were about five hours out of Frankfurt, flying over the North Atlantic.
As a member of the cockpit crew, I was in my crew rest seat, taking a
scheduled break when, suddenly, the curtains were abruptly parted and
I was told to go to the cockpit, right now, to see the captain.
When I got there, I noticed that the crew had those "all-business" looks on their faces. The captain handed me a printed message. It was from Atlanta and simply said, "All airways over the continental U.S. are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport. Advise your destination."
When a dispatcher tells you to land immediately without suggesting which airport, one can assume he has reluctantly given up control of the flight to the captain. We knew it was serious and we must find terra firma quickly. It was decided that the nearest airport was 400 miles away, behind our right shoulder, in Gander, Newfoundland.
A right turn, directly to Gander, was immediately approved by the Canadian traffic controller. We learned later why there was no hesitation.
While we, the in-flight crew, prepared for an immediate landing, another message arrived, telling us of some terrorist activity in the New York area. A few minutes later, having completed some landing preparations, I learned that some airplanes had been hijacked and were being flown into buildings all over the U.S.
We lied to the passengers for the time being, telling them we had an instrument problem that forced us to land at Gander. There were many unhappy passengers -- par for the course.
We landed at Gander about 40 minutes after receiving the first message. There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground, from all over the world.
Parked on the ramp, the captain announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have. But the realisy is that we are here for a good reason." He went on to explain the little bit we knew about the situation in the U.S. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. It was 12:30 p.m. local time at Gander.
No one was allowed off the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed near us. Only a car from the airport police would come around occasionally, look us over and go on to the next airplane. In the next hour or so, all the airways over the North Atlantic were vacated and Gander ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, 27 of them flying U.S. flags.
Each plane had to be offloaded, one at a time, with foreign carriers given priority. We were 14th in the U.S. category with a tentative deplaning time of 6 p.m. Bits of news came to us and we then learned that airplanes had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon.
People were trying to use their cell phones but could not connect due to a different cell system in Canada or because U.S. lines were blocked or jammed. Late in the evening we heard that the World Trade buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacked plane had crashed.
Now the passengers were totally bewildered and emotionally exhausted. But they stayed calm because they could see they were not the only ones in this predicament. We also told them the Canadian government was in charge now. At 6 p.m. we were told we would be deplaned at 11 the next morning. That took the wind out of the passengers and they resigned themselves to a night on the plane. Gander promised whatever medical attention might be needed, as well as medicine, water and lavatory servicing. They were true to their word. One passenger was 33 weeks into her pregnancy and we really took good care of her.
About 10:30 a.m. we were told to prepare to leave the aircraft. A convoy of school buses approached, the stairway was hooked up, and the passengers were taken to the terminal for "processing". The crew was taken to a different section of the same terminal where we were processed through immigration and customs and then registered with the Red Cross. Then we were isolated from our passengers and taken in vans to a very small hotel in Gander. We had no idea where the passengers were going.
Gander has about 10,400 people. Red Cross people said they would be processing aboaut 10,500 passengers from the airplanes forced into Gander. We were told to relax at the hotel until a call came to return to the airport -- but to not expect that call for a while.
We found out the total scope of the terror back home only after getting to see TV at the hotel -- 24 hours after it had all started.
We enjoyed going about the town and we enjoyed the hospitality. The people were so friendly and we were always known as "the plane people". Two days later, at 7 a.m. on the 14th, we got the call to return to the airport. We got there at 8:30 a.m., flew out at 12:30 p.m. and arrived in Atlanta at about 4:30 p.m.
What the passengers had to tell us was uplifting and incredible.
Gander, and the surrounding small communities within a 75 km radius, had all closed their high schools, meeting halls, lodges and any other large gathering places. They converted all these places to mass lodging areas. Some had cots set up; some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows. All the high school students took care of the guests.
Our 218 passengers ended up in a high school in Lewisporte, about 45 km from Gander. If any women wanted to be in a women-only facility, that was arranged. Families were kept together. All elderly passengers were taken to private homes -- as was the young pregnant woman, across the street from a 24-hour, urgent care type place. Doctors were on call and male and female nurses stayed with the crowd. Phone calls and e-mails to the U.S. and Europe were available to everyone once a day.
Excursions were provided to those who wanted them, including cruises of nearby lakes and harbours and trips to the local forests. Bakeries stayed open to provide fresh bread. Residents prepared and brought food to the visitors who preferred to stay put. Others were driven to eateries of their choice. They were given tokens to wash clothes at the local laundromat -- their luggage was kept on the aircraft. Every effort was made to meet the travelers' needs.
Passengers were crying as they related these stories.
And as this adventure ended, every single one was delivered to the airport -- not one missing, not one late. This was because of the excellent work of the Red Cross who kept track of everything. Absolutely incredible.
When the passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise. They all knew each other by name. They swapped stories, impressing each other with who had the better time. It was mind-boggling. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a party flight -- we simply stayed out of their way. The passengers had bonded and were exchanging phone numbers, addresses and e-mail address.
Then a strange thing happened. A business-class passenger, a doctor from Virginia, asked if he could speak over the PA to his fellow passengers. We never, never allow that. But something told me to agree, this time.
Picking up the microphone, the gentleman reminded the passengers of the events of the past few days and the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He had a suggestion for saying "thank you" to the good folks of Lewisporte. He said he wanted to set up a trust fund under the name of Delta 15 (our flight number) to help high school students of Lewisporte go to college. He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travelers.
The result was a total of US $14,500 -- about $20,000 Can -- which the gentleman said he would match and get the administrative work done on the scholarship. He also said he would forward the proposal to Delta Corporation and ask them to donate too.
Why all of this? Because some people in a far away place were kind to a group of strangers who literally dropped in on them unexpectedly one day. Why not?