The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland


When 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace on September 11, the population of this small town on Newfoundland Island swelled from 10,300 to nearly 17,000. The citizens of Gander met the stranded passengers with an overwhelming display of friendship and goodwill. As the passengers stepped from the airplanes, exhausted, hungry and distraught after being held on board for nearly 24 hours while security checked all of the baggage, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the townspeople. Local bus drivers who had been on strike came off the picket lines to transport the passengers to the various shelters set up in local schools and churches. Linens and toiletries were bought and donated. A middle school provided showers, as well as access to computers, email, and televisions, allowing the passengers to stay in touch with family and follow the news.

Over the course of those four days, many of the passengers developed friendships with Gander residents that they expect to last a lifetime. As a show of thanks, scholarship funds for the children of Gander have been formed and donations have been made to provide new computers for the schools. This book recounts the inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Canada, whose acts of kindness have touched the lives of thousands of people and been an example of humanity and goodwill.

Author: Jim DeFede

Jim DeFede

Jim DeFede has been an award-winning journalist for sixteen years, first with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and then with the Miami New Times. His work has appeared in TalkThe New Republic, and Newsday.

Reviewed by: Karl Homann

Karl Homann
Reviewed 8/6/2017

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede           Aug 14, 2003             Kindle         CDN$ 11.99       4.6 out of 5 stars   688 reviews                                                 Kindle      US$ 9.48

Review by Karl Homann

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching an early morning Business Writing course in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We were in our computer lab when I heard people running around in the hallway, shouting that something was happening in New York. I stopped the class and searched for a US news channel on my console computer and via the overhead projector put the news on the big screen in front of the lab. Thus, we saw, in real time, the second plane fly straight into the second tower and disappear in a ball of fire and smoke. Our eyes could not believe what we saw. It was too bizarre and surreal, and yet real.

Of course, at that time we did not know what was going on in Gander, Newfoundland, 5800 km away, or for that matter at other airports all across Canada.

About the author: Jim DeFede has been an award-winning journalist for sixteen years, first with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and then with the Miami New Times. His work has appeared in Talk, The New Republic, and Newsday. He is currently a metro columnist for the Miami Herald.

His book is based on interviews with residents of Gander and passengers of the planes who were diverted from their original destination in the US to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. 


Instead of a regular book review, allow me to post the following NBC news report from 2011, ten years after the event.   

9/11: Ten Years Later                                                                           NBC NEWS

By ROB GILLIES                                                                               updated 9/4/2011 12:56:19 PM ET

GANDER, Newfoundland — To hear something nice about 9/11, talk to "the plane people," the passengers who wound up on the island of Newfoundland that day because U.S. airspace was shut.

Talk to Laura Louie about the overwhelming kindness she and her two small daughters experienced in this distant corner of Canada, briefly transformed by a twist of history into an international aviation hub. "We were completely taken care of," she remembers. "For everyone else, 9/11 has a heavy connotation. But for me it was when I was reminded what humanity is."

Or listen to Monica Burke, a 44-year-old emergency dispatcher from Seattle: "Our whole world was in chaos. We didn't even know where we were except that we were in some weird time zone in Canada. I didn't know when I was getting home, but these people basically put their lives on hold. I mean, their kids couldn't go to school because we were using the schools as shelters.

"Bus drivers came off strike to drive us. Pharmacists came to the shelters and said, 'What do you need?' and nobody asked for money. It's pretty incredible that they were able to respond like that, especially with short notice."

Ten years later, that huge, comforting hug of Gander, Newfoundland still warms the memories of the 6,600 passengers who descended without warning on the town of 10,000. Many of them have made deep friendships with the islanders who cared for them, and some will travel here for the 10th anniversary commemorations.

Across a distance of 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) from the Pacific to Atlantic, Monica Burke has stayed in regular phone and email contact with Beulah Cooper, the woman who opened her home to her as the horror of 9/11 sank in. She visited her on the first anniversary, and is returning for the 10th. Cooper, now 70, keeps a large collection of thank-you letters from the many people she helped in different ways.

Among those she comforted are Dennis and Hannah O'Rourke, an elderly couple whose New York firefighter son, Kevin, went missing at the World Trade Center. He died. The O'Rourkes have remained friends with Cooper and have been back to Gander, whose people Hannah O'Rourke feels eternally indebted to. "They are so full of love and kindness and they can't do enough for you," she said. "I'll never forget it. Beulah was a mother figure."

Of the hundreds of flights blocked that day, more than 200 were diverted to Canada, with no warning, recalls David Collenette, transport minister. "They shut down U.S. airspace, period, and we had to pick up the pieces. I don't fault them for that. It was an absolute tragedy," Collenette told The Associated Press. " About the author Jim. DeFede has been an award-winning journalist for sixteen years, first with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and then with the Miami New Times. His work has appeared in Talk, The New Republic, and Newsday. He is currently a metro columnist for the Miami Herald.

His book is based on interviews with residents of Gander and passengers of the planes who were diverted from their original destination in the US to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.We were informed that the United States had closed its airspace to all incoming traffic, all planes were grounded in the United States, and that any planes flying into the U.S. airspace would be shot down. Frankly it was as brutal as that."

He said that despite intelligence reports about more airborne terrorists possibly approaching, he had to let the aircraft in, or else they might attempt unauthorized landings or crash into the Atlantic. "As it was, we landed 33,000 people in a matter of a few hours."

Norman Mineta, then U.S. transportation secretary, had a different recollection of the day. "After I closed U.S. airspace I realized that we've got these planes coming in from Europe and Asia and I then called David and I said, 'Hey David, we need your help,'" Mineta said, asking Collenete if Canada could take the incoming planes. "He put me on hold and within a minute or so he said, 'We'll take them all,'" Mineta told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Mineta said he was surprised that Collenette didn't mention their conversation to the AP, but added that Canada "did a great service" for the U.S. that day.

The Canadians shunted the traffic away from Toronto and Montreal to the eastern seaboard, and obscure, little used Gander got to relive its glory days as a stopover point for trans-Atlantic aviation before long-distance flights became possible. Built in 1938 in anticipation of the coming world war, it had the world's longest runway, and on 9/11 it was the second busiest, taking in 38 flights to Halifax, Nova Scotia's 47.

Flight crews quickly filled Gander's hotels, so passengers were taken to schools, fire stations, church halls. The Canadian military flew in 5,000 cots. Stores donated blankets, coffee machines, barbecue grills. Unable to retrieve their luggage, passengers became dependent on the kindness of strangers, and it came in the shape of clothes, showers, toys, banks of phones to call home free of charge, an arena that became a giant walk-in fridge full of donated food.

Once all the planes had landed or turned back to Europe, Gander's air traffic controllers switched to cooking meals in the building nonstop for three days. "We went from air traffic controllers to cooks and cleaners of pots and pans," said Dan O'Brien, a supervisor with Nav Canada, the civil air navigation service, who brought passengers home to shower.

Doug Dillon switched from controlling traffic to delivering medical prescriptions to passengers in need. His father, Des, led the efforts for the Canadian Red Cross and his brother and mother, joined in the efforts to make the guests comfortable. So did neighboring communities such as Gambo and Lewisporte.

"It still makes me cry when I think about it. They were incredible," said Barbara Groh-Wahlstrom, who stayed with the Salvation Army in Gambo and met her future husband there. "They had people working in the kitchen 24 hours a day and it turned out to be for five days. We were 187 passengers and they fed us three meals a day. They celebrated us like we were five-star guests. They were so full of love."

Louie, who is 46 and now married to actor Woody Harrelson, remembered a family across the street who saw her daughters aged 5 and 8, and invited them into their home, let them play for two hours, and offered them a change of clothes. "I couldn't believe it," she said by phone. "I mean, we live in Hawaii where aloha is pretty present, but I felt so much aloha there, so welcoming, so trusting."

Des Dillon, Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, Beulah Cooper are among those being honored in Washington, D.C. at a ceremony on Thursday. A piece of a steel beam from the former World Trade Center, donated by the Bethpage Volunteer Fire Department on Long Island, will be unveiled in Gander on Sept. 11.

One of the Americans coming back is Shirley Brooks-Jones. She was so overwhelmed by the experience of 2001 that as her plane left Gander, she told her fellow passengers over the cabin address system that she wanted to set up a scholarship fund for students in Lewisporte, where they stayed.

The Lewisporte area Flight 15 scholarship fund is now worth close to $1.5 million and has put 134 students through school. Brooks-Jones has been back 20 times, to present the scholarships every June and to attend each anniversary.

"Since nobody would take any money from us there we wanted to do something so that those people there would never forget what they had done for us," she said by phone from Dublin, Ohio. "They just put their lives on hold to take care of the plane people."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press

Another interesting fact is that on the other side of the continent, in Seattle, Washington, 14 years later, a musical about Gander drew big crowds. I suppose, the musical was staged in December, just before Christmas, to reflect the season’s sentiments of peace, kindness, love and wonder.  

Musical about Gander on 9/11 selling out in Seattle

CBC News Posted: Dec 06, 2015 9:00 PM NT Last Updated: Dec 06, 2015 9:00 PM NT

A musical based on Gander's efforts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks is breaking box office records on the opposite side of the continent. "The show is now officially the highest grossing work that the theatre has ever done in its 53-year history" said Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director at Seattle Repertory Theatre in Washington. "I have never seen anything sell like this show in my entire career," he said.

The musical, Come from Away, depicts September 11th, 2001 from Gander's perspective. Thirty-eight planes diverted to Gander International Airport that day. Community members took the passengers in.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre seats 865 people, and Herrmann says it is selling around 1,200 tickets a day. "The [theatre's] top 11 or 12 sales days for a single show now are occupied by Come from Away," he said. He expects they'll run out of tickets in the next ten days.

The managing director says a number of people who were stranded in Gander during 9/11 have come to watch the musical. "They say the show really captured it beautifully and very accurately," he said. "Sort of what the spirit was like that week, and what happened and how people think about and feel about those magical couple of days in that community."

“Come From Away” was originally scheduled to run for 38 shows. It's now been extended to 44. The curtain closes on December 20th. 


6 years ago — Karl Homann
In my personal part of the commentary above, I made an error in the date on which my students and I watched, in real time, as the second plane hit the second tower. I meant, of course, on "September 11, 2001". Later, closer to the date of our discussion in September (the month seems appropriate to remember), I will also post maps, pictures, and letters to US newspapers and a CBC TV news program with interviews of actual passengers and hosts for you to access. Karl

Reviewed by: Karl Homann

Karl Homann
Reviewed 8/31/2017

I cannot give you the exact distances between Gander and Europe because there are no direct commercial flights. However, a flight from St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador takes 40 minutes and a drive by car 3 hours and 30 minutes. In any case, here are the distances between a few of the originating airports in Europe to Newfoundland (St. Johns) and from Newfoundland (St. Johns) to a couple of the US destinations.     

·         Distance from Frankfurt to St. John's, Newfoundland: 4387 kilometers or 2726 miles 

·         Distance from London to St. John's: 3749 kilometers or 2329 miles 

·         Distance from St. John's to New York: 1859 kilometers or 1155 miles 

·         Distance from St. John's to Dallas: 4031 kilometers or 2505 miles

·        Amazing Story of 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland: a witness account from the Air Canada Retiree’s Newsletter

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 we were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt, flying over the North Atlantic. Suddenly, the curtains parted and I was told to go to the cockpit, immediately, to see the captain.The captain handed me a printed message. It was from Delta’s main office in Atlanta and simply read, “All airways over the Continental United States are closed to commercial air traffic. Land ASAP at the nearest airport. Advise your destination.”

The captain determined that the nearest airport was 400 miles behind us in Gander, Newfoundland. He requested approval for a route change from the Canadian traffic controller and approval was granted immediately – no questions asked. We found out later, of course, why there was no hesitation in approving our request.

While the flight crew prepared the airplane for landing, another message arrived from Atlanta telling us about some terrorist activity in the New York area. A few minutes later word came in about the hijackings We decided to LIE to the passengers while we were still in the air. We told them the plane had a simple instrument problem and that we needed to land at the nearest airport in *Gander, Newfoundland*, to have it checked out. We promised to give more information after landing in Gander.

There was much grumbling among the passengers, but that’s nothing new! Forty minutes later, we landed in Gander. Local time at Gander was 12:30 PM, that’s 11:00 AM EST. There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over the world that had taken this detour on their way to the U.S. After we 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.”

·        Take a Gander (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The Newfoundland town of Gander played host to thousands of airline passengers stranded there after 9/11.

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.

And yes, a Gander Flight 15 college scholarship fund was established for high school students in Lewisporte, Newfoundland, by passengers, crew members and friends of Delta Flight 15.

  • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News Report, “The Kindness of Strangers” (video)

The CBC news report gives us interviews of passengers and hosts. I found the picture of the air traffic control screen particularly fascinating because it tracks the different flights entering the airspace and either change course towards Canada or turn back to Europe.

NOTE: To view the CBC video, please copy the link to your web browser.

Karl Homann 


Reviewed by: John Stokdijk

John Stokdijk
Reviewed 9/1/2017

Karl also provided MAPS and PICS, available at the link below.

Reviewed by: John Stokdijk

John Stokdijk
Reviewed 9/1/2017

“Why would anybody leave Miami to go to Gander in the middle of winter?” In The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland Jim DeFede gives a very good answer. He went there as a journalist to research the many heartwarming stories on a tragic, historic day.

DeFede sets the events in Gander within a bigger picture of the air travel that was so suddenly and violently disrupted. He adds some interesting background about the culture and history of Newfoundland. But mostly he tells the stories of the lives of those impacted by the unforeseen twist of circumstances.

Countless stories could be written about the kindness shown in any of these cities. The focus of this book, however, and the purpose for my unseasonable trip this past winter, is Gander, located in the central highlands of Newfoundland. Thirty-eight planes landed there on September 11, depositing 6,595 passengers and crew members in a town whose population is barely 10,000…

In his Acknowledgments, Jim DeFede states, remarkably:

In the course of researching this book, I contacted approximately 180 people, and only one declined to be interviewed.

These stories include…

Roxanne and Clark Loper were homeward bound. Nearly three weeks had passed since they left their ranch outside the small Texas town of Alto and embarked on a journey to adopt a two-year-old girl in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
Harold O’Reilly didn’t want to think about his birthday. And he certainly didn’t want any fuss just because he was turning fifty. He’d work his regular shift at Gander’s air-traffic control center and then celebrate that night by going out to dinner with his wife and family… now he was the boss. As the lead supervisor, he was the man in charge of operations.
Werner Baldessarini, the chairman of Hugo Boss, who was flying to New York from the company’s  corporate headquarters in Germany for Fashion Week…
Nowhere could he see the pain more clearly than on the face of Hannah O’Rourke. Arriving at the Royal Canadian Legion hall, Mercer quickly found Hannah sitting off to the side, crying. He asked her if there was any news about her firefighter son, Kevin. He tried offering the old adage “No news is good news.”
Sitting in the faculty lounge of the Lakewood Academy in the town of Glenwood, Rabbi Leivi Sudak believed he’d been brought to this corner of the world for a reason.
George Vitale was taking his seat in coach aboard Continental Flight 23. As one of the people responsible for protecting New York governor George Pataki on a day-to-day basis, Vitale had flown to Ireland in early September to make advance security arrangements for the governor’s visit there later that month. Unfortunately, a fresh round of violence in Northern Ireland caused the governor to abruptly cancel his trip, and the New York State trooper was told to come home.
Lenny and Maria O’Driscoll spent their last night in Gander gathered around a piano in Doug and Rose Sheppard’s home, playing and singing songs.

In his introduction, Jim DeFede tells us why these stories are important:

For the better part of a week, nearly every man, woman, and child in Gander and the surrounding smaller towns— places with names like Gambo and Appleton and Lewisporte and Norris Arm— stopped what they were doing so they could help. They placed their lives on hold for a group of strangers and asked for nothing in return.
They affirmed the basic goodness of man at a time when it was easy to doubt such humanity still existed. If the terrorists had hoped their attacks would reveal the weaknesses in western society, the events in Gander proved its strength.

As I write this review I feel what I often feel. It is great to be Canadian. Canada has its share of problems but it retains a basic goodness.