******************************************* here is the story from
We were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt flying over the North Atlantic
and I was in my crew rest seat taking my scheduled rest break. All of a
sudden the curtains parted violently and I was told to go to the
cockpit, right now, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed
that the crew had one of those "All Business" looks on their faces. The
captain handed me a printed message. I quickly read the message and
realized the importance of it. The message was from Atlanta, addressed
to our flight, and simply said, "All airways over the Continental US are
closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination." Now,
when a dispatcher tells you to land immediately without suggesting which
airport, one can assume that the dispatcher has reluctantly given up
control of the flight to the captain. We knew it was a serious situation
and we needed to find terra firma quickly. It was quickly decided that
the nearest airport was 400 miles away, behind our right shoulder, in
Gander, on the island of New Foundland. A quick request was made to the
Canadian traffic controller and a right turn, directly to Gander, was
approved immediately. We found out later why there was no hesitation by
the Canadian controller approving our request. We, the in-flight crew,
were told to get the airplane ready for an immediate landing. While this
was going on another message arrived from Atlanta telling us about some
terrorist activity in the New York area. We briefed the in-flight crew
about going to Gander and we went about our business 'closing down' the
airplane for a landing. A few minutes later I went back to the cockpit
to find out that some airplanes had been hijacked and were being flown
into buildings all over the US. We decided to make an announcement and
LIE to the passengers for the time being. We told them that an
instrument problem had arisen on the airplane and that we needed to land
at Gander, to have it checked. We promised to give more information
after landing in Gander. There were many unhappy passengers but that is
par for the course. We landed in Gander about 40 minutes after the start
of this episode.
There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over
the world.
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. But the reality
is that we are here for a good reason." Then he went on to explain the
little bit we knew about the situation in the US. There were loud gasps
and stares of disbelief. Local time at Gander was 12:30 PM. (11:00 AM
EST) Gander control told us to stay put. No one was allowed to get off
the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed to come near the
aircraft. Only a car from the airport police would come around once in a
while, look us over and go on to the next airplane. In the next hour or
so all the airways over the North Atlantic were vacated and Gander alone
ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, out of which 27 were
flying US flags. We were told that each and every plane was to be
offloaded, one at a time, with the foreign carriers given the priority.
We were No. 14 in the US category. We were further told that we would be
given a tentative time to deplane at 6 PM. Meanwhile bits of news
started to come in over the aircraft radio and for the first time we
learned that airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center in New
York and into the Pentagon in DC. People 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 US were either
blocked or jammed and to try again. Some time late in the evening the
news filtered to us that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed
and that a fourth hijacking had resulted in a crash. Now the passengers
were totally bewildered and emotionally exhausted but stayed calm as we
kept reminding them to look around to see that we were not the only ones
in this predicament. There were 52 other planes with people on them in
the same situation. We also told them that the Canadian Government was
in charge and we were at their mercy. True to their word, at 6 PM,
Gander airport told us that our turn to deplane would come at 11 AM, the
next morning. That took the last wind out of the passengers and they
simply resigned and accepted this news without much noise and really
started to get into a mode of spending the night on the airplane. Gander
had promised us any and all medical attention if needed; medicine,
water, and lavatory servicing. And they were true to their word.
Fortunately we had no medical situation during the night. We did have a
young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. We took REALLY good care
of her. The night passed without any further complications on our
airplane despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. About 10:30 on
the morning of the 12th we were told to get ready to leave the aircraft.
A convoy of school buses showed up at the side of the airplane, the
stairway was hooked up and the passengers were taken to the terminal for
"processing" We, the crew, were taken to the same terminal but were told
to go to a different section, where we were processed through
Immigration and customs and then had to register with the Red Cross.
After that we were isolated from our passengers and were taken in a
caravan of vans to a very small hotel in the town of Gander. We had no
idea where our passengers were going. The town of Gander has a
population of 10,400 people. Red Cross told us that they were going to
process about 10,500 passengers from all the airplanes that were forced
into Gander. We were told to just relax at the hotel and wait for a call
to go back to the airport, but not to expect that call for a while. We
found out the total scope of the terror back home only after getting to
our hotel and turning on the TV, 24 hours after it all started.
Meanwhile we enjoyed ourselves going around town discovering things and
enjoying the hospitality. The people were so friendly and they just knew
that we were the "Plane people." We all had a great time until we got
that call, 2 days later, on the 14th at 7 AM. We made it to the airport
by 8:30AM and left for Atlanta at 12:30 PM arriving in Atlanta at about
4:30PM. (Gander is 1 hour and 30 minutes ahead of EST, yes!, 1 hour and
30 minutes.) But that's not what I wanted to tell you. What passengers
told us was so uplifting and incredible and the timing couldn't have
been better. We found out that Gander and the surrounding small
communities, within a 75 Kilometer radius, had closed all the high
schools, meeting halls, lodges, and any other large gathering places.
They converted all these facilities to a mass lodging area. Some had
cots set up, some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up. ALL
the high school students HAD to volunteer taking care of the "GUESTS".
Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45
Kilometers from Gander. There they were put 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 given no choice and
were taken to private homes. Remember that young pregnant lady, she was
put up in a private home right across the street from a 24 hour Urgent
Care type facility. There were DDS on call and they had both male and
female nurses available and stayed with the crowd for the duration.
Phone calls and emails to US and Europe were available for every one
once a day.
During the days the passengers were given a choice of "Excursion" trips.
Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbors. Some went to
see 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 school for
those who elected to stay put. Others were driven to the eatery of their
choice and fed. They were given tokens to go to the local Laundromat to
wash their clothes, since their luggage was still on the aircraft. In
other words every single need was met for those unfortunate travelers.
Passengers were crying while telling us these stories. After all that,
they were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single
one missing or late. All because the local Red Cross had all the
information about the goings on back at Gander and knew which group
needed to leave for the airport at what time. Absolutely incredible.
When passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise.
Everybody knew everybody else by their name. They were swapping stories
of their stay, impressing each other with who had the better time. It
was mind boggling. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a party
flight. We simply stayed out of their way. The passengers had totally
bonded and they were calling each other by their first names, exchanging
phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. And then a strange thing
happened. One of our business class passengers approached me and asked
if he could speak over the PA to his fellow passengers. We never, never,
allow that. But something told me to get out of his way. I said "of
course". The gentleman picked up the PA 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
further stated that he would like to do something in return for the good
folks of the town of Lewisporte.
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 is to provide a
scholarship for high school student(s) of Lewisporte to help them go to
college. 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, it totaled to $14.5K or about $20K
Canadian. The gentleman who started all this turned out to be an MD from
Virginia. He 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.
Why, all of this? Just because some people in far away places were kind
to some strangers, who happened to literally drop in among them? WHY