they had been away from the airplane. We heard incredible stories of kindness, friendliness and generosity.

Lewis Porte and ‘people support’
Gander rose to the occasion. All the surrounding communities (within about a 75 km radius) had closed all high schools, meeting halls, lodges and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities into mass lodging areas for all the stranded travellers. Some had cots set up, others 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’. The 218 passengers on our plane ended up in a town called Lewis Porte, about 45 km 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 too. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were taken to private homes.

What about that young pregnant lady? She 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 US and around the world were available to everyone once a day. During the day, passengers were offered ‘excursion’ trips. Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbours. Others went for hikes in the local forests. 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 wonderful meals. Everyone was given tokens for local laundry mats to wash their clothes, since luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words, every single need was met for the stranded travellers.

The passengers were literally in tears just recounting the kindness they were shown. Finally, when they were told that US airports had reopened, they were dropped off to the airport right on time and without a single passenger missing their flights or getting there late. The Red Cross had all the information about the whereabouts of each and every passenger and knew which plane they needed to be on and the departures of all the flights. They coordinated everything beautifully. It was absolutely incredible.

The flight back – a party mood
When passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise. Everyone suddenly knew everyone by name. They were swapping stories of their stay, impressing each other with who had experienced the better time. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a chartered flight with everyone in a party mood. The crew wisely just stayed out of this friendly reunion of people who hadn’t really known each other. It was mind-boggling. Passengers bonded and were on first-name terms, exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. But perhaps the best was yet to come. Something unusual happened.

One of the passengers, on our plane, approached me and asked if he could make an announcement over the PA system. We never ever allow that. But on this occasion the mood was different. ‘Of course,’ I said and handed him the mike. He picked up the mike and 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 kind folk of Lewis Porte.

He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15 (our flight number). The purpose of the trust fund would be to provide college scholarships for the high school students of Lewis Porte. He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travellers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, the total was more than $14,000!

A Gentleman’s word
The gentleman, an 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 sat to write this account, some weeks after I got back to base I had reliable news that the trust fund had reached more than $1.5 million and that it has already assisted 134 students with their college funding.

I just wanted to share this story because the world needs good stories. It gives me hope to know that some people in a faraway place were kind to some strangers who literally dropped in on them. It reminds me of how much good there is in the world. In spite of all the not-so-good things we see going on in today’s world this story confirms that there are still a lot of good people in the world and that in moments of need they will always come forward.

–Story narrated by Jerry Brown: attendant on Flight Delta 15 on 09.11.2001] [Thanks to Isabel Roche fmm, Gabriela Martins fmm & PeterLourdes sdb for circulating the story] —Edited by T.D’Souza for TRODZA – 050315Gander 3


Ten years later

They’re called “the plane people” because on Sept. 11, 2001, some 6,700 passengers descended on this piney little town of about 10,000 people on the northeastern end of Newfoundland.

When the United States airspace was closed that day, Canadian air traffic landed as many flights as possible and as quickly as possible. Gander, as the first sizable airport on the continent, received more than their share.

In Gander, building were hastily converted into makeshift shelters, and townspeople opened up their homes, came out with food and gave up their own beds to strangers from almost 100 countries.

Many of those “plane people” returned to Gander on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary to reflect on that day and to thank the residents for their hospitality.

Elaine Caiazzo and Jennie Asmussen, from Bethpage, N.Y., were on their way home from Germany on Sept. 11 when their flight was diverted to Gander.

Ms. Caiazzo said she was given more than just a place to sleep.

“I had no medication because I was going home,” she said. “I had nothing left. They said, ‘You can go into this room and tell them what you need.’ And they gave it to me. And they didn’t charge me a thing.”

Ms. Asmussen said she appreciated how the residents made them feel comfortable. She said she went to get her hair done in Gander on Sept. 12, the next day. The woman who did her hair said, “ ‘I have a friend. Let me call her up and see if she can take you in,’ ” Ms. Asmussen recalled on Sunday. “Her friend said, ‘Sure, bring her over.’ She took a complete stranger in, let me take a shower, use her bed.”

Maureen Murray and Sue Riccardelli of Morris Plains, N.J., were returning from Paris on Sept. 11, 2001, when their flight was diverted. “We were the fourth plane to land,” Ms. Murray said. They were visiting with Mac Moss, a former administrator at the Gander campus of the College of the North Atlantic, a trade school. He had taken care of them for three days back then. Ms. Murray said: “We feel like it’s our second home.”

It’s not clear how many “plane people” returned to Gander for the 10th anniversary of those days. The town is an intimate place, a scattering of houses, a few hotels, five stoplights, one high school and a strip of chain stores. This weekend, the hotels were booked up, and a ceremony held in a small auditorium in the town’s community center Sunday afternoon was nearly full.

“I had to pick a place to be on 9/11,” said David C. Jacobson, the American ambassador to Canada, who had flown into town for the occasion. “I picked the best place to thank the Canadian people for what they did.”

For some, being in Gander for the anniversary of the attacks was one more way of coming to terms with the attacks.

“We feel like we’ve healed a little bit more,” Ms. Riccardelli said, “because we’ve had Gander.”


Fifteen years later

Every year, as Sept. 11 reminds America of the unfiltered evil in our world, the “plane people” think it’s also necessary to remind themselves of the human capacity for kindness, selflessness and generosity.

The people of Gander, a town of no more than 10,000, looked at all those planes lined up at the airport and didn’t think of terrorism, didn’t see potential attacks. They just wanted to help.

It was a logistical challenge. The city didn’t have hotels or restaurants to take in nearly 7,000 passengers, and the community knew that the people from more than 100 countries stuck on those planes were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers. Just like the Newfoundlanders were.

Gander 1
Stranded passengers walking up on Sept. 13, 2001, in the gymnasium at Gander Academy, an elementary school (Scott Cook/Canadian Press)

Christa Folkes, who had just become a grandmother, was on one of those planes. She was returning from a solo trip to visit her family in Germany and was on her way back to Norfolk when her plane was diverted to Gander, said her daughter-in-law, Amy Folkes. The family was frantic, wondering whether Grandma was okay. She was.

Amy and the rest of the family remember that their matriarch was shown kindness, comfort and compassion in those fraught days.

The people of Gander and surrounding fishing villages filled their schools, community rooms and churches with cots for Christa Folkes and the other stranded passengers.

The town’s bus drivers, who were on strike that day, walked off their picket lines and went back to work. Bakeries went into overdrive production, hospitals staffed up, and many of the townspeople opened their homes and offered their beds to the “plane people.”

They found a way to care for the 17 dogs and cats and the two great apes that were also aboard the planes.

There, on a Canadian island of green hills and rocky coasts, humans were at their best.

Then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said at the Gander airport on the first anniversary of the attacks:

“9/11 will live long in memory as a day of terror and grief. But thanks to the countless acts of kindness and compassion done for those stranded visitors here in Gander and right across Canada, it will live forever in memory as a day of comfort and of healing.”

Shirley Brooks-Jones, 80, was one of those plane people on her way back home to Ohio from Europe when Delta Flight 15 — the same plane that Folkes was on — was diverted to Newfoundland.

After 28 hours on the plane, she and her fellow passengers were bused to the even tinier fishing village of Lewisporte. They spent the next three days in that town, where the mayor and most of the residents cooked elaborate meals, let them use their showers, even borrow their cars.

None of the townspeople would accept money. So after the passengers were finally able to reboard their plane, Brooks-Jones, a longtime fundraiser at Ohio State University, had a midair idea. She passed around a notebook and asked each of the passengers to contribute to a scholarship fund for the children of Gander.

They had $15,000 when they landed.

Brooks-Jones helped turn that into more money — the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship fund has grown to about $2 million.

“As of this year, the scholarship has been received by 228 graduates of Lewisporte Collegiate” high school, Brooks-Jones said.

There were 28 scholarships this year. Brooks-Jones has returned to Newfoundland 26 times and often meets with students who got the scholarships, including one who is now a town doctor.

And get this: The story of Gander is so remarkable that it has inspired a musical, Come From Away.

The “plane people” included the frantic parents of a New York City firefighter (he died), a man and woman who fell in love in Gander (they got married) and a gay couple who worried about whether a small Canadian town would welcome them (it did).


More accounts

Gander, a town of about 10,000 people (and 550 hotel rooms) in Newfoundland, Canada, lies in the northeastern tip of North America and has long served as a refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights and a temporary haven for flights diverted from their destinations. On 11 September  2001, a total of 240 flights were rerouted to Canada when American airspace was closed after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and 39 of those flights ended up in Gander. The townspeople of Gander (and surrounding areas) came through magnificently in the crisis, as 6,579 marooned passengers and crew members swelled their population by two-thirds:

Responding to radio announcements, the residents and businesses of Gander and other towns supplied toothbrushes, deodorant, soap, blankets and even spare underwear, along with offers of hot showers and guest rooms. Newtel Communications, the telephone company, set up phone banks for passengers to call home. Local television cable companies wired schools and church halls, where passengers watched events unfolding in New York and realized how lucky they were.

There were some with special needs. Carl and Ethna Smith found kosher food through an airport caterer and a new set of kitchenware for an orthodox Jewish family from New York. At the Gander Baptist Church, Gary and Donna House dealt with the needs of four Moldovan refugee families, members of a religious sect who spoke no English and were bewildered by events.

Plenty of grateful Americans who passed through Gander that day took the opportunity to pen appreciative letters similar to the one quoted above when they returned home, such as the following letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

We’re writing to express our appreciation for the people in Canada who so generously assisted the people on US Airways Flight 3 returning to the United States on Sept. 11. We were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, at 1:30 p.m. on that day and then informed of the events that had taken place in New York, at the Pentagon and “outside of Pittsburgh.”

We spent the next 23 hours locked on the plane until we could be safely cleared to leave the plane, and then we were transported to the Salvation Army in Lewisporte, 45 minutes away. The people of Lewisporte and the Salvation Army fed us three meals a day and provided countless blankets, toothbrushes and toiletries for the passengers on that flight. The elementary school next to the Salvation Army building canceled classes for its children to provide us with access to the much-needed shower stall and the computer classroom for us to e-mail home.

During that time when all of us were frantic to find out what had happened, make sure our loved ones were safe and contact those who would be missing us in the next few days, our hosts were endlessly cheerful, giving and kind. They dropped everything to cook for us and make us feel less isolated and abandoned during those five days of uncertainty.

When we finally received word of the plane’s clearance for leaving, we said goodbye with bittersweet memories of a group of people of unlimited generosity. This experience will stay with us during this time and continue to remind us that we have more friends than enemies in this world, and we are grateful for the proximity to our country of some of them.

And this letter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

We were flying home from a wonderful vacation in Paris and were about an hour from Newark when an announcement was made that terrorists had attacked New York and Washington and our flight was being diverted to Gander, Newfoundland.

We were the fourth of 37 planes to land in Gander and were kept on the plane for seven hours. Then we proceeded to immigration, where many compassionate people met us. An unidentified woman approached and put her arm around us and wanted to know if there was anything she could do to help us. At this point we were greatly concerned about our two sons who work in Manhattan. She took us to a phone, where we called our oldest son, who assured us that he and his brother were safe.

From there we were put on school buses and taken to the College of the North Atlantic. Many ordinary, caring people met us and made all 300 passengers feel welcome. We were given blankets and pillows from their homes. We stayed for two nights and three days. We slept on the floor, as cots could not be rounded up fast enough. We shared our classroom with 18 others and a dog.

Everyone was extraordinarily thoughtful of each other. One woman must have put her life on hold and was constantly checking on us. She even came to the airport when we finally left to make sure we all were fine. I never saw her without a smile. The lady who ran the cafeteria along with many neighbors made hot meals and brought in casseroles each day. Students helped us to use e-mail, and we were able to use the phone to call our family. No organization with financial backing was behind this – this was a call to neighbors and friends to come and help those of us in need.

We will never be able to think of Gander, Newfoundland, without remembering all the goodness and kindness that was showered upon us by our neighbors and friends from Canada.


Compiled by: Diep Minh Tam

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