The 9/11 Story You Probably Never Heard of: How the Town of Gander Saved 6,700 People

A Little Town Called Gander

The little town doubled their population that day when the terror attacks in New York and Washington forced 38 planes to make emergency landings. And they all had to land in Gander, Newfoundland.

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The quaint town of Gander showed their hospitality when these unexpected guests suddenly came out nowhere. The story drew in attention from around the world and even inspired a Broadway musical.

On a Seemingly Normal Day

One beautiful clear-skied day over the North Atlantic Ocean, American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass got a message she would never have imagined she would receive.

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Beverley Bass was the first female captain for American Airlines. (Courtesy of Beverley Bass)

She got the message as she was flying from Paris to Dallas. The message: A plane had hit the World Trade Center, and there was talk of terrorism.

Her heart almost stopped.

An Emergency Landing

Captain Bass was the airline’s first female captain, and she forced to make an emergency landing. The closest available airport was in Gander, Newfoundland, an isolated town off the coast of Eastern Canada.

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Bass’ plane was the 36th passenger plane to arrive to the little town, and the passengers were told they would not be able to leave until the following morning. They were understandably in a state of bewilderment.

Hour By Hour, Day By Day

Bass said, “We were on the airplane 28 hours in total. It wasn’t anything we had ever trained for. We got through it minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.”

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US airspace had closed and 38 planes which were heading to the United States were to be redirected to the former World War II military post. It was the only airport nearby that was of reasonable size.

And little did Bass know that the story would reach Broadway.

Stranded in Gander

Not only people were on those planes. There were also nine cats, 11 dogs, and even a pair of endangered bonobos. These animals, along with 6759 passengers and crew members were stranded.

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The thousands of living souls were going to be stuck in Gander for four days, which was pretty much doubling the town’s small population and as a result put immense pressure on their resources.

In a Bubble

They were put up in an empty airport hangar, where they would still be able to move around. Interestingly, these people were essentially in a bubble, protected from the real-life horror story that was happening in America.

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Stranded passengers waking up on Sept. 13, 2001, in the gymnasium at Gander Academy, an elementary school in Newfoundland. (Scott Cook/Canadian Press)

When the locals from the town of Gander heard of their new neighbors, they took action and helped out. They brought nicotine patches, diapers, and 2000 prescriptions to the planes.

Can you imagine how the people on the planes were feeling?

Tired and Confused

Everyone worked frantically to prepare for the flood of frightened people who were surely tired and confused. Many of passengers passed the time by drinking in their seats.

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Passengers arrive on a domestic flight at Gander International Airport and walk towards the terminal. (Photo: Thomas E. Franklin/NorthJersey.com)

Eventually, the visitors from all over the world were allowed to get off the planes. And they could only take their carry-on luggage with them for safety reasons. But luckily, the town they landed in had good Samaritans who were happy to help.

A Community to the Rescue

The Gander community really pulled through. Bus drivers volunteered to bring people to makeshift shelters at schools, restaurants donated food, families cooked, and pharmacies supplied hygiene products.

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This Sept. 15, 2001 photo provided by Des Dillon shows the last flight to leave the town after the passengers were stranded there for five days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Dillon, a Gander, Newfoundland, Canada resident headed up the emergency response for the Red Cross in Gander. (AP)

Residents were nice enough to let people use their showers and they had barbecues and huge cookouts.

And some did something really special for the terminally ill children on one of the flights.

A Giant Birthday Party

As a really sweet gesture, the residents threw a giant birthday party with performances and a huge cake for a few terminally ill children who were flying from London to Disney World.

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It was only after everyone arrived that they were able to see the devastating footage of what happened. It had been 30 hours since the nightmare that shook the entire world.

The Community Speaks Out

Diane Davis, a 53-year-old retired teacher, helped 750 people who were being housed at the town’s elementary school. She said, “Everyone looks at us and says that’s an amazing thing that you did, and the bottom line is I don’t think it was an amazing thing, I think it was the right thing you do.”

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Leo McKenna, a school caretaker, and Diane Davis, a retired schoolteacher, in their home across from Gander Academy, the primary school that housed 750 stranded passengers in September 2001. Davis played a central role in both the town’s response and in Come From Away. (CHRIS SO/TORONTO STAR)

The mayor, Claude Elliot, spoke out by saying “What we consider the simplest thing in life is to help people.” She served as the town’s leader for 21 years, having recently retired. “You’re not supposed to look at people’s color, their religion, their sexual orientation — you look at them as people.”

If you want to know what life is like in Gander, you’ll see…

Gander in a Nutshell

To give you an idea of what life is like there, here it is in a nutshell: They don’t lock the doors to their homes or cars. Everyone says hello to each other. Everyone knows their neighbors. Every sentence has “My love” or “my dear.”

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Texas businessman Kevin Tuerff was diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001, on the way home from a trip to France. He came back to the small town for a special concert performance of Come From Away. (CHRIS SO/TORONTO STAR)

And they were really concerned for the rest of the world, especially the U.S., as it was suddenly faced with terrorism and absolute chaos.

A Daunting Future

“I’m scared at the way we’re going and what the world will look like in 10 years,” said Mayor Elliott, age 67. “If we keep on going, we’re going to set our world back 100 years.”

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Gary Tuff was the acting Chief of Emergency Response at the Gander International Airport on 9/11. (Photo: Thomas E. Franklin/NorthJersey.com file photo)

Garry Tuff was the acting manager of safety and security for emergency response services at Gander International Airport. And he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

He was one of the first people to know what was about to happen to his little town.

A Sudden Impact

Garry Tuff realized that his town of 10,000 people was about to be dramatically impacted. The Gander airport is the closest point between Europe and the U.S. and is a preferred emergency landing place for emergencies.

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wnyc.org Airplanes grounded in Gander, Newfoundland in Canada following the attacks of Septemeber 11, 2001

Not long after the second plane hit, the 38 planes came quickly into the airport. Now they had to figure out the logistics of landing all these planes.

Not the Best Conditions

Eventually, they figured out how to park all the planes, and some of them started sinking into the pavement because of their weight and the warm temperatures. Crew workers spent the next 24 hours unloading passenger luggage as well as the passengers.

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imagenesmy.com – Camping Canadian USAF strike eagles hanging out in gander Newfoundland airport

As the planes were packed with passengers, they sat for hours at the airport. Meanwhile, volunteers were getting shelters ready. Every school, gym, community center, church, and camp, was to be used to settle people in.

But that’s not everything…

Facing Scrutiny

Gander’s 500 hotel rooms were saved for pilots and flight crews to stay. And unfortunately, due to the circumstances, the passengers at the airport had to go through customs and were faced with serious scrutiny.

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Des Dillon, a longtime Red Cross volunteer and the Chairman of the Gander Airport Association outside his home in Gander. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA Today)

“Everybody was a suspect,” said Des Dillon the manager of the Canadian Red Cross in Gander at the time.

After Customs…

After going through customs safely, everyone quickly became a guest. Everyone got the basics of food and water, but some travelers needed medicine.

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The problem was that many of them left their prescriptions in their checked bags and therefore were inaccessible. And so the pharmacists of the town worked around the clock and called in dozens of countries to fill prescriptions.

In Need of a Fix

They couldn’t forget about the other passengers who needed their own dose of their own kind of “medicine” – the smokers. They weren’t able to get their fix for hours. So the community came through for them as well.

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With stricter security measures in place, passengers traveling on Sabena Flight 551, pick up their carry-on baggage under the watchful eye of police and customs officials before boarding their flight for take-off Sept. 13, 2001. Photograph by: Joe Gibbons, The Telegram

“We bought every bit of nicotine gum that was in town,” Garry Tuff said. It goes to show just how much they cared about having their new neighbors feel at home.

An Understatement

It would be an understatement to say that Gander just welcomed the passengers and crew from nearly 100 countries with open arms.

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Tom Brokaw pose with the cast and crew backstage at the hit musical ‘Come From Away’ on Broadway (Brokaw was the news anchor who reported on the town of Gander in Newfoundland that helped 911 planes divert and land safely on September 11, 2001 which is the setting of the show) at The Schoenfeld Theater on February 21, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

The town nearly shut down for the “plane people” and the inspiring story about the quaint town and their sudden impact became a Tony-award winning Broadway musical called Come From Away.

They Needed Help

Linda Sweetapple, a 54-year-old business manager said, “We did not know how we would be affected if these people were staying if the people who were coming were good people or not so good people.”

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Clarice Goodyear was joined by her family and members of the Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce to award Don and Linda Sweetapple of Swetapple Accounting Group Ltd. Source: thecentralvoice.ca

“We just knew that we had to make room for them and take care of them. They were here, and they needed our help.”

More Donations

The bus drivers that helped transport people were actually in the middle of a strike. But they decided this was important and they laid down their picket signs to donate their time and effort.

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Submitted photo courtesy of Kevin Tuerff Kevin Tuerff has returned to Gander many times since 9-11 and delights in giving back to local residents with small acts of kindness. Last month he was in town and helped serve breakfast to residents as part of Gander Day celebrations. Source: thetelegram.com

Donations of toiletries, clothes, toys, towels, toothbrushes, pillows, blankets and bedding were piling up. Grocery store shelves were going empty and even the Walmart ran out of almost everything, especially underwear.

And the local hockey rink was turned into something quite practical.

One Gigantic Refrigerator

The local hockey rink was transformed into the world’s largest refrigerator. Interestingly enough, this all happened before the surge of smartphones and social media.

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A room in the Gander campus of College of the North Atlantic, filled with donated sleeping bags, blankets, pillows and other items for the passengers. Source: thetelegram.com

Imagine being stuck on a plane for up to 31 hours since take off from Europe and suddenly you’re in this tiny town in a Canadian province.

They had no idea what they was going on just a few thousand miles away. And then they finally got to see.

The Gasps

The passengers finally got to see all the destruction and Gander Police Constable Oz Fudge, 62, remembers seeing all the gasps.

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Oswald Fudge along with is fellow Gander police officer help with added security during 9/11. Source: nypost.com

“You hear this ‘huh’ when the plane hit the towers,” said Fudge. “That sound I hear all the time, of the shock that’s on their faces as they’re standing there looking at this TV and the look of loss on their faces. “I’ll live with that for the rest of my life.”

More than Just the Essentials

The town came through on more than just providing food, shelter, and clothing. They took care of them in many ways over the next five days. The Gander residents took passengers sightseeing, moose hunting, berry picking and barbecuing.

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Photo Credit: Matt Roberts

They entertained them with music, offered them rides and brought them into their homes for showers or even to sleep for a few nights. And they straight up refused to accept money. They told the passengers, “You’d do the same for us.”

Truly Kind and Caring

“They couldn’t comprehend what we were doing,” said Dave Blundon, 67, who let one of the families stay in his home. “The way they looked at you — they almost wanted to touch you to make sure you’re real.”

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Dave and Queen Blundon in front of their home in Gander. The Blundons hosted a family of three passengers who were stranded in Gander on Sept. 11. They still keep in touch with the family. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)

Robert Steuber, 55, was stranded with his wife and elderly father-in-law after their flight from Paris to St. Louis got diverted. They were the family that stayed with Dave Blundon in his home.

And he had something special to say about this community.

He Was Floored

Steuber said, “That whole community is the poster child for how hospitality and just a sheer act of humanity should be because they had such a high level of open arms, and come in and welcome and here’s my house. It just absolutely floored me.”

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The Musical ‘Come from Aways’ plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 9, 2017, in New York. (Photo credit THOMAS URBAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The town folk from Gander called the passengers “Come From Aways” and this is where the Broadway musical took the name.

The Come From Aways

The passengers were from all over the world, including: Israel, Austria, Spain, Poland, France, the Philippines, Iran, Italy, England, Germany, Thailand, Belgium, Ukraine, Africa, Hungary, Uganda, Senegal, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and almost every state n the USA.

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Co-writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, part of the Come From Away creative team, with their 3-year-old daughter, Molly. They were visiting the kittens at the Gander and area SPCA where Bonnie Harris, one of the characters of the play they wrote works as the manager. The musical Come From Away had it’s Canadian debut in the town of Gander, Newfoundland where it played two sold out benefit concerts. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The “come from aways” were what Newfoundlanders called anyone who wasn’t from the island. And none of them held any prejudice against them. Prejudice is a foreign concept there.

The town actually embraces all people.

Common Sense

Today, in front of Gander’s town hall, the cross-walk is painted as a rainbow. The churches raised thousands of dollars to welcome four Syrian refugee families. And they plan on welcoming more.

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Keyin College students, in partnership with the Town of Gander, applied the finishing touches to a pride crosswalk at the town hall on the morning of Oct. 5, 2016. The crosswalk was created to represent inclusiveness within the community and to also raise awareness about LGBTQ issues. – File Photo

The mayor said, “One thing this world is lacking today is common sense, that’s going out the door. We have to set more of an example and show the world we can all live in harmony regardless of what we are.”

The Musical

Kevin Tuerff’s life was changed forever after Gander. Sixteen years after his Air France flight from Paris to New York landed in the town, Tuerff, 51, is one of the characters in the musical. The creators wanted to portray the kindness and generosity that Gander showed.

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Co-writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, part of the Come From Away creative team, on the tarmac of Gander International Airport, Newfoundland. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

He is also the author of the book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11. He said how Gander is like a second home to him. “They are a shining beacon for how America once was kind to strangers, immigrants and refugees, and we need to get back that way,” he said.

Behind the Musical

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the creators of the musical, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, joined many of the passengers and crew who came back to Gander in honor of the memorial. They performed the musical there for everyone.

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The cast and staffers of Come From Away pose for a group photo on the arrivals tarmac of Gander International airport. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

They held many interviews and created a show filled with characters based directly on real people.

A Love Story

Nick and Diane Marson were both there in Gander. They were from England and Texas respectively, and believe it or not, they fell in love on the island and got married. They’re also a part of the musical’s story.

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Diane and Nick Marson at the opening of Come From Away on Broadway. (© David Gordon)

The musical is a very emotional one, and it has audience members sobbing in their seats.

But the show has moments of laughter and isn’t all depressing.

10th Anniversary

Another person to attend the 10th anniversary in Gander in 2011, Ms. Bass, the American pilot, and her family.

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Actor Jenn Colella, left, and retired American Airlines Captain Beverley Bass share a light moment during a photo call for the musical Come From Away following it’s Canadian debut in the town of Gander, Newfoundland. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“It was a part of history,” she said. “I cried through the whole show because I was blown away by how beautiful it was and how perfectly they had written it. It brought back so many raw emotions, mostly for my husband. When Jenn Colella (the actor who plays her) picks up the phone the first time and says, ‘Tom, I’m fine,’ it was very hard for him.”

The Visitors Gave Back

Amazingly, the visitors of Gander after the anniversary memorial show of the musical, decided to donate to the town.

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FDNY Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 stand and watch as members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group escort a trailer carrying a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, during a ceremony outside the Fox News studios to mark the beginning of the piece of steel’s journey from New York City to Gander, Newfoundland in Canada, September 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The visitors left $60,000 in the town’s donations box and also set up a scholarship in honor of the local residents who looked after them. Many sent gifts to the families that hosted them and are still in touch with them today.

Not So Unique

The story of Gander and what was called Operation Yellow Ribbon is one that really shows the best of humanity at one of the worst times in US history. And the town residents say that what happened in Gander isn’t unique. Anyone from there would lend a hand in a crisis.

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(Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“No matter where you go people are good. I truly believe that in my heart. There’s 1% arseholes everywhere and if this happened where you live, you would help,” Karen Mills, 54, manager of the Comfort Inn in Gander, said. “But Newfoundlanders, we’re a different breed in a lot of ways.”

The World Came to Town

The amazing story of Gander and their open arms was also turned into a book, The Day The World Came To Town. And more than that.

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Source: Amazon.com

A musical and a book wasn’t enough. The story was also the subject of a Canadian TV movie Diverted and a BBC radio play called The Day the Planes Came.

The Musical

The musical Come From Away has traveled across North America. It had four pre-Broadway runs at major theatres, including La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre and Mirvish Productions.

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Jenn Colella, left, and Astrid Van Wieren act out a scene from the musical Come From Away which had it’s Canadian debut in the town of Gander, Newfoundland. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The musical has been receiving great reviews. Theatre critic for The New York Times wrote “Try, if you must, to resist the gale of good will that blows out of ‘Come From Away,’ the big bearhug of a musical that opened on Sunday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.”

Try Not Cry

He continued, “But even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.”

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(L to R) Frank Siller, chairman of the Tunnel to Tower Foundation, and Bob Beckwith, retired firefighter who stood next to President George W. Bush at ground zero, observe a piece of steel from the World Trade Center as it is moved to a trailer, during a ceremony outside the Fox News studios to mark the beginning of the piece of steel’s journey from New York City to Gander, Newfoundland in Canada, September 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The show has been called “big-hearted and crowd-pleasing” and “a singing reminder that when things are at their worst, people can be at their best.”

The Marson’s Story

Remember the couple that met at Gander and got married? Nick Marson said, “We were both on the same flight.” But it wasn’t until they landed in Gander that the couple met.

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Nick and Diane Marson, from Texas, kiss on Sept. 10, 2011 in Gander, N.L. The husband and wife, who met after their plane was diverted to Gander on 9/11, have returned to take part in the tenth anniversary memorial. (RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

When they were in line to get their medications, a conversation began. “They brought in army cots for beds, and we were standing in line to get a blanket, and I was standing next to Diane and she said they smelled like mothballs,” Nick said.

They Went on a Walk

Nick mentioned, “We just started talking at that point, and I asked her if I could share the cot next to her. There was 70 of us up there.”

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The Dover Fault is where Diane and Nick Marson fell in love during their stay in Newfoundland. They were brought together by luck, or fate, but Nick says it was special. (Submitted by Nick Marson)

The next day, the couple watched as news was breaking about the attacks. Nick said it was very disturbing for him to see, and so they decided to go for a walk. Within a few days in the little town, Nick said he already had an interest in Diane.

He Knew He Liked Her

When the time came for everyone to go back home, they needed to figure out what to do. Nick said he tried to give Diane a kiss on the forehead. But Diane remembers it differently.

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Nick and Diane Marson: British oil engineer and divorcee from Texas meet and fall in love. (VINCE TALOTTA / TORONTO STAR)

“The school bus was maybe jumping around, and I thought he missed kissing me so I just grabbed him and kissed him on the mouth, and that sort of set the scene,” she said.

He Popped the Question

Nick soon after that proposed to Diane over the phone in November 2001, while 8,000 kilometers apart.

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Gander and area SPCA manager Bonnie Harris poses with a photo of Unga, left, and Kosana, the chimpanzees that she had to rescue from the cargo hold area of a plane diverted to her town during 9/11. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Marsons saw the musical 75 times, seeing their lives played out in front of them. Nick put it nicely, “In the wake of all of that disaster, we’ve found something very special in life.”