Refuge

Guess who came to dinner-and stayed

JOHN DEMONT September 16 2002
Refuge

Guess who came to dinner-and stayed

JOHN DEMONT September 16 2002

AS THE LAST and first international airport on the continent for flights to and from Europe, Gander, Nfld., likes to bill itself as the “crossroads of the world.” Until a year ago, it enjoyed another distinction: the uncrowned air rage capital of North America. Whenever some passenger wigged out mid-Atlantic, the plane would make an emergency landing in the airport town of almost 10,000 in the Newfoundland interior, 300 km northwest of St. John’s. Once on the ground, it was up to the 25-member RCMP squad stationed in Gander to take over.

That was never a call the Mounties welcomed. They might, for example, have to subdue a woman armed with syringes who had been squirting insulin around a passenger jet cabin, or chase a businessman who stripped naked upon landing and took off across the runway. In 2000, Gander Mounties had to handle 17 air rage cases of varying degrees of strangeness and difficulty. But that was before the terrorists attacked by air. Since Sept. 11, increased security and the common knowledge that airlines simply won’t tolerate unruly behaviour has changed things. Planes stopped delivering problem passengers to Gander. “After Sept. 11, mercifully none,” sighs RCMP Cpl. Carl Smith. “Not a single one.”

Gander—an open-hearted town where strange things have a habit of descending from the skies—has moved on since 9/11. But that doesn’t mean it has forgotten. Smith, 42, who today drives an unmarked RCMP car through the town’s quiet streets, happened to be in St. John’s when the jets slammed into the World Trade Center. In the years to come, he’ll tell his grandchildren about the scene that greeted him upon return: the 38 jets from around the world parked nose to tail along the runway, the huge U.S. flag draped over the Salvation Army church, streets teeming with the strange faces, hues and garb of the distraught, befuddled passengers stranded in a place many of them never knew existed.

“The day 6,600 dropped in for supper,” is what Gander’s friendly, low-key mayor, Claude Elliott, likes to call Sept. 11. With North American airspace closed to traffic for three days, Ganderites and residents of a half-dozen neighbouring communities billeted the travellers in their homes, schools and churches. They fed them, gave them clean clothes. Mostly, they treated them like family. This week, Smith will welcome Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci and other dignitaries when they drop in to commemorate Canada’s role in aiding its neighbour. Like everyone else around town, he’s proud that the good Samaritans of Gander provided one of the few uplifting stories to emerge from the terrible days after 9/11. Their story, after all, had what that awful saga did not: a happy ending.

Many of them, actually. A year later the proof just keeps piling up: thousands of grateful e-mails and letters, Web sites set up by the thankful passengers who stayed there, Lufthansa naming one of its aircraft Gander Halifax to recognize the hospitality those centres showed the German airline’s stranded passengers. Sept. 11 brought the area more than good public relations. Lewisporte, 50 km northwest of Gander, has a new conference room in a community centre, courtesy of passengers from a Delta Airlines flight. Other Delta passengers established a scholarship to help Lewisporte high school students continue their studies. A middle school received $85,000 worth of computer equipment from thankful executives of New York’s Rockefeller Foundation.

Appreciated as it is, the response seems to genuinely baffle local residents. They see Newfoundland as the kind of place where people band together when things get rough. So mostly they just shrug the adulation off. “You very seldom get a chance to practise the golden rule on such a scale,” says Mac Moss, an administrator for the Gander campus of the College of the North Atlantic, which billeted 440 passengers from two flights. “When people are in trouble around here, no questions are asked. All that really changed on Sept. 11 was the numbers.”

Some numbers: unexpected guests on the order of two-thirds of Gander’s population. With an unemployment rate hovering in the low double digits, the local economy may be robust by Newfoundland standards. But no one stranded there on Sept. 11 was going to confuse Gander with Manhattan or Paris. The main drag features strip malls and a couple of bars and fast-food restaurants. Unlike most Newfoundland towns, Gander has an unsettled, almost transient feel. It has only existed since 1938 when the airport opened. Its heyday was in the post-war years when it thrived as a refuelling stop for overseas flights. But the advent of long-haul aircraft ended Gander’s role as a commercial airline hub in the early ’80s.

Nowadays, aside from its small Canadian air base and a new helicopter parts plant, it’s a regional supply and service centre and a refuelling stop only for private jets, a few charter companies and the U.S. military. It struggles with a problem that has long plagued the province: the departure of its young in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

All the same, anybody who lived through Sept. 11 and the aftermath can confirm it made the town a richer place—and not just because a few well-to-do air travellers opened their cheque books. To understand the rewarding connections forged during those strange days a year ago, you’d have to hear, say, Lisa Ivany, a medical secretary, and her mother Maggie reminisce about eating, drinking and laughing at the vagaries of regional accents with the trio of Texans who spent a night with them. “We called them ‘my old trout’,” recalls Lisa, “and they never got over it.”

The visitors were conference manager Judy Kontaratos, 44, her husband Jim, 38, from Dallas, and a fellow Texan they met on the flight. “We were strangers,” says Judy, “and Lisa just said come over to our house. They cooked us a fabulous dinner, let us take a shower, use their brushes. All their personal stuff.” They’ve remained in touch and expect to visit each other soon.

Or picture Carl Smith hunting down kosher food for the rabbi from London and the Orthodox Jewish mother and daughter from Manhattan who arrived at his house after 36 hours without eating. You would have to imagine the avuncular, 47-year-old Oswald Fudge, one of Gander’s two town constables, getting a call from a fellow officer in Atlanta, Ga., then spending two days searching for the Georgian’s sister to give her a comforting hug. “It’s the Newfie way,” says Fudge. And a year ago, when things looked at their darkest, it was enough to lift many a worried traveller’s spirits.