GANDER, N.L. — It was an open-hearted bear hug from famously giving people — an act of faith that restored hope in humankind for passengers stranded 10 years ago on 9-11 in Gander, N.L.
Several grateful travellers whose planes were diverted to this central Newfoundland town on Sept. 11, 2001, returned Sunday for an emotional memorial service as similar events took place across the country.
They wanted to thank Newfoundlanders and other Canadians who answered the terrorist attacks on the United States, not with fear or suspicion but with kindness for strangers.
“It’s something that I haven’t found any place else, and I’ve travelled the world,” Elaine Caiazzo of Bethpage, N.Y., said of the welcome she found in Gander.
“The people were so kind to us. There was nothing that we had to do for ourselves. Everybody kept asking us: ’What can we do for you?”’
Beside her at the Gander memorial service was Jennie Asmussen, also of Bethpage and another returning passenger. Asmussen was an employee of a Manhatten investment firm two blocks from the World Trade Center towers when the planes struck.
“I knew a lot of the people who died there,” she said. “It just hurts me when I think about it.”
Gander was one of several Canadian communities that sheltered thousands of people on about 200 international flights that were diverted when the U.S. closed its airspace after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
At the Gander memorial service, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson said there was no way of knowing whether those planes had terrorists onboard.
“You did not flinch. You took the planes. You took the risk. You welcomed all. The same was true across the rest of Canada. You affirmed our faith in the goodness of people. You were the best of us.”
In Gander, the sudden influx of 6,600 passengers and crew on 38 jets nearly doubled the population.
Residents here and in nearby Gambo, Lewisporte and other towns welcomed strangers into their homes. Prescriptions were filled without charge, and schools and church halls became shelters.
Americans made a point of acknowledging that generosity with a poignant gift: two pieces of twisted, scarred steel from the World Trade Center.
They were donated by firefighters in Bethpage and by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The pieces were dedicated Sunday to the memories of New York firefighters Brian Hickey and Kevin O’Rourke, who both died responding to 9-11.
They will be part of a memorial at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander.
“Good can outfight evil any time,” Gander Mayor Claude Elliott said during the memorial service. “Human kindness and love and compassion are what our world is lacking today.
“We need more of it.”
“We need to look ahead now, I think, with a renewed determination for tolerance and peace and openness if we want to avoid this kind of thing happening again,” said Charest.