Amid the horrors of the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, multiple stories emerged about feats of heroism and acts of kindness. As The Day The World Came To Town shows that generosity of spirit extended well beyond the borders of the United States, as ordinary people watching the tragedy unfold, felt an overwhelming need to do something … anything …to help.
Almost 1,500 miles from Manhattan, the inhabitants of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, found themselves playing a key role in the response to the September 11 attacks.
When the entire North American airspace was shutdown that morning, all inbound flights were diverted to various locations in Canada. Thirty eight civilian planes and four military flights ended up at Gander International Airport which had, in the days before jet planes, been an essential aviation hub.
At one time, nearly every transatlantic flight had to stop there to refuel before continuing to their final destination. That changed with the advent of larger planes able to hold more fuel. Gander’s airport went into decline though it remained a preferred emergency landing point for aircraft facing on-board medical or security issues.
No-one at the airport, or on the island of Gander could have predicted the scale of the emergency that confronted them on September 11, 2001.
Almost 6,700 passengers and crew from Greek, Italian. French, British and German airlines arrived during the course of the day. Tired, confused, disorientated and afraid, they were all met by volunteers from Gander and surrounding communities as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon.
A Community Responds
In The Day The World Came To Town, Defede introduces us to many the local people who, for the next six days, housed, fed and entertained their unexpected visitors. In extraordinary acts of kindness, they emptied their linen cupboards of spare sheets and towels, offered their showers and their cars to strangers, providing them with practical help and emotional support.
They helped children cope by organizing a large party, complete with games, a cake and costumed characters. The local school gave access to all its computers so passengers could contact family and friends and reassure them they were safe. The local pharmacist spent 30 hours sorting out prescriptions free of charge to replace medication that was stuck in the planes along with the passengers’ luggage. And school bus drivers abandoned their strike action so they could drive the passengers around the island.
Every business on the island of Gander joined the relief effort. One borrowed a fire truck to collect stuffed animals and toys from a warehouse and distribute it to the displaced children while others provided food free of charge. The Newfoundland telephone company set up banks of phones outside their building so passengers could make free long distance calls.
Blend of Humour And Sadness
The Day The World Came To Town is full of anecdotes of spontaneous offers of help. Full of individual stories about stranded passengers like the family returning from Kazakhstan with their newly adopted daughter or the couple who were supported by their new friends as they anxiously awaited news of their son, a New York firefighter.
Inevitably the stories are laden with sadness but there are also flashes of humour. I particularly enjoyed the story of two women who decided that camping outdoors (temperature about 8C) was preferable to sleeping in a crowded community centre among travel stained, snoring strangers. There’s also an amusing incident in which the CEO of Hugo Boss, a man normally found dressed head to toe in his brand’s high end clothing. has to go shopping for underwear. To his credit, when his team announce they’ve chartered a private jet to get him out of Gander, he tells them he’s staying put.
Wherever his fellow passengers went, that’s where he would go. However long it took them to get home, that’s how long he’d be gone. He was in this until the end.
Essentially this is an uplifting story, one of the few to emerge from the many tragedies of 9/11 but does Defede do it justice?
He certainly paints a clear picture of the logistical challenge of feeding and housing so many people at short notice. He also brings out the human dimension, particularly the many acts of individual kindness shown by the “Newfies” to their temporary residents. But I found his style frequently irritating, especially his tendency to switch tenses mid paragraph or even within the same sentence. As an example we’re told: “Although her English is only fair, Mayor Roth introduced herself to various people at the school and thanked them for everything they were doing.”
The Day The World Came To Town would also have benefited from an epilogue describing what happened after the planes had all departed. We learn that many passengers gave donations as a thank you to the people who had looked after them so well and the head of the Rockefeller Foundation (a stranded passenger) arranged a large donation for Gander’s school and church.
What we don’t get to find out is whether any of the friendships made during that extraordinary period continued once the crisis was over. That omission doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a fine piece of journalism, but would have made a fitting ending.
The Day The World Came To Town by Jim Defede: Footnotes
Jim DeFede is a broadcast journalist who works as an investigative reporter for CBS4 News in Miami Florida and also hosts the station’s Sunday morning public affairs programme.
The Day The World Came To Town is his first book and is based on extensive interviews with residents and officials in Gander. It was published in 2002 by Regan Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
I came across this book as a result of Non Fiction November where it was mentioned by several bloggers. I thought it would be a good counter to the often harrowing account of 9/11 presented in Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff that I read earlier this year. I think I’ve now read as much as I can face on this topic,