September 3, 2009
September 11, 2001 St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
Mid-morning of September 11, 2001 the world was startled by the crash of two jets into the World Trades Center, New York, attacks against the pentagon in Washington and the crash of a fourth plane in Pennsylvania. All air traffic in the United States was brought to a halt; air traffic in Canada was also stopped except to receive hundreds of jets from Europe en route to North America.
More than 17,000 passengers and airline staff landed at the five Newfoundland airports. St. John’s airport reached maximum capacity when 27 commercial planes, carrying approximately 4300 passengers and crew, landed. The province implemented its EMO plan. Through many hours passengers and crew were taken to Mile One stadium where they were “processed”. They were welcomed by hundreds of volunteers from hundreds of church, community, public service organizations and individuals. Their every need from a hot bowl of soup, water, medical, communication (telephone), rest and more were met. Sleeping accommodation for such large numbers was a feat yet to be met. Space was made available in hotels, school gyms, church halls and private homes. Preference was towards keeping larger groups together rather than have the “plane people” scattered all over town. No one knew when the planes might be able to take off again.
In the early evening we watched the terrible events of the tragedy unfold before us on the television news. We heard the plea from EMO for accommodation for the “Plane People”. Just across from our living room window sat the Littledale Conference Center – empty. Over the years it had housed hundreds of student teachers, nursing students and countless men and women who participated in conferences and meetings of many kinds. Since June, 2001 the Center was closed and much of the furnishings including bedroom and kitchen furnishing had been disposed of. We were living in hope that the complex might soon be sold and abtain a new life with a new owner!
After a brief consultation with Mrs. Buckingham, the Manager of the Littledale conference Centre, we decided that we could accommodate forty people. A call from EMO at approximately 8:00 p.m. confirmed that we would receive this number from Continental Airlines, Flight 0067, en route from Heathrow, London, England to Cleveland, Ohio, USA. ‘Operation Welcome’ was set in motion!
By 9:00 p.m., with the help of some 25 Sisters of Mercy from our city houses and the maintenance and security employees of Littledale Conference Center, and under the direction of Mrs. Buckingham, forty beds were prepared. Linens and towels were taken from their storage places, the floors and rooms were dusted and all was ready for the guests.
At 12:00 midnight a yellow bus pulled up with the tired and mesmerized passengers. They had no luggage and carried only the small blanket and pillow from the plane. The travelers included men and women from the USA, United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Israel. Some were fight crew from another American carrier which had transported American soldiers to England and were now returning home.
All were fatigued and almost unaware of what was happening to them or where they were. In Creedon Residence lounge the television drew the weary travelers like a magnet – they could finally find out what was so affecting their lives. Each “plane person” was registered, given a key to their room and invited for a ‘comfortable cup of tea’ or snack. We accompanied them to their rooms, answered questions, offered telephone service and listened to their stories of shock, concern, anxiety. Our hearts and our home were open to them and we wanted to help in any way that we could.
For the next few days the passengers of Continental 0067 waited patiently and anxiously for direction as to departure and return home. Everything was tentative. Midway into the next morning they were permitted to go to the nearby shopping mall to pick up some essentials. Clerks at Walmart said that there was a marvelous run on socks, underwear and razors! Hopes were high in the passengers that they would leave before night-fall.
Another night passed – they could venture a little further and longer – to Bowring Park, downtown or the mall. They were to report back by 1:00 p.m.
Another night passed –the group was beginning to settle in and not build up such high hopes. They knew that no planes were moving into the USA. Also, there was news of a tropical storm moving north. We planned a kitchen party for the evening and the group was entertained by a group of musical volunteers and cajoled into singing and dancing and the experience of a Newfoundland ‘Kitchen Party’. One small group had been treated to a fish dinner at the Captain’s Table in Witless Bay- they got both parties into their agenda! It was remarked that the group was developing friendships with people who prior to this disaster were sitting back to each other on in an airplane. We noted how the group had moved tables together for a more intimate ’family-like’ atmosphere. They seemed to linger longer and were playing card and board games when they were not out or watching television. A second television set was set up for those who did not want to constantly watch the news channels.
Again another night passed and the Saturday weather was superb. Some of us and other volunteers took small groups on scenic tours of St. John’s, Quidi Vidi, Cape Spear and Petty Harbour, Torbay, Middle Cove and Portugal Cove. The passengers were thrilled to see some of our beautiful province and vowed to return with their families. They were most grateful and appreciative of all that was done to make them comfortable and safe.
Some specific needs were met – Hindu couple who had special dietary needs – cooked for themselves in our kitchen. Contact made with a local Hindu family who took them to their home for meals and companionship. Some Jewish people were put in touch with the Jewish Synagogue for celebration of the Shabbat. We had a prayer service in our chapel. – both our chapels were made available to the passengers and were frequently used by them..
Meals were provided by different church and social groups- some of them even came to set out and serve the meals.
On Sunday, Sept. 16 the bus came to Littledale for the passengers around 5:00 p.m. to take them to Mile One where they would once more be processed before getting on their plane. At last, those who were stranded were finally going home or to their planned destination. They are different because of this unexpected stopover! We were changed by it too. The whole world was changed by 9-11, the date that represents a big story in the history books of our civilization.