Like many tragic dates, most people know exactly where they were on September 11, 2001. I’m very blessed to be in a situation of having lived a remarkably positive experience while so many were left helpless, afraid or tramatized.
September 11 was a record breaking hot day in Gander and it was very warm in the classrooms of Gander Academy. The school was in the midst of a strike by support workers, meaning bus drivers and cleaning staff were on picket lines and parents were responsible for transportation to and from school. Due to our population of around 900 students a staggered entrance and dismissal time was arranged. When parents started appearing mid, morning we just figured the times were being stretched a bit but a mother told me she’d heard a plane struck the Twin Towers in New York.
My first reaction is surprise and then I moved on. Sadness and accidents happen all the time and I probably said that silent prayer of how lucky I am to not experience them. Then another mother arrives in a panic and says a second plane has struck, planes are landing in Gander and she wants her kids now.
Gander was once known as a hub of international air traffic. As politics and technologies changed, we were used less frequently for refuelling but still handle air traffic control over the North Atlantic. Controllers were notifying their families that airspace was closed and they were landing everything in the area. This was something big and by the time the last children went home for lunch we were caught up in the energy of something that made us all afraid, even with our limited information.
At home, over lunch, we watched the events replayed and saw the horrible scene of the towers falling on live television. And then we went back to work.
The afternoon was challenging. Hot classrooms, frightened adults trying to keep it together for kids who’d just watched the same live reports or heard about it when they got to school. I remember telling my kids how far away New York was but Gander kids are pretty savvy about air travel. They knew planes can fly from New York to Gander and planes can even refuel in mid-air. We talked about the fact that although it looked like ‘news’ on tv, we don’t know any facts except that something very sad and terrible happened.
An announcement half way through the afternoon wound them up again. They were asked to take all personal belongings home. They were panicked at first but making a comparison to fire drills, I explained that the Town would have an emergency measures plan and the school was probably needed. They knew there were lots of planes on the ground and found it funny that someone might stay in their classroom all night.
Teachers checked in on each other and dissiminated information as it came in. We started thinking about the planes on our runways and I remember Nicole and I thinking maybe we could make a few sandwiches. Little did we know what we were in for.
Several people asked what they could do or told me they wanted to do something. Armed with a staff phone list, I went to the Town Hall and told them I figured out of 60, I could probably count on about half my staff if help was needed. Again, little did I realize what an amazing team we are. The girls took my name and information and I went home.
Glued to the tv, we ate a quick supper and then decided to drive up to the airport to see what was going on.
Traffic was bumper to bumper past the end of one runway as cars of curious were directed past by police. Planes, huge passenger planes, were also nose to tail or side by side, with wing tips overlapping in some cases, and open doors indicated that the passengers were still aboard, with police cruisers circling the taxiways.
For some reason, I thought I could do something about all of this so went back to the Town Hall. As I was talking to the staff at the entrance, someone came downstairs and directed them to find 8 people to go to Gander Collegiate at 6:00 to set up the classrooms for passengers. I assured them I could co-ordinate that. I was told to only have 8 people. I called 6 from my staff list and picked up my step daughter. By the time Lisa and I arrived, there were about 20 of us because everyone brought someone else.
In the first school we moved all the furniture and computers to the back of the rooms to make space. We realized in the process that computers might be needed and started leaving them in place with passwords as needed to gain Internet access. By the time we went to Gander Academy, the school was teeming with staff and volunteers.
Food was being set up in the theatre and my partner Leo brought coaxial cable from home to set up televisions in main areas. I’m sure 90% of staff was on hand that night when passengers finally began arriving around 2 a.m.
Following the direction of our vice principal Roger, we lead the first weary travellers in small groups to the two gymnasiums, carpeted in sports mats of various heights and firmness. One man balked when he saw the mats and wanted to give his place to someone who needed it more. I suggested he take a spot for now and give it up when he saw someone who needed it. They were quiet and grateful and exhausted. Many had been 24 hours on their planes.
School busses kept arriving all night, driven by bus drivers who’d left picket lines to help. Leo, who is a janitor at the school volunteered to drive bus from the airport to the various venues. Three schools, the college, church halls, service club buildings and even church pews were filled with passengers. They were sent to nearby communities like Glenwood, Appleton, Lewisporte, Norris Arm, Lewisporte and Gambo. Communites further out were collecting blankets and food and sending it by truck loads to Gander. Church and service groups became hubs and depots. By morning we had 770 people sleeping on the floors of Gander Academy from 4 different flights and 6500 passengers had been provided with shelter and food after landing in Gander unexpectedly.
At one point, when everything seemed to be flowing well that first night, I took a group of people across the road to my house to let them use the phone. I had two phone lines at the time and they sat, strangers, quietly in my livingroom, waiting their turn to let family know they were safe.
One young couple didn’t want to leave their fate to others so I told them of the bus, ferry and bus system that could get them through Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to get them to Bangor, Maine where they could reach relatives. They left me a bottle of wine from Italy and sent me a lovely thank you later.
When we went back over to school after making phone calls, the phone company had added 5 more lines to our school system in the middle of the night. Teachers assisted people to reach countries all over the world. The line up for the phone was continuous as was the line up for computers.
My story will ramble because from the time I went to work Sept. 11 until I went home to sleep was a 72 hour period. We ran on adrenelin and the need to help people who were stranded and worried.
Everyone fell into tasks. Mine was to design a message board on the second day.
Captain Robert Burgess from Virgin Airlines was the first crew or airline representative to come to our school. We made announcements and gathered his passengers in a large room where he reassured them. Airspace was closed but when it opened, he would take them to Washington as their tickets said. Due to the circumstances, passengers who wanted to return to London would be given that opportunity from Washingston. If American airspace remained closed but he could take off, he would take them back to the United Kingdom. He explained there’d be an order for departing and when he was in position, he would have to chose the destination based on the situation. If he refused to go when directed, his flight would move to last position to depart. An article written by a passenger described him as being like a country pastor in his gentle tone and compassion.
Because not all passengers were in the meeting, he dictated a message which I typed and he signed and our communication board was started. Each of the four flights were listed and as we got information from airlines or for passengers, we posted it on the board. Captain Burgess checked in regularly. Some airlines made no communication with passengers until an announcement was made four days later as to what time to be ready for the school bus.
For four days the teachers from Gander Academy worked with parent and community volunteers to keep food ready, provide comfort and care for people from all over the world. Retired teachers and substitute teachers assisted in everything from garbage detail to translators. One lady phoned Monaco and told her family that she didn’t know people still knew how to bake the kinds of cakes and cookies she was being served. Another man used the globe to show us the country he needed to call. The International operators were amazing.
I wonder often about the two little girls from Georgia, USA and what they remember. I would love to contact Mrs. Campbell, a travel agent who cried because she didn’t know if she’d sold flights on the planes used for the attacks and couldn’t imagine having a business when she got home. Everything she knew was changed. Meeting her changed me too.
We had passengers from all over the world. We had no conflicts or trouble. Fear and misunderstanding leads to extreme action, but so can need and empathy.
Everyone in Gander had a different experience as we all fell into different roles and relationships. I’m still thankful to have been in a situation to feel needed on a day of such dispair. Sympathies to the so many families who lost loved ones in the events and the rescue attempts.
Dedicated to mom, who said that was a birthday she’d never forget and to dad, who will try to help her remember that today is her birthday.ox