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."
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said it was an honour to help.
"People like us, around the world, wanted nothing more than to show our allegiance and our appreciation for the people of the United States in their time of tragedy," she said.
"We remain proud to have helped you during your difficult time and proud you have become our friends — friends who share an extraordinary bond."
Many Newfoundlanders wonder what all the fuss is about. On a tiny island in the fierce North Atlantic, being a good neighbour was often a matter of survival.
"For the best part, we are very giving people and we tend to help each other without thinking twice," said Gander volunteer Beulah Cooper, 70.
She took three stranded passengers into her home and offered showers to several others when she wasn't helping at a makeshift shelter in the local Royal Canadian Legion hall.
One of those travellers was Monica Burke, a 911 dispatcher from Seattle who returned for the memorial service.
"People do think it is a special thing and people want to let them know that we do remember it and we do appreciate it," she said in an interview. "And although they might not think it's special, we do."
Diverted aircraft also landed at airports in Moncton, N.B., and Halifax.
In the Nova Scotia capital, 40 planes carrying 8,000 passengers lined the runways and employees worked round the clock to assist them.
In Ottawa, an open-air concert "of hope and remembrance" began at precisely 8:46 a.m., the moment the first plane hit the first World Trade Center tower.Several hundred attended, including Jean Chretien, who was prime minister when the attacks occurred.
After the concert, Chretien recalled how 100,000 Canadians turned out on Parliament Hill to express their solidarity with Americans in the days immediately following 9-11.
"I remember, too, the Friday, rather than have a service in a church, we decided that it was to be open, that we were not to go in hiding and we had 100,000 people on the Hill," he said.
Chretien said one of the most moving times of his life was the total silence that followed his request for three minutes of silence.
"People praying in their own faith for the American people."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in New York to attend anniversary events at Ground Zero, formally designated Sept. 11 as a national day of service to pay tribute to 9-11 victims and volunteers. Memorial events were also held in Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, Calgary and other communities.
In Montreal, Quebec Premier Jean Charest unveiled a plaque at the city's centre for international trade.
“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.
U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Harper last week thanking Canadians for their help, saying Canada showed itself to be a true friend during one of the darkest moments in U.S. history.
Obama paid special tribute to the residents of Gander.
"We remember with gratitude and affection how the people of Canada offered us the comfort of friendship and extraordinary assistance that day and in the following days by opening their airports, homes and hearts to us," Obama wrote.