The Day The World Came To Town by Jim Defede — humanity responds to inhumanity
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,
19 thoughts on “The Day The World Came To Town by Jim Defede — humanity responds to inhumanity”
I’ve had this saved to my audiobook library for a while – I’ve just been waiting for the right time, when I’ll have long stretches for uninterrupted listening. It’s “look for the helpers” manifest, such a wonderful story to come out of such a horrific circumstance.
Not sure how well this book would work in audio form just because it would be harder to keep track of individual names. But maybe that doesn’t matter too much
I think this is probably the only 9/11 book I would be able to face – I remember seeing it in nonficnov posts, too.
it’s certainly less harrowing than most accounts of 9/11
A useful reminder that the vast majority of people are kind and decent. If I’d read this I think I would have liked an epilogue, too.
Now, I almost never read non-fiction but this… well, I’m a sucker for this story. I adored the musical Come From Away as well.
I didn’t know there was a musical until I saw it mentioned here by Carol. It’s a source of astonishment for me what kinds of subjects are considered suitable for transferring to the stage.
It is MORE than suitable… it is, if you ask me, the BEST musical I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen tons (my mother was a HUGE fan of musicals, and I caught the bug from her). Cried from start to finish – both when I saw it on stage and when I saw it on TV.
Wow, well I shall certainly mention this to my musical loving niece
Spontaneous generosity can often be more catching and replicated than anything sanctioned under official organisation. I like the variety of responses you picked up on.
That was certainly the case with the first Covid lockdown in the UK. Some charities set up befriending services but they had to go through protocols so it took time – in the meantime neighbours just got together and did it all via What’s App. I’m still involved with one of our neighbours as a result
It’s stories like this that need to be heard. Thanks for sharing.
I wouldn’t have come across it but for Non Fiction November
This kind of book is always a difficult read. But it’s important to put a human face on inhuman events, so I’ll try to find this book. Thanks.
This wasn’t as difficult a topic as Fall and Rise – we knew the people were in safe hands.
I have been wanting to read this book. Thanks for the review, it gives me a good idea of what the book will be like. I hope that the content will outweigh the writing style. I also want to read about the area it is set in, so a bonus.
I did keep reading just because the content was so interesting Tracy – just had to put my frustrations with the style to one side
I loved this! Have you watched the Broadway musical, Come From Away, streaming on AppleTV+ ?
No I haven’t seen it and honestly I’m not likely to since I have a really strong aversion to musicals! I still shudder at the memory of being taken to see Evita on Broadway when I was about 22 – it was an ordeal….I know plenty of people love them (including my niece who can’t understand my dislike)