September 11, 2001 is a day that will live in our collective memory for quite some time. It was certainly a day of tragedy in in several places, however for some, the tragic events which unfolded in the United States also proved to be a catalyst for amazing shows of solidarity and the strength of the human spirit. One place where this spirit could be seen shining brightly was in humble Gander, Newfoundland.

Gander calls itself the “Crossroads of the world”. In the past, the airport in Gander was used as a key refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights, but as technology evolved and planes improved, the refueling stop was no longer needed. The airport is still used as an emergency stopping point for planes with passenger health or security issues though.

Gander, Newfoundland. Image: Shawn / CC-BY-SA-2.0

There are not a lot of things to do in Gander. Tripadvisor lists only 14 things of interest in the entire town (compared to 1230 things to do in Toronto ). It is not a major tourist destination and much like the rest of the world, it was certainly unprepared for what happened on September 11.

Gander as shown by Google Earth – as you can see it is a bit out of the way.

On 9/11, after the planes were hijacked and airspace in the United States was closed, Canada followed suit and closed theirs as well. This was the first time that Canada completely shut down its airspace.

Handling the planes currently in or near Canadian airspace was a serious security and logistical concern. When all planes with enough fuel to return home were turned away, there were still 224 planes and more than 33,000 passengers to deal with. Transport Canada rose to the challenge of landing the planes and keeping track of everyone in something they called Operation Yellow Ribbon.

Planes on the tarmac of the Gander airport after September 11. Image: Craig Fisher / Vimeo

Tiny Gander saw 38 planes come there as part of the Operation.

All together, this meant thousands of new people were coming into a town that normally had only 10,000 residents—thus increasing the population by more than fifty percent overnight! As a local resident said, “On September 11th, we had 38 aircraft with a total of 6,656 people drop by for coffee, then stay for three or four days.”

The town had 500 hotel rooms at the time, so there was no easy way to house these people. Fortunately, the people of Gander had a solution – good old-fashioned east coast hospitality. Citizens of Gander and nearby communities opened their homes to the unexpected visitors. Schools and community centres were turned into spaces to sleep, and donated food piled up to feed the unfortunate people who had never expected to be visiting this small town.

Stranded passengers waking up on Sept. 13, 2001, in the gymnasium at Gander Academy, an elementary school in Newfoundland. (Scott Cook/Canadian Press)

Gander’s kindness acknowledged

The kindness of the citizens of Gander and the surrounding area was returned as well, with passengers sharing the story of how a small town was a beacon of hope in a very tragic time. The passengers even started a scholarship fund for local students attending post-secondary education. A website, was started so that the passengers and crew who stayed at Gander could share their stories, comments, and their thanks.

Here’s one comment from Dennis and Shirley Spanek.

Stranded in Gander, TWA flight 819, was given a gift, a lesson in humanity, kindness, and hospitality during our short stay. With all the madness in the world to fall into a community of such care. The world could take lesson from you folks!! Thanks Gander, Masonic lodge, Jerry, Mona, Ness, Uncle Bob, your all family now. We will take this spirit you showed us and move it on to others whenever we get the chance. This will be our way to show our appreciation for your kindness, keep that spirit moving.

If you think this sounds a bit hard to believe, you’re not the only one. The story of Gander has even found its way to Snopes, the Internet’s site for finding the truth in urban legends. Spoiler alert – it’s all true.

Gander Airport on a regular day. Image:

Part of the 9/11 legacy in New York

While it started quietly, Gander has become an increasingly large part of the 9/11 story. The story of Gander is being told in the 9/11 Memorial in New York, and a piece of the steel from the World Trade Center has been brought to Gander.

You may have even heard of a new musical about Gander and what happened there, which has recently started its run on Broadway: Come from Away.

Thanks to the big hearts of the folks in Gander, every year when September 11 rolls around we are not just reminded of the terrible things that human beings can do to each other, but also the amazing capacity for human kindness and generosity.