There is something different about a blue sky in September. Perhaps – like polarized sunglasses – the approaching equinox changes the light. The blue deepens. There is less glare from summer heat waves. The sky is cloudless. And empty. And eerie.
TIFF – Toronto International Film Festival – was in town, as it always is for September 11th. That day it – and the town – stood still.
The whole world collectively drew in its breath and gasped.
Sixteen years later and all of us remember exactly where were the morning of September 11, 2001.
It was a cloudless, blue sky.
I was up and out the door before 6am. I had to be into the office very early to grab printed copies of my presentation before heading to the other side of town. I drove in before anything happened. The radio station merrily played the Top 40. The news wasn’t earth shattering.
I waved people away from my desk, saying “Can’t chat!”
Finally … someone stopped me and said “You did hear the news, right?”
“No?” I responded questioningly. What was happening? The whole office was a buzz. I could feel the panic. Hear the shouting. We had TVs in the hallways and someone changed the channel to CNN. They all broadcast the news live … People thought it was an accident – thought it didn’t feel like one – as the first plane hit the towers. They screamed when the second plane hit the towers. And knew … it wasn’t an accident.
We cancelled my presentation. There were rumours that Toronto International Airport was a target, and it was shut down. Rather than have people on the highways beside the airport, we thought it best for everyone to stay home. When I presented to the crowd three months later I told them that “since the events of 9-11 were still unfolding, we didn’t want anyone on the roads.” No one knew who would be hit next. We heard the Pentagon was a target. I am sure the White House was the next.
I drove home to get my son from daycare … and wondered if the nuclear plant 10km from my home would be a target.
I couldn’t cry. I was in too much shock. I didn’t cry until I heard the hundreds of chirping locator alarms going off in the rubble. All those firefighters killed in action. Their PASS devices (Personal Alert Safety System) chirp when the firefighter is stationary for more than 30 seconds. Each one represents a fallen hero. They were trudging up the stairs as terrified survivors came down. News reporters said they were car alarms … but I knew. I had friends and family who were firefighters. Every firefighter out there knew as they watched. They recognized the 95 decibel alarms. Sympathy mixed with horror.
When my tears started, they didn’t stop for days. Matthew was not quite three. He built a tower of lego and crashed it. I dried my eyes, turned the TV off and took my son outside. The skies were still silent and blue.
There were so many stories. People jumping. People calling their loved ones for the last time. People aimlessly walking around. Stunned. Shock. Battle fatigue. Looking for lost loved ones. The posters appeared. The news incessantly replayed the crashes.
The alarms made me cry but the silence made me angry. I knew the world would never be the same. I cried again when the planes started flying again. The first sight and sound cut through the skies like a rocket. I had to stop and watch it. My hand shielding my eyes from the glaring blue sky. It felt like an intruder.
I still – to this day – hate the bluest blue skies of September. Like today. While I am not American, my heart was that day. I cried for every American. We stood behind and beside you, extending hands, shoulders, our hearts and our tears. Our prayers.
There is talk that there were flights cancelled earlier. Perhaps chatter had tipped someone off.
Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center, both Transport Canada and NAV CANADA, the Canadian air navigation agency, activated their emergency measures. For the first time in Canadian history, our airspace was closed. Operation Yellow Ribbon diverted all air traffic from the US to Canada to remove any more potential attacks from US targets.
500 planes were on their way to the US. If a plane was already past the point of no return – 30 degrees Longitude – meaning it didn’t have fuel to return over the atlantic to it’s source destination – it was allowed to land in Canada. If it could turn around, it was told to return to the airport of origin.
Pilot’s choice. Or they were instructed where to land. That’s an order, not a request.
All of the Canadian airports were closed with orders that they only open for outgoing police, the military, humanitarian flights, and incoming U.S. bound international flights. All incoming planes were explicitly told that if they entered the airspace of major Canadian airports, they would be intercepted and shot down by fighter jets. Only a few planes already on their way to these airports were allowed to land safely.
47 flights landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
39 trans-atlantic flights landed in Gander, Newfoundland.
34 flights on the west coast were diverted to Vancover International Airport, the only airport which could handle large international flights coming in from Asia.
Various other airports around our large country handled the rest of the 238 flights that were diverted here that day.
Planes from Korea and China were escorted to airports by Canadian and US fighter jets. The Korean plane was suspected of being hijacked. It was intercepted by Canadian and US military and diverted to Whitehorse International Airport, as it was low on fuel. The crew members were not responding. Buildings around the airpport were evacuated. Once the Korean jet was on the ground, the crew were taken out at gunpoint.
It was later discovered that there were communication issues with the crew, and a malfunctioning transponder.
Many pilots weren’t told what the issue was, just that there was a security concern, depending on which radar tower they were in contact with, or if they weren’t listening to their shared channel. Some pilots told their passengers while in flight. Most waited until they landed, because they had no idea who was on board.
Evenyone was in shock and running scared. Even the pilots were happy to land.
Passengers recounted stories of planes veering, banking hard right and changing course rapidly. Many knew something was up … but what?
But the most heart-warming stories takes us back to Gander, Newfoundland. Almost 7,000 stranded passengers in a small town of 10,000.
Why is Gander an International Airport? It is the easternmost piece of North America and has its own time zone. I grew up watching the CBC and they would announce the time. 9pm Eastern, 10pm Atlantic, 10:30pm in Newfoundland. In 1937 – with 4 runways – Gander International Airport was the largest airport in the world at the time. By the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Gander was the staging point of Allied aircraft. More than 22,000 fighter and bomber flights taxied to take off from that airport. It went back to civilian duty in 1945. By the 1950s, Gander airport was one of the busiest international airports in the world, buoyed by transoceanic traffic. But then airliners didn’t need to refuel. Gander wasn’t as busy. It’s not a big place, nor a destination.
And those 39 planes sat on the tarmac. No one was allowed off. Everyone assumed US airspace would reopen and they’d be on their way. But the officials in Gander knew.
They declared a state of emergency in Gander so they could follow emergency protocol. It was required to seize all the hotel rooms for the crews. Each Canadian organization worked together to get the job done.
As 9-11 reminds us of the evilness humans can unleash, let this story remind you of the selfless love we can show one another.
Gander didn’t have enough hotels for 7,000 visitors. To put it in perspective, Gander has 6 stop lights.
The local authorities asked the locals for help … before the plea was spoken, everyone on the east coast leaned in to help. That’s the Canadian way.
If you are Canadian, you know how lovable our Newfies (Newfoundlanders) are. The people of Gander and the surrounding area took care of the “plane people” like family. They closed all the schools and opened them up as hotels. They opened up not just community centres and churches, but their homes. Everyone who arrived on a plane was shown selfless genrosity and good, down home hospitality.
Pharmacies called their competitors to coordinate the donation of thousands upon thousands of toiletry items.
One couple celebrating their honeymoon was given the privacy of a private home. The homeowners left to stay with family and gave them the keys.
A gay couple who had never been to Canada wondered if it was safe. We laughed. “Bye, you are safer heres!
By the second day, the passengers were being screeched in … To become an honourary Newfie, you have to drink a shot of Newfie screech, say a few words and kiss the cod.
The plane passengers were cared for like family. They were cared for, given car keys, taken home for boardgame night. They were comforted when they were scared. They were given hot, delicious, home-cooked food, toiletries, a bed, a place to shower. They were taken on sightseeing tours, to the movies, out on the Atlantic for whale tours. Birthday parties were thrown. The local cable company installed computers and TVs and cable in the schools, community centres and churches so the passengers could email frantic family and friends, and watch the news.
They literally ran out of underwear and had to truck some in from St. John’s, three hours away.
The fire truck was sent on an emergency run … for toys. Canadian Tire had donated 10s of thousands of dollars. Whatever the stranded passengers needed. Even if they had to buy it from a competitor for them.
The passengers were loved so much, that some didn’t want to leave. Some fell in love and got married there.
And it wasn’t just the people shown the love. Animals were also on the planes and cared for by local vets. Two chimpanzees was enroute to a new home in the Ohio Zoo. Years later, when they had a baby, the zoo named him Gander.
Newfoundland bus drivers were on strike and they walked off the picket line and went back to work so they could help transport the 7,000 stranded strangers from the planes. Around on tours. Where ever they needed to go, no charge. And finally, back to the planes so all 7,000 crew and passengers could go home.
The Canadian Red Cross and the Salvation Army knew where EVERYONE was staying. They relayed messages to and from family, and got everyone back to the airport when the flights were ready to leave.
The planes crews were put up in the hotel. They couldn’t believe some of the stories they heard as their passengers arrived back. These passengers were happy and didn’t behave like people stranded in the middle of nowhere. They laughed. They cried. They promised to come back. Once back in the air, one lady on Delta Flight 15 had an idea and passed a notebook around the plane asking for donations for the children of Lewisporte, a poor fishing village in Newfoundland. She had $15,000 in donations before the plane landed. And that scholarship fund has grown to $2M (US!) and has helped 228 students graduate.
If you weren’t from Newfoundland, you “Come From Away”. That is Newfinese for “you aren’t from around here”. It’s also the title of the Broadway musical which follows the story of passengers, Newfies, and flight crews in the days following 9/11. If you are in New York, the show, which is currently running on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre, received six nominations in the 2017 Tony Awards, including best musical.
And the people of New York personally thanked the people of Gander. To thank the town for its kindness to thousands of transient travellers in the hours after the attacks, they gifted Gander with a piece of steel from the World Trade Center’s south tower, courtesy of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to the Towers Foundation. “The people of Gander … stepped up and performed their own acts of courage and heroism on 9/11 and soon thereafter for the thousands of people who descended upon them or were stranded with no advance notice whatsoever,” said spokesperson Catherine Christman.
So, as I look up into my beautiful, blue skies of Canada, I will remember the good stories. Not the bad.
Newfoundland, ya did us all proud. You got to help while most of us could only stand and watch, in silence.
Americans are our closest friends. As many feel so isolated by their political climate today – don’t. We are still here for you and yours, neighbor. We will still take you in.