Remembering 9/11 Twenty Years LaterSep 10, 2021 07:32PM ● By Crash Gregg
On that fateful morning 19 years ago, September 11th, 2001, I was on a 15-hour flight from Brussels, Belgium, heading back to Raleigh, NC via JFK. At 9:42am, we were flying directly over New York City. Without warning, our pilot suddenly banked the plane hard to the right. People, bags, laptops, and drinks tumbled into the aisles. The cabin door to the cockpit slammed shut and our flight attendants stood directly in front of it. A few minutes later, the caption’s noticeably tense voice boomed over the din of people shouting and yelling. He apologized for the abrupt turn and told everyone to remain in their seats with seatbelts fastened. Then silence for what felt like an eternity. Finally, he informed us that our plane was being diverted for an emergency landing on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. We had no idea why. Our jet circled endlessly over the Gander International Airport, watching plane after plane land, with ground officials trying to accommodate all the diverted aircraft. Finally, it was our turn and we were on the ground. Then we waited. And waited. Our plane sat on the tarmac – with no explanation of what was going on – for over 16 hours. More than 6,600 other passengers and crew on 38 other aircraft were stranded alongside us.
pulled out a small battery-powered radio and we managed to pick up a Canadian French radio station. After some translating, we finally realized what had happened to the Twin Towers. The World Trade Center was no more. Terrorists, planes, fallen buildings, thousands dead. The world was shaken but we still weren't able to grasp the magnitude of the event from just a voice on the radio. I had one of the few cell phones on the plane that picked up a signal. While we were trapped on the runway – and throughout our six-day stay in Newfoundland – I offered my phone to anyone who wanted to call family or friends and let them know they were safe and sound in this faraway land. I have to include a big thank you to Verizon (then Alltel) for waving the $5000+ in cell phone roaming fees from the hundreds of hours we used.
During our time on the plane before we finally disembarked, each person aboard all 38 grounded planes had their background checked for any terrorist ties before we were all allowed to exit, more than a day after we landed. Residents from the small nearby town of Gander brought food, diapers, medicine, and other necessities to the planes, which were carried on board by the Canadian military police. After we were finally allowed to leave the planes, the townsfolk were amazing people. Without any hesitation, they found a place for everyone to stay, nearly 7000 of us. We were given refuge in the few small motels nearby, in school gymnasiums, people’s homes, and anywhere a makeshift bed could be set up. The townspeople brought so much food, casseroles and cakes, soup and sandwiches, and everything in between. They donated piles and piles of clothes, toiletries, blankets, pillows, sheets, and everything they could to make us comfortable. To understand our impact on this small town, the number of passengers and crew members was equivalent to about 66% of the Gander’s entire population of roughly 10,000. I had the pleasure of meeting Gander Mayor Claude Elliot. We spoke about what had happened in New York and Washington DC, about Gander and its people, and what this may mean for the future.
The citizens of Gander could not have been more welcoming, friendly, and compassionate. I shared a very small two-person hotel room with three other passengers: a young pilot from Brussels (who later realized he had attended the same flight school in Florida as one of the terrorist pilots), the Athletic Director for the Florida Gators, and a neurosurgeon from Austria. We still didn't have a grasp on exactly what happened until we had a chance to watch the news on a small TV in a local pub near our motel. The gasps from those seeing the horrific images for the first time were so deep they were almost tangible. No one spoke for what felt like hours. Hearing the news via radio and seeing the moving imagery on TV were two entirely different experiences. By this time, it had been almost two days since the attack. It was very surreal, and we felt like we were somehow caught in a strange shared nightmare. My stranded roommates and I ate and drank together, we explored the town, and rented a car to drove around the fishing island of Newfoundland. I’ve stayed in contact with my pilot roommate to this day. He and his family still live in Belgium. Newfoundland is a beautiful, yet stark and desolate island, with more fishing shacks, scrub brush, and rocks than people. The sea cliffs and coves were hauntingly beautiful and quiet, as were the sunsets and sunrises along the coast. While traveling throughout the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, we also witnessed beautiful waterfalls, beaches, and glacial fjords. I'll admit it wasn’t one of the places on my travel bucket list, but I’m thankful for the remarkable experience, even though the reason for being there was painful. I would like to go back there again someday for a visit.
I missed my son who had been born in April, my family, and my friends back in Raleigh, who all felt a lifetime away. We were stranded in Gander for five more days while even more extensive background checks were completed on everyone. Once those were completed and domestic airspace was once again open, we were given the all-clear to return to the States. We were told that our plane was the first commercial flight back into U.S. airspace. It was an eerie feeling walking into the Atlanta airport with the captain and crew and nary a soul in the entire airport other than staff who welcomed us back into the country with cheers and hugs. It was a feeling I had not experienced before or after, until flying post-COVID, with many airports nearly as empty. Our diligent Delta Air Lines captain, who made sure we were all comfortable and safe throughout our stay, wished us well and shook everyone's hand as we parted ways. The events of 9/11 and our detour to the small town with a big heart will forever be a part of me, and the amazing kindness and open arms of the people of Gander is welcome evidence that genuine humanity is still alive and well.
It was a beautiful, yet stark and desolate place, with more fishing shacks, scrub brush, and rocks than anything else. The sea cliffs and coves were hauntingly beautiful and quiet, as were the sunsets and sunrises along the coast. I missed my son who had been born in April, my family, and my friends back in Raleigh. We were stranded in Gander for six days while even more extensive background checks were completed on everyone. Once that was completed and domestic airspace was once again open, we were all given the all-clear to return to the States. We were told that our plane was the first commercial flight back into U.S. airspace and it was an eerie feeling walking into the Atlanta airport with the captain and crew with nary a soul in the entire airport except personnel who welcomed us back to the United States with cheers and hugs. Our diligent Delta Airlines captain, who made sure we were all comfortable and safe throughout our stay, wished us all well and shook everyone's hand as we parted ways. The events of 9/11 and our detour to the small town with a big heart will forever be a part of me, and the amazing kindness and open arms of the people of Gander shows that kindness is still alive and well out there.
During these trying times of the pandemic, political divisiveness, civil unrest, and economic recession, it’s more important than ever to consider what others are going through and do what we can to be part of the solution, not add to existing problems. Be kind. Be considerate. Be aware. No matter where we live, how we look, or what we do, we’re all human and the exact same on the inside. If we can learn how to show true compassion and empathy to ALL our neighbors, near and far, the better off we will be as a whole. We’re in this together. We can learn a valuable life lesson from the people in that small town of Gander. Thank you for taking care of so many strangers – without question or hesitation – as if they were family and for setting a remarkable example of what humanity can truly aspire to be.
Editor's Note: The photo quality isn't that great as these photos were taken in 2001 with a small portable camera