20 Years On, the ‘Come From Away’ Town Holds Its 9/11 Memories Close
A total of 38 planes were directed to land in Gander. Its population almost doubled as hungry, tired, confused and scared passengers from 95 countries flooded the small town.
One day, 20 years ago, almost 7,000 passengers and crew descended from the sky and landed in a small town (population: about 9,000) in Newfoundland. An island province on the eastern edge of North America, here, generations of fishermen and loggers had long carved out a life, resilient against the wind and the waves, forming community amidst the isolation, and always taking care of one another. And now, on Sept. 11, 2001, as the world’s airspace closed and planes were forced to land at the nearest available airport, these Newfoundlanders would be charged, on short notice, with the wellbeing of travelers from across the globe.
Two decades later, for Derm and Diane Flynn the emotions of those days are still very real. Sitting at their dining room table, the late-summer light quickly fading outside, our plates are filled with steaming seafood and greens. Pan-fried cod, which they caught themselves in waters within walking distance of this comfortable house. Peas, from the garden in their backyard.
Six people—Germans, Israelis, Americans—spent five days in this home, sleeping on couches and air mattresses and doubled up on the double bed in the spare bedroom. Dozens more “plane people” came here to shower, or to grab a quick bite. Earlier, Diane showed me photos sent by the Israeli couple, when they had their first baby, and of Tom, and Neil, who shared the basement, and who they chatted with on separate calls, just in the last couple days. “For us, it was no effort, we took it for granted,” says Diane, tearing up a tiny bit, the emotions washing over her just for a moment. “But we could see just how much it meant to them.”
Although Gander is thousands of miles from New York City, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the events of 9/11 continue to have an impact here, and in surrounding communities like Gambo, Lewisporte, and Appleton, where Derm was mayor for 17 years. A total of 38 planes were directed to land at the international airport in Gander, once one of the largest in the world, parking wing-to-wing and quickly filling up all of the available space on the tarmac. Overnight, Gander’s population almost doubled, as hungry, tired, confused and scared passengers from 95 countries flooded into a town with only a few hundred hotel rooms.
Watching their TVs and listening to their radios, the town sprung into action. Residents found space in their homes, made thousands of sandwiches, and gathered up everything these new arrivals could need, from pillows and blankets to underwear and toilet paper. The events are depicted in the Tony-award winning musical Come from Away, which debuted on Broadway in 2017. (On Sept. 10, Apple TV will release a live recording of the stage production.)
“I was driving around in my cruiser and people would stop me and say, ‘Oz, I have to do something,’” recalls Oswald Fudge, then the town constable, who is depicted as a character (of the same name) in the play. “The whole ice surface of the hockey rink was filled with frozen food,” adds Brian Mosher, then a high school communications teacher and a television reporter whose stories form the composite character named Janice Mosher.
Both have seen the musical at least 40 times. The show has had successful theatrical runs in a number of cities around the world—London, Toronto, Melbourne—and Mosher, Fudge, the Flynns and a number of others travel for openings, sharing their true stories at associated meet-and-greets and Q&As. But the most memorable performance was a single show, at the Gander Community Center, when Ganderites and those from surrounding towns got to see the production for themselves, for the first time, before it opened on Broadway. “You should’ve heard the reaction in the room, it was like thunder, everyone rising up,” Fudge remembers. Brian Mosher was there, too. “Everyone had tears streaming down their faces.”
The musical has kept the stories alive and been something of a boon for local tourism, with fans traveling here to meet the real people behind the characters. They visit the airport, and its departures lounge, a 1959 mid-century modern holdover from the glamorous earlier days of air travel. The room, opened by Queen Elizabeth, features Mondrian floor tiles and furniture by Eames, and Jacobsen, plus a massive mural called “Flight and its Allegories” by renowned Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead. And they learn about Gander’s heyday, when almost everyone on an eastbound flight—from Hollywood stars to royalty—stopped here, their planes refueling before the hop over the Atlantic.
Of course, some of the stories from that week remain largely untold. Heading to Rosie’s, a popular local restaurant, for Sunday lunch (a tradition in Newfoundland: roast beef or turkey, mashed potato and dressing, salt beef, all covered in gravy), I line up with other patrons. Chatting with the friendly hostess, she mentions that a guy named Cory Smith would be a good source. “He did all the logistics with the planes, kept them running,” she says.
I meet Smith at a fixed-base-operations center that he manages, passing down a hallway and through a giant hangar housing a yellow water-bomber—the kind of plane used to fight forest fires—en route to his office. On that Tuesday in September, he came into work at 7:30 in the morning. As it turned out, he wouldn’t leave until days later, on Saturday night. Initially, everything was tough, Smith noting that they didn’t even have the right size of airplane stairs to get everyone down to the tarmac.
The challenges continued. During the delay before passengers disembarked, Smith and his team fixed air conditioning units and lavatories, making life easier for those on board. Afterward, they remained in constant contact with flight crews, and kept the planes ship shape, anticipating their departure at any time. Those days remain a bit of a blur for him, operating all week in fight-or-flight mode. But Smith says that in the intervening two decades, he’s done plenty of reflecting. “The more time that passes, the more emotional I get about it,” he says. “Those days had an impact on me.”
Finishing up dinner back in Appleton, the Flynns take me from their house, a few blocks down the road to a green, placid park lining the Gander River. Partially built with donations from “plane people” who spent time in Appleton, it’s now named the Derm Flynn Riverfront Peace Park. There’s a playground, and a 1,000-pound piece of steel from the Twin Towers. Every year since 2001, this park has hosted a memorial service, and many have returned from across the globe to pay tribute.
Gander also hosts a similar ceremony, as do other local communities. Sept. 11 is never far from the memories of those in this remote corner of the world. “That week, people came here to get some space, to stare out on the water and think and cry,” says Diane. “People would tell us, ‘It’s so peaceful here.’” Now, the sun just setting, boats coming on off the water, the last rays of the day reflecting off that steel beam, the peace is pervasive tonight, as this park prepares to welcome the world, once again—just a small slice of it—for the 20th time.