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Gander International a haven for 9/11 passengers

Aug. 29, 2011, Gander, N.L. - Almost 10 years after 9-11 closed American air space and diverted 38 passenger planes to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, many of the 5,600 passengers and crew are remembering their stays in Gander and expressing their gratitude.


August 29, 2011
By The Canadian Press

"I'm just going back to tell everybody there: Thank you,'' said Monica
Burke. The police dispatcher and 911 operator was on her way home to
Seattle from Dublin when her flight suddenly headed for Newfoundland, a
place she had never seen or planned to visit.

"Everybody in the town put their lives on hold so they could take care
of us,'' she said of Gander. "We just descended from the sky and landed
on their doorsteps.''

Striking school bus drivers laid down their picket signs to drive the
unexpected guests around. Pharmacists filled prescriptions for free.
Shop owners declined payment. The arena at the Gander Community Centre
became a giant walk-in fridge for food donations.

"If you think of the logistics involved, it's pretty spectacular what
they were able to put together,'' Burke said of the town — population
10,000 — and nearby communities like Gambo, Lewisporte, Appleton and
Norris Arm.

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It was about 12 hours on the Gander tarmac before Burke cleared
heightened security and was bused, with no access to her checked-in
luggage, to the local Royal Canadian Legion where she saw on TV what had
happened that day.

"I remember my work supervisor saying: 'Where are you?' and I said: 'Somewhere in Canada.'

"At some point I broke down crying because finally everything hit me. I
didn't know where I was, I didn't know when I was getting home, all this
stuff had happened to my country and I was stranded.''

That's when Gander volunteer Beulah Cooper, who's as quick with a joke as she is to lend a hand, stepped in.

Burke and two other women stayed at the Cooper home, while about a dozen
other passengers who were camped out in schools and community halls
came over for showers.

Of all the people she helped during those five non-stop days, Cooper's heart especially went out to Hannah and Dennis O'Rourke.

They had also arrived from Dublin and were desperately awaiting news of
their son, Kevin, a 44-year-old New York City firefighter.

"We drove around town a bit and we talked about the duties of a
firefighter, as my son was a firefighter at the time,'' Cooper said
after flipping through albums of photos and thank-you cards.

"But I also realize that Gander's not New York.''

Dennis O'Rourke says he will always be grateful for how the people of Gander helped him and his wife cope.

"They were just unbelievable the way they treated us up there,'' he said
from his home in New York. "They fed us, and put us up and if we needed
anything, they'd get it for you.

"It reminded me of years ago when I was a kid. You didn't lock your
houses or anything like that. I was just amazed. It was like going back
in time.''

Several days after the O'Rourkes returned to New York, their son was
found in the rubble of the World Trade Center. He had been trying to
rescue people trapped in the north tower.

Gary Tuff was acting manager of safety and security for emergency
response services at the Gander airport on 9-11. Officials kept an eye
on the burning twin towers on a TV in the emergency control centre, he
said.

"Shortly after the buildings collapsed, you could hear all the man-down
alarms from the firefighters going off like birds chirping in the
background. It sent an eerie thought through us in the firefighting
service that know what that will have meant there.
Heavy, heavy casualties.''

Air traffic controllers used an aircraft divergence plan from Y2K — the
response to computer chaos anticipated on New Year's Eve 1999 — to
smoothly land and park the influx of jets.

Const. Oz Fudge, a Gander police officer, remembers being called to the
airport as about 1,000 spectators gathered to watch the big planes
coming in.

"There was one after another,'' he said. "I'm looking at this and I'm
saying: 'Oh my God. Each one of those planes must have anywhere from 200
to 300 people on-board.'

"I think reality really kicked in at that point.''

Humans weren't the only passengers that needed care. Bonnie Harris,
manager of the Gander animal shelter, worked flat out with staff and
volunteers tending to nine dogs and 10 cats, including an epileptic
feline, and a cocker spaniel puppy named Ralph who would go on to become
an American show champion.

Two rare Bonobo monkeys en route to a zoo in Ohio had their own handler.

Harris and two other women initially crawled through piles of luggage to
reach pets held deep in the cargo holds of the planes. Some animals had
gone about two days without food or water, she said.

They were moved into an airline holding area where they could be fed and exercised.

Harris's only regret is that in the mad pace of those days, she forgot
to pin notes to the kennels asking owners to let her know their pets
arrived safely. Most of the dogs and cats had apparently been shipped on
their own, or their owners were on flights diverted elsewhere.

"It would have been nice to have a picture of them with their family,'' Harris said.

Like many Gander and area residents, Fudge is bemused if not embarrassed by international reaction to the region's outpouring of kindness.

"I mean, Newfoundland and Labrador, up through the years, we've never
had a lot. What we've had, we've always shared. And I think that's just
the way in which we were brought up.

"When we saw what was happening, we just said: 'Well, we've got to help.' ''

Fudge is especially touched that Gander is to receive at least one
section of World Trade Center steel, a gift of thanks from the Bethpage
Fire Department on Long Island, N.Y.

Gander Mayor Claude Elliott said the steel will be part of a 9-11
memorial at the local North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Several stranded
passengers, Canadian and American dignitaries, and international media
are also expected to mark the 10th anniversary at a memorial service on
Sept. 11, he said.

It will be a tribute to those who died, and to those who helped the living.

"As the passengers were leaving … many people said that they had lost
all faith in mankind,'' Elliott recalled. "But they said:
'After five days here in Gander, you've restored that faith in me.' And I
think if there's one legacy that we'll be known for, it's that there
are still good people left in the world.''