08/28/2011 04:30 EDT | Updated 10/27/2011 05:12 EDT

Passengers stranded on 9-11 want to thank Canadians who restored their faith

GANDER, N.L. - Gander International Airport in Newfoundland was once a cosmopolitan crossroads where transatlantic flights carrying everyone from world leaders to Humphrey Bogart touched down to refuel.

Its modernist lounge with geometric flooring and sleek furniture is a trip back to 1959, when the Queen opened it as an avant-garde ode to the glamour of air travel.

But Gander's global prominence faded when jumbo jets started criss-crossing the Atlantic non-stop. Traffic at the sprawling airfield — a former Second World War staging point — dwindled to cargo planes, military flights, emergency landings and the odd private jet.

Then 9-11 hit.

As terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, closed American air space, 38 passenger planes heading west over the Atlantic with more than 6,500 passengers and crew were diverted to Gander.

Almost 10 years after those stranded people arrived in the international lounge, bone weary and shaken, many are planning to return. Some of them say it was the best detour of their lives, a safe harbour of welcome and warmth amid chaos and shock.

"I'm just going back to tell everybody there: Thank you," said Monica Burke. The police dispatcher and 911 operator was on her way home to Seattle from Dublin when her flight suddenly headed for Newfoundland, a place she had never seen or planned to visit.

"Everybody in the town put their lives on hold so they could take care of us," she said of Gander. "We just descended from the sky and landed on their doorsteps."

Striking school bus drivers laid down their picket signs to drive the unexpected guests around. Pharmacists filled prescriptions for free. Shop owners declined payment. The arena at the Gander Community Centre became a giant walk-in fridge for food donations.

"If you think of the logistics involved, it's pretty spectacular what they were able to put together," Burke said of the town — population 10,000 — and nearby communities like Gambo, Lewisporte, Appleton and Norris Arm.

It was about 12 hours on the Gander tarmac before Burke cleared heightened security and was bused, with no access to her checked-in luggage, to the local Royal Canadian Legion where she saw on TV what had happened that day.

"I remember my work supervisor saying: 'Where are you?' and I said: 'Somewhere in Canada.'

"At some point I broke down crying because finally everything hit me. I didn't know where I was, I didn't know when I was getting home, all this stuff had happened to my country and I was stranded."

That's when Gander volunteer Beulah Cooper, who's as quick with a joke as she is to lend a hand, stepped in.

Burke and two other women stayed at the Cooper home, while about a dozen other passengers who were camped out in schools and community halls came over for showers.

Of all the people she helped during those five non-stop days, Cooper's heart especially went out to Hannah and Dennis O'Rourke. They had also arrived from Dublin and were desperately awaiting news of their son, Kevin, a 44-year-old New York City firefighter.

"We drove around town a bit and we talked about the duties of a firefighter, as my son was a firefighter at the time," Cooper said after flipping through albums of photos and thank-you cards.

"But I also realize that Gander's not New York."

Dennis O'Rourke says he will always be grateful for how the people of Gander helped him and his wife cope.

"They were just unbelievable the way they treated us up there," he said from his home in New York. "They fed us, and put us up and if we needed anything, they'd get it for you.

"It reminded me of years ago when I was a kid. You didn't lock your houses or anything like that. I was just amazed. It was like going back in time."

Several days after the O'Rourkes returned to New York, their son was found in the rubble of the World Trade Center. He had been trying to rescue people trapped in the north tower.

Gary Tuff was acting manager of safety and security for emergency response services at the Gander airport on 9-11. Officials kept an eye on the burning twin towers on a TV in the emergency control centre, he said.

"Shortly after the buildings collapsed, you could hear all the man-down alarms from the firefighters going off like birds chirping in the background. It sent an eerie thought through us in the firefighting service that know what that will have meant there. Heavy, heavy casualties."

Air traffic controllers used an aircraft divergence plan from Y2K — the response to computer chaos anticipated on New Year's Eve 1999 — to smoothly land and park the influx of jets.

Const. Oz Fudge, a Gander police officer, remembers being called to the airport as about 1,000 spectators gathered to watch the big planes coming in.

"There was one after another," he said. "I'm looking at this and I'm saying: 'Oh my God. Each one of those planes must have anywhere from 200 to 300 people on-board.'

"I think reality really kicked in at that point."

Humans weren't the only passengers that needed care. Bonnie Harris, manager of the Gander animal shelter, worked flat out with staff and volunteers tending to nine dogs and 10 cats, including an epileptic feline, and a cocker spaniel puppy named Ralph who would go on to become an American show champion.

Two rare Bonobo monkeys en route to a zoo in Ohio had their own handler.

Harris and two other women initially crawled through piles of luggage to reach pets held deep in the cargo holds of the planes. Some animals had gone about two days without food or water, she said.

They were moved into an airline holding area where they could be fed and exercised.

Harris's only regret is that in the mad pace of those days, she forgot to pin notes to the kennels asking owners to let her know their pets arrived safely. Most of the dogs and cats had apparently been shipped on their own, or their owners were on flights diverted elsewhere.

"It would have been nice to have a picture of them with their family," Harris said.

Like many Gander and area residents, Fudge is bemused if not embarrassed by international reaction to the region's outpouring of kindness.

"I mean, Newfoundland and Labrador, up through the years, we've never had a lot. What we've had, we've always shared. And I think that's just the way in which we were brought up.

"When we saw what was happening, we just said: 'Well, we've got to help.' "

Fudge is especially touched that Gander is to receive at least one section of World Trade Center steel, a gift of thanks from the Bethpage Fire Department on Long Island, N.Y.

Gander Mayor Claude Elliott said the steel will be part of a 9-11 memorial at the local North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Several stranded passengers, Canadian and American dignitaries, and international media are also expected to mark the 10th anniversary at a memorial service on Sept. 11, he said.

It will be a tribute to those who died, and to those who helped the living.

"As the passengers were leaving ... many people said that they had lost all faith in mankind," Elliott recalled. "But they said: 'After five days here in Gander, you've restored that faith in me.' And I think if there's one legacy that we'll be known for, it's that there are still good people left in the world."