Amid the chaos of the pandemic, and the even worse chaos of the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, I read a story from the time of the “911” terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. It is heart-warming, and a reminder that, despite what we get bombarded with daily in the media, there is kindness and consideration out there. There is hope.
The story was told by a flight attendant on a Delta Airlines flight 15 from Frankfurt to Atlanta on September 11, 2011.
Five hours out of Frankfurt, this flight attendant was called to the cockpit by the captain. He showed her a message from Delta Airlines main office in Atlanta, which said all airways over the continental U.S. were closed, and they should land at the nearest airport. There was no other explanation. The captain determined they had to turn around and head back 400 miles to Gander in Newfoundland. Almost immediately, another message arrived from Atlanta with information about terrorist activity in New York. The captain and crew decided to lie to the passengers. They told them there was a minor technical difficulty with the plane.
When they landed at Gander there were 20 other planes already there. The captain joked over the PA that, since the passengers were unlikely to believe that twenty planes had all had the same minor technical issues, he should come clean. He then told them what he knew. Planes continued to arrive until there were 53 big jets all parked next to each other.
The passengers and crew of Delta 15 had to spend the night in their seats while the airport authorities disembarked the passengers, one plane at a time. The authorities provided medical attention, water and sanitation services, which was quite an undertaking for 53 large jets. Gander has a population of 10,400 people, and there were 10,500 passengers to look after.
The crew was separated from the passengers, when they all disembarked, and was well treated for the two days they all had to wait until their plane could leave again.
What happened to the passengers during those two days was the reason for the flight attendant’s story.
All the small towns within a 75 kilometer radius of the airport closed all their high schools, meeting halls, lodges and any other gathering places, and turned them into mass lodging areas. High school students were required to give their time to take care of their guests. All elderly passengers were taken to stay in private homes. Medical assistance was provided, where necessary, and even a dentist was available. Passengers were taken on tours, bakeries provided them with fresh bread, and local residents provided meals. Even launder-mats gave free coupons, since the passengers’ luggage was still on the plane.
When they all finally got back on the plane and took off, a passenger asked the flight attendant if he could use the PA system. He asked for donations to set up a trust fund under the name of Delta 15, to give college scholarships to the people of their host town in Greenland, Lewisporte. The total collected came to $14,000, and one passenger said he would match it.
Today, the trust fund stands at $1.5 million, and has assisted 134 students in higher education. It gives me goose bumps.