They came from communities many of us had never heard of. For many of them, they had never heard of us. In the end, everyone departed as friends.
While I wasn’t in Lewisporte on September 11, 2001, I was in Happy Valley-Goose Bay where five commercials flights were diverted to when the air space was closed. The response there was immediate, but there was a difference. The military base and employees of the service provider were able to accommodate and respond to the needs of the exhausted passengers. The community had been on alert and were more than willing to accept the anticipated 10,000 “friends from away” at a moments notice if the need was there. They made them feel at home out and about in the community and it was appreciated.
What happened in central Newfoundland was what you could call the best case of a worst-case scenario.
As thousands of unsuspecting and confused travelers set foot on Newfoundland soil in Gander, an army of volunteers was gearing up to respond to their every need. There was no manual or emergency plan booklet to refer to. What the people relied on was their own generous and caring nature. Their own human nature to comfort and protect their fellow human being in a time of need.
Here were people who had spent hours sitting in a plane on a tarmac in what was a foreign land for most, not knowing what events were playing out to keep them there. When they arrived the images of planes crashing and towers falling was still raw. No one knew for sure what this development meant to the worldwide community.
Lewisporte and Norris Arm were crucial locations where air passengers could find solace. They didn’t know what they were stepping into. They had no choice but to put their faith in the people who welcomed them from the buses to the churches and community centres. How unnerving that must have been from them? They didn’t know how the next few days would pan out for them. They had seen a total ignorance of humanity in the attacks on the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon. On the flipside then are the people of Lewisporte and area who showed them there is still a gentle and caring world and you don’t have to look hard to find it.
Passengers quickly became friends with volunteers. People opened their homes to offer a warm shower, a cozy bed and a comforting meal. They passed over house keys, loaned out their vehicles, helped fill prescriptions, offered help with childcare, even helped pass the time by taking the passengers on tours around the area.
There has been much international recognition of the efforts residents made on 9/11 and the days that followed. But not one of those volunteers did what they did for recognition. They did what they had to do because of who they are.
As we revisit (page 7A) some of the Letters to the Editor that appeared in The Pilot in the weeks that followed 9/11, it is quite obvious that what the community provided was not just a service. It is not something that could happen just anywhere.
As the airspace reopened and the passengers packed up their belongings and boarded the buses to return to their homes around the globe, the volunteers must have looked around and thought how did they just do all of that. They were too busy caught up with feeding, clothing and looking after the needs of the visitors that no one could have known the monumental undertaking they had achieved.
The amazing thing about it is that while it must have been an exhaustive experience for those who volunteered, you can rest assured that if they were ever called on to do it again, they would be the first ones in line to help.