The amazing story of how good people always turn up.
Frankfurt Flight diverted
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, we were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt, flying over the North Atlantic. We were more than half-way to our destination in the USA suddenly the aisle curtains parted and I was told to go to the cockpit, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed that the crew had that strained business look on their faces. The Captain handed me a printed message from Delta’s main office in Atlanta, ‘All airways over the Continental United States are closed to commercial air traffic. Land a.s.a.p. at the nearest airport. Advise your destination.’
No one said a word. We knew it was a serious situation and that we needed to land quickly. The Captain determined that the nearest airport was 400 miles behind us in Gander, Newfoundland (Canada). He requested approval for a route change from the Canadian traffic controller and approval was granted immediately. We found out later, of course, why no questions were asked and there was no delay in getting the request approved.
While the flight crew prepared for landing, another message came through from Atlanta telling us that there had been some terrorist activity in the New York area. A few minutes later the news got a bit clearer when we were told about the hijackings and the attacks on New York. We decided not to tell the passengers any of these bits while we were still in the air. We told them the plane had a minor technical problem and that we needed to land at the nearest airport, Gander, to check it out.
More planes grounded at Gander
We promised to give the passengers more information once we’d landed in Gander. There was quite naturally a bit of murmuring among the passengers which is understandable. Forty minutes later, we landed in Gander; at 12:30 p.m.! [11:00 a.m. EST]. As we were landing the passengers couldn’t help noticing that there were already around 20 other airplanes of different world airlines on the ground that had also taken this detour on their way to the USA. Did all of them have technical problems at about the same time?
After we had parked on the ramp, the Captain made the much-awaited announcement, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same technical problem as we had. The reality is that we are here for a totally different reason.’ Then he went on to explain the little bits we were told about the situation in the USA. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. The Captain then informed the passengers that Ground Control in Gander had informed all aircraft to stay put.
The Canadian Government was in charge of our situation and no one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground either was allowed to come near any of the aircrafts. Only airport police would come around periodically to look us over. In the next hour as we waited more planes landed and soon Gander had 53 airplanes cramped into the little airport, 27 of which were US commercial jets.
The ‘plain truth’ of the situation
Meanwhile, bits of news started trickling in over the aircraft radio and for the first time we learned that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York and into the Pentagon, in Washington DC. Some passengers were trying to use their cell phones, but were unable to connect due to a different cell system in Canada. Some did get through but were only able to get to the Canadian operator who would tell them that the lines to the USA were either blocked or jammed.
Some hours later, in the evening, the news filtered to us that the World Trade Centre buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacking had resulted in a crash. By now the passengers were emotionally and physically exhausted, not to mention frightened, but everyone stayed amazingly calm. We had only to look out the window at the 52 other stranded aircraft to realize that we were not the only ones in this predicament.
We had been told earlier that they would be allowing people off the planes one plane at a time. At 6 p.m., Gander airport authorities told us that our turn to deplane would be 11 a.m. the next morning. The passengers were not at all happy about this but stayed calm as they prepared themselves to spend the night on the airplane. The Gander authorities promised us medical attention, water, provisions and satisfactory toilet facilities. They were true to their word. We had no medical situations to worry about, but we did have a young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. Many of the experienced mothers and medically trained women stepped forward to take really good care of her. The night passed without incident in spite of the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.
No ‘Red Alert’ –but Red Cross
About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th September a convoy of school buses showed up. We got off the plane and were taken to the terminal for Immigration and Customs. We then had to register with the Red Cross who took charge. We (the crew) were then separated from the passengers and taken in vans to a small hotel. We had no idea where our passengers had been taken. The Red Cross told us that the town of Gander which had a population of 10,400 people was faced with the challenging task of taking care of about 10,500 passengers who had got off the planes! The Red Cross told us to relax in our hotels and that we would be contacted when the US airports opened again, but that we should not expect that call for a while. Only after we got to our hotels and turned on the TV, 24 hours after it had all started, did we really find out what had actually happened.
Meanwhile, as we began to settle into our situation, with quite a bit of time on our hands, the passengers soon found out that the people of Gander were really an extremely friendly bunch. They started by calling us ‘our friends the plane people’. We enjoyed their hospitality, explored the town of Gander and ended up comfortable and cared for, almost as though we were back in our homes.
Two days later, we got that call and were taken back to Gander airport. Back on our planes, we were reunited with our passengers and began finding out what care and kindness they had experienced over the two days that they had been away from the airplane. We heard incredible stories of kindness, friendliness and generosity.
Lewis Porte and ‘people support’
Gander rose to the occasion. All the surrounding communities (within about a 75 km radius) had closed all high schools, meeting halls, lodges and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities into mass lodging areas for all the stranded travellers. Some had cots set up, others had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up.
All the high school students were required to volunteer their time to take care of the ‘guests’. The 218 passengers on our plane ended up in a town called Lewis Porte, about 45 km from Gander where they were put up in a high school. If any women wanted to be in a women-only facility, that was arranged too. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were taken to private homes.
What about that young pregnant lady? She was put up in a private home right across the street from a 24-hour Urgent Care facility. There was a dentist on call and both male and female nurses remained with the crowd for the duration. Phone calls and e-mails to the US and around the world were available to everyone once a day. During the day, passengers were offered ‘excursion’ trips. Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbours. Others went for hikes in the local forests. Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests.
Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the schools. People were driven to restaurants of their choice and offered wonderful meals. Everyone was given tokens for local laundry mats to wash their clothes, since luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words, every single need was met for the stranded travellers.
The passengers were literally in tears just recounting the kindness they were shown. Finally, when they were told that US airports had reopened, they were dropped off to the airport right on time and without a single passenger missing their flights or getting there late. The Red Cross had all the information about the whereabouts of each and every passenger and knew which plane they needed to be on and the departures of all the flights. They coordinated everything beautifully. It was absolutely incredible.
The flight back –a party mood
When passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise. Everyone suddenly knew everyone by name. They were swapping stories of their stay, impressing each other with who had experienced the better time. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a chartered flight with everyone in a party mood. The crew wisely just stayed out of this friendly reunion of people who hadn’t really known each other. It was mind-boggling. Passengers bonded and were on first-name terms, exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. But perhaps the best was yet to come. Something unusual happened.
One of the passengers, on our plane, approached me and asked if he could make an announcement over the PA system. We never ever allow that. But on this occasion the mood was different. ‘Of course,’ I said and handed him the mike. He picked up the mike and reminded everyone about what they had just gone through in the last few days. He reminded them of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He continued by saying that he would like to do something in return for the kind folk of Lewis Porte.
He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15 (our flight number). The purpose of the trust fund would be to provide college scholarships for the high school students of Lewis Porte. He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travellers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, the total was more than $14,000!
A Gentleman’s word
The gentleman, an MD from Virginia, promised to match the donations and to start the administrative work on the scholarship. He also said that he would forward this proposal to Delta Corporate and ask them to donate as well. As I sat to write this account, some weeks after I got back to base I had reliable news that the trust fund had reached more than $1.5 million and that it has already assisted 134 students with their college funding.
I just wanted to share this story because the world needs good stories. It gives me hope to know that some people in a faraway place were kind to some strangers who literally dropped in on them. It reminds me of how much good there is in the world. In spite of all the not-so-good things we see going on in today’s world this story confirms that there are still a lot of good people in the world and that in moments of need they will always come forward.
–Story narrated by Jerry Brown: attendant on Flight Delta 15 on 09.11.2001]
[Thanks to Isabel Roche fmm, Gabriela Martins fmm & PeterLourdes sdb for circulating the story]
—Edited by T.D’Souza for TRODZA – 050315