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In Wake Of Sept. 11 Tragedy, Rerouted Passengers Find Resilience In Gander


On September 11, 2001, Shirley Brooks-Jones was a passenger on Delta Flight 15 from Frankfurt to Atlanta. And a few hours into that flight, they were told they had to be rerouted because of a mechanical problem and have to land in Gander, Newfoundland. When they landed, they saw dozens of other U.S. commercial airliners that were parked on the runway, and eventually they learned why - the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center at the Pentagon and a flight that crashed in Pennsylvania that closed down U.S. airspace. Shirley Brooks-Jones is one of an estimated 8,000 air passengers who would find themselves essentially stranded in Gander, a town of 10,000, for the next three days. It proved to be one of the most emotional and enduring experiences of their lives, and lead to a lasting relationship. Shirley Brooks-Jones joins us now from WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHIRLEY BROOKS-JONES: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: So you were sitting on the flight. And what do you remember?

BROOKS-JONES: Sitting on that flight and really wondering why we had to land because the captain had told us it was just a minor problem with the equipment. Once we landed and got parked he came back, apologized for the ruse and said actually, the equipment is fine. However, there's a national emergency in the United States. All the borders are closed and the airspace is now under the control of the military. A plane has gone into one of the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon has been hit, and something has happened outside of Pittsburgh. He told us then that we had to land because all planes were to be out of the air.

SIMON: And you were there with thousands of others, you found out, right?

BROOKS-JONES: Yes, yes. There were 38 jumbo jets sitting on the tarmac at Gander. And Gander is - it's an international airport, but it's really quite small.

SIMON: So what did they do with all those people?

BROOKS-JONES: We sat aboard the planes until we were allowed to get off. Actually, they didn't know what they were going to do with all of us. Gander has, you know, like, fewer than 10,000 population. Where are they going to put all of us? So the mayors of all of the little towns all around, the ministers of the churches and the Salvation Army all got together and tried to decide what they were to do with all - they called us the plane people. What are they going to do with all of those plane people?

Well, each of the little mayor - or the mayors of the little towns would say, well, we can take X number of passengers and somebody else - well, we can take blah, blah, blah (ph). And I was assigned to the little, tiny town of Lewisporte, which is about 30 miles away from Gander. But they welcomed us like they had known us forever. And essentially, they closed down all those little towns. The schools were closed. They closed up all of the non-essential businesses and everything. Everybody from the older people to the middle-aged, the school kids, even the little tiny kids, they all came to help the plane people. They brought in towels and washcloths and sheets and pillows and blankets from their own homes because we didn't have our luggage.

SIMON: You must have been desperate for news from America.

BROOKS-JONES: We were. Actually, we had not seen any pictures of what had happened until we got to the different locations. Where we were there in Lewisporte, the mayor had arranged to have satellite televisions installed in every location where we were. We stayed in schools and churches and service clubs and things like that. Also, banks of telephones were installed so that we could call home wherever home happened to be. There was never a charge for it. There was never a limit on how much time we could spend. It didn't make any difference where you were in the world. You were free to use that.

SIMON: What was it like when you had to leave and got back on board the plane?

BROOKS-JONES: That was really hard. Everybody was crying. I mean, the men and the women, I mean, the passengers, the little kids. We didn't want to leave, you know? We didn't. We wanted to continue, but we really were having a great time with those Newfoundlanders.

SIMON: And a scholarship exists, right?

BROOKS-JONES: A scholarship exists, yes. When we got the word that we were going to leave, all of us, in one way or another, no matter where we were staying, we tried to leave some money because we knew they couldn't afford to do what they had done for all of us. Nobody would take anything from us. So we get back on plane and one of the passengers, a Dr. Robert Ferguson, who was a physician, said, you know, I learned while I was there that many of the students just dropped out of school. And I said, why? And he said, because there are no jobs.

All of a sudden, a light bulb went off in my head. Why don't we see if we can't start an endowed scholarship fund? And I said, let's make up some pledge sheets. So captain says, this is great, he'll be the first make a pledge. Picked up the pledge sheets of something over $15,000 U.S. that the people had pledged for this.

As of this year, that fund is approaching something like a million dollars. Two hundred and twenty-eight kids from that little tiny area of our world, the Lewisporte area, which is Lewisporte and the 14 outport villages that feed into it, 228 kids have received that scholarship. And they are amazing young people. There are three or four of them who are now MDs. There are a number of them who have gone on for advanced degrees - you know, master's, Ph.D.s. It's wonderful. I mean, I just can't believe - I have to pinch myself and think, gee, Shirley, is this really happening?

SIMON: So much of the worst of humanity was seen on that day.


SIMON: What do you think you've seen?

BROOKS-JONES: I witnessed the best of humanity, I kid you not. Those people - they didn't have to do it, but they cared for us. You know, it was just - I experienced the best. I really truly did. And I've always felt that most people are good. They just simply reinforced that with me, that no matter how little or how much you have, there's goodness in people and the Newfoundlanders have it. They have got it like you would not believe.

SIMON: Shirley Brooks-Jones. She runs the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BROOKS-JONES: Thank you so much for inviting me. It's been a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.