LEWISPORTE & NORRIS ARM, NL — There was no way anyone could have prepared for the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001.
One thing is for sure, residents of central Newfoundland stepped up to the plate and made sure that thousands of stranded travellers were made to feel safe and at home during a stressful time.
As “plane people” arrived by the busload in Lewisporte, volunteers were quick to respond and organize a place for them to sleep, food to keep them nourished, transportation around town, help to get their prescriptions filled and probably most importantly, provide a sense of safety in what was an uncertain time. Churches, organizations, schools and individuals become united in an effort to extend Newfoundland hospitality to the unexpected visitors, some who didn’t even know where in the world they had landed.
In the hours and days that followed until North American air space reopened to travel, residents opened their homes to the strangers who were quickly becoming friends, making it possible for them to call loved ones, shower and at times allow them to escape the uncertainty of the situation that was unfolding in the world.
Lewisporte Mayor Betty Clarke wasn’t serving on council at the time, but that didn’t stop her and her husband Ross from doing their part. They volunteered at the Kin Centre and opened their hearts and home to people to help fill whatever needs they had. Ross even arranged for a bed to be sent to the Kin Centre from North Haven Manor for a lady from Ireland who was suffering from a bad back.
“They were sleeping on mattresses on the floor,” Clarke recalled. “She would have been welcome to stay at our house but she wanted to stay with the group at night in case there were developments where they had to leave to return to their plane right away.
“She and her daughter were travelling from Ireland to California to see her brother who was a priest there. It was the first time she was ever on a plane and then this happened and they landed in Gander. She kept in contact with me until she passed away about five years ago.”
Clarke has many fond memories of the friendships she developed with the passengers, but what also comes to mind about those days is the memory of everyone working together.
“I remember one of the Kinsmen, Dave Young, and the sweat was pouring down over his face – he was there at 7 in the morning cooking bacon and eggs,” she said. “People (volunteering) didn’t realize until it was over what they had done.
“It was just natural to get up in the morning and be up there (Kin Centre) first thing in the morning, come home for lunch, go back and take them (passengers) for a drive or to the store. They had nothing, not even a toothbrush. All the stores chipped in. I can remember taking ladies to Brown’s (former department store on Main Street) to get things they needed.”
Clarke said she doesn’t even know where all the food came from, but notes there was always plenty of food on hand.
As Clarke accepted the Volunteer Hall of Fame award on behalf of the Town of Lewisporte recently, she said people from the community should take pride in what they were able to come together to accomplish back in 2001, but she notes it wasn’t just Lewisporte that responded.
Clarke said it was truly a regional response as all communities surrounding Lewisporte responded through volunteer efforts, bedding and food donations and so much more. She said as soon as people realized what was happening, bed linens and quilts were provided locally but also from New World Island, Twillingate and Change Islands.
A group of ladies from Change Islands took it upon themselves to travel to Lewisporte, which meant a ferry ride and about an hour drive. They brought along with them everything they needed to cook up a meal of fish and brewis for the passengers.
“I think we should say thank you to them as well for going out of their way to do things like this,” the Mayor said. “It’s 16 years later and people are still talking about it. That doesn’t surprise me because it was such a tragic event and the response – people still respond to the story of generosity and friendship that Newfoundlanders are known for.
“We were all overwhelmed that this happened. It was unreal that all those planes had to land in Gander, but then once they got off the plane they were taken care of.”
One-hundred-and-fifty passengers on a Delta Airlines flight from Germany to the United States never expected to find themselves in the midst of a warm embrace from the community of Norris Arm when they began their travels on Sept. 11, 2001.
Like Lewisporte, Norris Arm didn’t have a plan on how to respond to the situation. It’s not like the passengers would all find shelter in a hotel in town, because there is no hotel. Mayor Ross Rowsell said passengers were originally housed at Hillview Academy and the Lions Centre. From that residents took people into their homes.
Calling upon the resources of the school, Town of Norris Arm, the Boys and Girls Club, Lions Club, all churches in town, the library (internet was a vital connection tool) and residents, passengers there were also left with the feeling that they were being looked after.
Town manager Bev Peyton was heavily involved in the response effort. She recalled the passengers arriving in Norris Arm, some not getting there until almost a day after the 9/11 attacks, and they were only then finding out about what had happened.
“We were all in tears as they came off the bus,” she recalled.
Rowsell was serving on council in 2001, but on Sept. 11 he was in Halifax on vacation. As he repeatedly called home for updates, Rowsell knew that people in his community were extending care and compassion for the passengers.
“We felt a lot of pride when we would hear about the positive things the residents in the town were doing to make the passengers feel welcomed — being provided the hospitality, entertainment, meals, shopping, opening their homes to complete strangers,” he said.
Rowsell said the people of Norris Arm went above and beyond to help the passengers.
“It was like the community shut down and just surrounded the passengers with love, support and compassion,” Peyton said.
Social events were held nightly at the Lions Club with entertainment provided and even a Screech in.
“There was a young couple from Washington,” Peyton noted. “He had fought in the Gulf War and lost a leg — they still keep in touch from time to time and did send gifts when they got home.
“They were very thankful for the hospitality provided of myself and my son — my husband was away working. That Christmas we sent them special gifts from NL.”
Rowsell feels the people of Norris Arm would do the same thing all over again without hesitation.
“The residents just wanted to help. It's like the world stopped and we were thrown into the middle of chaos — the adrenalin kicked in and everybody went full speed ahead,” he said. “We would all do the same in a heartbeat. Our need to help as a small community and Newfoundlanders is bred in us.”
Tears had flowed as the passengers arrived, but also when they boarded the bus to leave Norris Arm.
“There were many tears from the residents and the passengers as they were getting on the bus,” Peyton said. “No one realized at the time the impact we had on those lives until much later. Many friendships were forged and continued to this day. Although the world was torn apart, Newfoundlanders helped bring a small piece of the world back together.”
Following is the text from the Volunteer Hall of Fame awards gala that recognized the central Newfoundland 9/11 response effort of Appleton, Gander, Gambo, Glenwood, Lewisporte and Norris Arm:
On September 11, 2001, at 9:45 a.m. (Eastern Time), one hour after the first passenger airplane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, both the US and Canada officially closed their airspace. The over 500 airplanes from around the world that were on route to the United States were told to return to their airport of origin or were diverted to airports across Canada.
Forty-two transatlantic flights were diverted to Gander that day. The community of less than 10,000 people suddenly had to find shelter and food for 6,700 people. What happened next is an example of humanity at its finest. Gander and the neighbouring communities of Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm, and Gambo opened their hearts and their homes to strangers from around the world. Together the six small towns rallied together to provide food, clothing and sleeping arrangements for their new visitors. They housed, fed, comforted and entertained international travelers from nearly 100 countries.
On 9/11, the world experienced an unfathomable tragedy. However, the passengers of flights grounded in Gander experienced humanity at its finest. Six communities wrapped their arms around thousands of strangers who were stranded and shocked and show them acceptance, compassion and generosity and for that, Gander, Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo have earned their place in the Newfoundland and Labrador Volunteer Hall of Fame.
The Volunteer Hall of Fame
Launched in 2012, by the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Newfoundland and Labrador, the Volunteer Hall of Fame embraces one of the core values and key components of the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award — service to others.
The purpose of the Volunteer Hall of Fame is to recognize the outstanding efforts of life long volunteers who have made a significant impact in their community and in the lives of others and, to show the youth of this province the value and impact of community service.
Volunteer Hall of Fame inductees are shining examples of individuals and organizations that give selflessly of their time for the benefit of others. Their generosity, compassion and commitment demonstrate to our youth that social responsibility and community engagement are an important part of self-development and also contribute to the very fabric of our society.