WASHINGTON - The tiny Newfoundland town of Gander was at the heart of an American love-in on Thursday as a 9-11 commemoration event in the U.S. capital paid tribute to the kindness and generosity of the community during one of the bleakest moments in the nation's history 10 years ago.
"Canada is a true neighbour in every sense of the word and particularly after that event," Leon Panetta, the U.S. defence secretary, told the exclusive event at the Newseum, next door to the Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Gander "is a town, as all of us know, that provided comfort and welcome," he said as the crowd of several hundred, including several American movers and shakers, burst into applause.
His warm remarks echoed those made earlier in the day by congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who welcomed the mayor of Gander, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador and other officials to the U.S. capital.
"The dark and murderous actions by terrorists ... brought deep and profound changes to both our nations and across the world," said Slaughter, a Democratic congresswoman.
"Ten years later, it's important we remember the other story of Sept. 11 - the story of how in our darkest hour, the world's better angels brought comfort, peace and love to a nation in need. And the people of Gander, Canada, are our world's better angels."
Slaughter, who represents a congressional district in upper New York state, introduced a resolution Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives thanking the citizens of Gander, and all of Canada, for the help they provided to the United States in the immediate aftermath of the deadly attacks.
Her heartfelt praise came at the beginning of the day-long summit paying tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and those who reached out a helping hand.
Gander received an international resiliency award at the event, a gala hosted by the Center for National Policy and the Voices of September 11th that was considered one of D.C.'s hottest tickets during a week of painful commemoration.
Mayor Claude Elliott and a handful of Gander officials received a standing ovation on Thursday night as they appeared at the event.
He told the crowd that Gander did not reach out with such generosity to their neighbours for recognition or reward, but because "we are human." Their actions proved, he added, that love and kindness will always trump hatred and violence.
Peter MacKay, Canada's defence minister, told the event that Canada has not forgotten 9-11.
"As an Atlantic Canadian, I know how connected our communities feel to the pain and sorrow that affected so many Americans that day and thereafter," he said in the summit's keynote Canadian address.
"We remember Sept. 11, and we will work - as friends - to honour the memory of its victims and their families, and to move forward together as the closest of friends and partners."
Gander, a town of nearly 10,000 people, opened its heart - and its homes - to 6,700 airline passengers and crew members who were stranded in Newfoundland after all flights were grounded in the chaotic aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
Schools and meeting halls were quickly transformed into shelters by Gander officials. Residents welcomed stranded travellers into their homes for hot showers, warm beds and hearty meals.
They offered use of their vehicles; town pharmacists filled prescriptions at no cost. Local businesses donated food, toys, toiletries and clothing. The Gander Canadian Tire was told by head office to provide whatever was necessary for free to the stranded travellers.
The remarkable events in Gander profoundly moved the Americans who spent time there, prompting books and documentaries, while also serving as a positive antidote to the tensions that developed between the U.S. and Canada in the months and years following 9-11 over border security, immigration policy and other issues.
"They restored my faith in humanity," says Kevin Tuerff, a Texan who started a "pay it forward" tradition at his company, EnviroMedia, because he was so touched by the kindness of the Newfoundlanders.
Each year on Sept. 11, Tuerff gives teams of two employees $100 and time off to perform good deeds for strangers ranging from paying for a senior citizen's prescriptions to baking cookies for school crossing guards. The initiative has spread to other businesses over the past several years.
In his morning appearance on Capitol Hill, Elliott remembered how bewildered many of the stranded passengers were following the attacks.
"You have to remember, most of those people had not heard of Canada; a lot of people had no idea where they were," he said.
"Coming to a strange land, people worried about their loved ones back in the United States.... We wanted to make those people feel comfortable and happy."
But he was also humble in the face of Slaughter's glowing compliments.
"Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world forever, but it didn't change the people of Gander and surrounding areas and the way they operate," Elliott said.
"Kindness, love, compassion is something people do throughout the province on a day-to-day basis .... No matter what the world offers, if any time there's a tragedy, you feel free to drop by Gander. We will be here, willing to help your people in a time of need."
Kathy Dunderdale, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, echoed Elliott's sentiments.
"We saw and were grateful for an opportunity to help in some way," she told Slaughter. "We weren't surprised by what the people in Gander were doing; it's characteristic of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador."
Slaughter pointed out that the decade following 9-11 has been a "terrible one" for the United States.
"The bright spot that we can all hold onto was the gracious and wonderful way that we Americans were treated in Canada," she said.
"I had not ever even imagined such an outpouring of love and support from perfect strangers as we saw there."