When 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace on September 11, the population of this small town on Newfoundland Island swelled from 10,300 to nearly 17,000. The citizens of Gander met the stranded passengers with an overwhelming display of friendship and goodwill. As the passengers stepped from the airplanes, exhausted, hungry and distraught after being held on board for nearly 24 hours while security checked all of the baggage, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the townspeople. Local bus drivers who had been on strike came off the picket lines to transport the passengers to the various shelters set up in local schools and churches. Linens and toiletries were bought and donated. A middle school provided showers, as well as access to computers, email, and televisions, allowing the passengers to stay in touch with family and follow the news.
Over the course of those four days, many of the passengers developed friendships with Gander residents that they expect to last a lifetime. As a show of thanks, scholarship funds for the children of Gander have been formed and donations have been made to provide new computers for the schools. This book recounts the inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Canada, whose acts of kindness have touched the lives of thousands of people and been an example of humanity and goodwill.
I can’t say enough good things about this moving, uplifting book. It documents human goodness and kindness in the face of tragedy, and is, pure and simple, a marvelous listening experience.
As the book opens, we meet an assortment of passengers and crew members from the 38 planes, as well as some of the locals in Gander. The initial chapters recount the start of these flights from Europe to various points in the United States, and the slowly spreading news that some sort of catastrophe in the US has forced a closure of all US airspace, requiring all planes in the air to land elsewhere. Gradually, the pilots and then the passengers start to learn about the terrorist attacks. The fear and disbelief and outrage are palpable, as is the very real fear that — given all the unknowns of events still occurring — there could be terrorists on board any of the planes still in the air.
As the planes land in Gander, we see the amazing efforts and generosity of the townspeople, both those in official capacities as mayor or police officer or customs official, and those who are simply people whose hearts are open to the strangers who arrive by the thousands in their small town.
The acts of kindness are beautiful to hear described. Townspeople drop off towels and linens by the carload at the shelters, with no thought of getting them back. Local pharmacists work round the clock to contact passengers’ physicians around the globe so that they can get copies of their prescriptions and make sure they have their needed medications. Local animal shelter volunteers care for the stranded animals who’d been in transit in the airplane cargo holds. A local retailer is instructed by headquarters to give the “plane people” everything they need, no money necessary. Toys are delivered, so that every single child from the planes has a new toy to play with. When it’s discovered that two Orthodox Jews are among the passengers, extraordinary efforts are made to make sure kosher food is delivered for them. The care and love, given so freely to complete strangers, is just beautiful.
Two of the most moving stories are about passengers going through extreme stress in an already stressful situation. First, there’s the couple returning from visiting relatives abroad whose son is a New York firefighter. They know he was likely one of the first responders who entered the towers, and through the time of their stay in Gander, his fate remained unknown. Second, there’s a couple from Texas on the way home from weeks in Kazakhstan where they’d just adopted a daughter. What should have been her first entry into the US and an introduction to her new life turns into an extended stay in a shelter with parents she barely knows. In both cases, as with really everyone there, the support they receive is heartwarming and unforgettable.
The book is filled with story after story of the amazing interactions between the “plane people” and the “Newfies”. The book was published just about a year after 9/11, and the author includes some follow-up in the epilogue to let us know how certain people’s lives changed since those fateful days. I’d love to know now, so many years later, how they’re doing, and whether the bonds formed in Gander have stayed strong over the years.
The Day the World Came to Town is an amazing listen. No matter how many years have gone by, the images from 9/11 remain indelible. and I found it particularly chilling to listen to the chapters which described the initial attacks and the various ways in which the passengers and flight crews heard the news. Despite the sorrow of the tragedy, this book is a lovely reminder of the good that exists in the world and the huge difference small acts can make.
First, a big thank you to author Dana Stabenow, whose review of this book on her blog is what made me find a copy in the first place!
Second, the musical Come From Away, now on Broadway, is also based on the events in Gander during the week of 9/11. I’ve heard such wonderful things about the show! I really hope to get to New York in the coming year — and if I do, seeing Come From Away will be high on my “must” list!
Title: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland
Author: Jim DeFede
Narrator: Ray Porter
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: September 3, 2002
Length (print): 256 pages
Length (audiobook): 6 hours, 27 minutes
Source: Purchased (Audible)