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Rock-solid Gander honoured in Washington
September 08, 2011
In this Sept. 12, 2001 photo provided by Nav Canada, planes line up on the runway of the Gander, Nfld., after they were diverted there following the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001. Thirty-eight planes carried in 6,600 passengers.
Nav Canada/AP file photo
NEW YORK CITY—Newfoundland doesn’t come up often in the American conversation. Almost never, in fact.
But the landlocked city of Gander — and by extension, all Newfoundlanders — are getting their due Thursday night, feted in Washington for going so far above and beyond in fielding thousands of unexpected guests in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11.“Newfoundlanders didn’t do what they did expecting accolades 10 years later. People just did what came naturally,” said Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, who led the delegation to Washington.
“But we’re certainly humbled and honoured by the recognition and appreciation we’re receiving today.”
Once a key refuelling stop for transatlantic flights, Gander faded from the aviation map with the advent of longer-range airliners in the 1980s.
But all that changed 10 years ago, mere minutes after Transport Canada began diverting the first of 39 U.S.-bound flights to Gander International Airport. Soon the city of barely 10,000 was deluged with 6,600 dazed and frightened passengers and flight crews from 93 countries expecting to land in Boston, New York, Washington and points beyond.
“None of us had ever seen anything like it. One plane after another coming in until the tarmac was full,” said deputy mayor Zane Tucker.
Those who could opened their homes to the anxious strays. And those who couldn’t cooked for them. Others still entertained and organized whale-watching expeditions to distract the traumatized guests. The Gander hockey arena was pressed into service as “the largest walk-in refrigerator in the province,” brimming with home-cooked fare. Many donors wrote their names on their Tupperware in order to retrieve the containers for the next day’s menu. It continued like that for five days.
Then came The Snub. Not just to Gander, but also to all the other Canadian cities, notably Halifax and Vancouver, that rolled out the welcome mat for thousands more sudden arrivals. Then-president George W. Bush, in his first major speech to Americans in the aftermath of the attacks, made no mention of Canada during an address referencing key friends and allies.
But the story of what became known as Operation Yellow Ribbon has been well chronicled since in virtually every medium. And the Washington welcome the Gander delegation is experiencing Thursday is “a heartening experience,” said Elliott.
The Newfoundland delegation includes church officials and Gander resident Beulah Cooper, who for five days comforted a New York City couple in her home as they awaited word of their son, only to learn he died in the Twin Towers.
Earlier Thursday, they met on Capitol Hill with New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who “lavished praise not just on Newfoundlanders but Canada as a whole,” said Elliott.
On Wednesday, Slaughter introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives thanking the citizens of Gander and other Canadian cities, including Toronto, which fielded 14 flights.
“You can’t ask for any better neighbours or friend than the people of Canada,” Slaughter said in a statement.
“As we look back on that dark day, we remember not only those who we lost but also recognize the friendships that were strengthened and the hospitality of our neighbours to the north who aided American passengers in our hour of need.”
Gander’s citation — a Community Resiliency Award — was to come Thursday night at a dinner hosted by the U.S. Center for National Policy and the Voices of September 11th, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The delegation was being kept in the dark on what form the award would take.
“I don’t know if it is a plaque or a certificate or something else,” said Elliott. “But it doesn’t matter, really. The significance here is just being appreciated. Our citizens showed so much spirit and compassion and love and that is the greatest resource any community could have.
“It’s a normal human thing, to help people in need. And I can tell you, all the thank-yous we received from the actual passengers 10 years ago was certainly quite sufficient.