GANDER, N. L.—There are no rental cars in Gander, N.L.
There are no rental cars anywhere near Gander, for that matter. Not in Gambo, not in Lewisporte, not in Grand Falls-Windsor, not even in Corner Brook. Not a one.
But Matt Molloy, the marketing co-ordinator for Adventure Central Newfoundland, has been making phone calls anyway, trying to find a car for a complete stranger.
There may be a dealer in town who might be able to rent one of his used cars, he says. And the Town of Gander is looking into the possibility of lending one of their town vehicles to the stranger.
Suddenly, a fortuitous cancellation, and a car is available in Grand Falls-Windsor, just over an hour’s drive from Gander.
Talking to the stranger, a Toronto Star journalist, from his phone in Grand Falls, Molloy is offering — on his day off — to drive the hour into Gander, pick him up and drive him all the way back just to pick up the rental car.
Many things may have changed in Gander over the past 20 years, but some things still remain the same.
Twenty years ago, on Sep. 11, 2001, when the spotlight was at its harshest, Newfoundland shone its brightest when Gander and surrounding towns took in 7,000 passengers from airplanes rerouted and downed at the nearest airport as the Twin Towers burned in New York.
Seven thousand people were suddenly thrust upon a town whose population was only 9,300. And yet those “plane people” were sheltered, fed, clothed, entertained and comforted by a community whose members immediately put their lives on hold to help others in distress.
The stories of those five days in September have entered Canadian lore. They’ve been immortalized in documentaries and Broadway musicals — “Come From Away” posters are ubiquitous in Gander.
In those five days, Gander showed the world — at a time perhaps when it needed it the most — there were corners of the planet where kindness and compassion are baked into people’s character, where the question of whether to help another in need is not a question at all, merely a concept at which to cock an amused eyebrow before saying, inevitably, “Course b’y.”
Today, almost everyone you talk to in Gander and region will tell you those five days in September haven’t changed them at all; that they were brought up that way, that they would have done the same the week before 9/11 and — 20 years later — that they would do the same tomorrow.
But look deep enough, and one of the things that has changed is that so many now have deep lifelong bonds with people they would otherwise never have met, and those bonds, forged in the crucible of tragedy, are stronger than they might ever have imagined.
Claude Elliott was Gander’s mayor during those five days.
He’s retired now, which doesn’t mean he’s sitting still. At 71, he’s a big, powerful-looking man, bushy grey eyebrows over blue eyes creased with laugh lines etched in at the corners.
He plays golf most mornings, and twice a day, most days, he walks the four-kilometre trail around Cobb’s Pond Rotary Park, where he now sits. That’s impressive considering he walks with a slight limp, courtesy of a childhood bout with polio.
Elliott spent those five days in September 2001 in the town’s emergency operations centre, helping to keep the wheels turning on the town’s largest logistical undertaking, so, though he would check in on the various sites each day, he didn’t have the personal experiences that many had.
Instead, he tends to emotionally connect with the plane people in the collective.
“That first day we had 7,000 strangers,” he says. “The third day we had seven thousand friends. And on the fifth day, we lost seven thousand family members. That’s how close we became to those passengers.”
It’s an oft-used line of his, well-polished in the telling, but no less moving for its shine.
He will tell you stories of those five days in September and tell them well; alternately funny and tragic and moving. He’s been telling these stories for two decades now and he’s good at it. He skips from one to the next effortlessly.
That is, until he reaches the end of his tales, the part when the last planeload of passengers takes off from Gander International Airport, the end of an epic marathon, a town finally heaving a sigh of relief after running for five days solely on adrenalin and goodwill.
This is the point where he recalls seeing the town empty, and the point at which his eyes begin to tear up.
“I went home and I sat down and I just looked at the television. And I just sat there and cried,” he says.
“I think it was more out of ... You were wondering what those people were going back to, right?
“I knew if those people stayed in Gander, they’d be looked after. But they were going back to their country and many of them were skeptical of what they were going back to. ‘Should I go home? Should we not?’ And we had to reassure the people that things would get better.
“But you were worried that ... look, if they were here they wouldn’t be hurt. But they’re going back to a country of uncertainty.
“And I think that’s what the sadness was that we felt. Almost like your child leaving home and you’re thinking, ‘Is he or she going to be fine?’
“And you sit there and you just cry and you try to say, ‘Can I keep them there,’ you know? I know they’d be safe here.”
Those were five crazy and good days, he says. And when they were over, Ganderites went back to their normal lives and thought they would never hear from the plane people again.
They could not have been more wrong.
Beulah Cooper is sitting at a table in an empty Legion Hall in Gander. She’s quick with a story, quicker with a joke and has more cheerful energy than someone half her age — she’s 80 years old, she doesn’t mind telling you.
“I’ll tell anybody my age, but don’t ask me weight,” she laughs.
Without closing her eyes, she can picture, like it was yesterday, that same Legion Hall as it was 20 years ago, with 67 plane people crowding the floor and her moving among them helping to feed them and to comfort them.
The corner behind her is where she first met Hannah O’Rourke and her husband, Dennis. They were frantically calling New York, trying to locate their son, a firefighter. Beulah offered to take them into her home, but Hannah insisted on staying, afraid she’d miss a call that would tell them her son was safe.
Over the days that followed, Cooper took O’Rourke under her wing, telling her jokes to distract her when she could, and offering her comfort when she couldn’t. The two women grew close, bonded by the fact that Cooper’s son was also a firefighter.
Not quite two weeks after they’d met, on Sept. 24, O’Rourke called Cooper from the U.S. They’d found her son’s body in the stairwell of one of the towers. Twenty years have passed, but still Cooper chokes up, pulls a tissue from her purse as she remembers that call.
“She phoned me, and she said, ‘He’s gone.’ I said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
When Cooper’s son Aubrey died four years ago of work-related cancers, it was her turn to call O’Rourke, and the two women again grieved together.
They talk almost weekly, and when producers invite them to another opening of “Come From Away,” they always sit together. They hold hands and each and every time they shed a few tears together and share a lot of laughs, like it was the first time they saw their story played out on the stage.
“Out of something tragic came something beautiful,” she says now, sitting in the Legion Hall. “I mean, the friendships that were made. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
“I can’t imagine my life without J,” says Kelly Sceviour.
“J” is Jeanette Gutierrez, a 9/11 survivor from New York, Sceviour’s best friend.
“She’s truly one of my best friends in this life. And we do always say it: ‘How did this become our lives, that something so terrible brought about something so beautiful.’”
On the morning of 9/11, Gutierrez was working in a building near the Twin Towers when the attacks occurred. Her sister called her and convinced her to leave the building, which was subsequently destroyed when the towers collapsed.
The two first met when Gutierrez travelled to Gander on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and Sceviour saved her from having to eat a small fish that was a mandatory part of a screeching-in ceremony, a tradition that makes one an honorary Newfoundlander.
Gutierrez sought her out afterwards. “I owe you a beer,” she said. They made an instant connection over dinner and drinks and they’ve been “sisters from another mother” since.
They swap Snapchat videos every single day to say good morning, and often a few times during the day as well. They make plans together, they travel together and they stay with each other in Gander and New York when they visit.
And yet, it gives Sceviour pause for thought that the thing she finds so beautiful, that she cherishes so much, has its seeds in something so tragic.
She remembers her first visit to the 9/11 memorial, remembers the first thing she saw was a destroyed fire truck and she remembers bursting into tears at the sight.
It really hit home then, she says, that the story of 9/11 in Gander has a markedly different tone than it does in New York.
“We have a whole different story,” she says. “We have that compassion-and-love kind of story. (New York) is the darkness. There’s the evil there. I think that’s almost the hardest thing sometimes, that we have made so many friends, that so much has come from that. But really, it started with evil.”
And yet, somewhere between those two stories, Sceviour and Gutierrez met, connected and their friendship blossomed.
“She always says, ‘You know, the terrorists, they thought they won, and they didn’t.’ We have so many connections from it. And for me, I can’t imagine a day not having Janet in my life now because she is the most vibrant person I know.”
Derm Flynn, the mayor of Appleton during 9/11, leads the way down into their basement. Here, he and his wife, Dianne, housed two of the six plane people they took in during those five days in September. The town itself, population about 570, took in 100 people from 14 countries when the planes landed.
There’s scarcely an inch of the wood-panelled walls that isn’t covered with framed photographs of Newfoundland scenes, and in the corner to the right, as you come in the door, is a portion of the wall dedicated to autographed posters of several of the “Come From Away” performances to which they’ve been invited.
Here, in his basement, is also is where Flynn’s Whisky Bar is located, behind which sits not only the now-expected “Come From Away”-labelled bottles, but also the newer, COVID-19-themed “Stay Where You’re At” bottles.
Legend has it that during those five days, three Irishmen walked into the Flynns’ house, and while waiting to take a shower, discovered the whisky bar. Legend also has it that they left some time later, never having gotten around to showering. They returned the next day, not for the shower, but for the whisky.
One of those Irishmen, Joe McCourt, became a very close friend. Twenty years later, he and the Flynns still talk regularly, often on impulse — to swap stories of the ups and downs of their lives.
Tom McKeon, who was sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the Flynns’ basement, is another they consider part of their family. When he got married a few years later, he invited the Flynns to join him in the Czech Republic for the wedding.
Like most, Derm says taking in strangers and making them family was just something that they do, because that’s the way they were brought up. But he also says that Newfoundlanders here had the benefit of being able to take some kind of action, while the rest of the country had to sit helplessly and watch.
“Twenty years ago, we did what we did because we were in the right place at the right time and we were able to help some people,” he says. “And we weren’t asked if we could help. It was just sort of thrust upon us. And people responded in a very positive way.
“But I always say: The local people were probably as much in need of something as the people that were getting off the planes.”
That being said, Derm noticed an odd thing, especially in the years following the release of “Come From Away” — kindness and compassion has become something of a tourist industry in Gander and area.
Generally, people travel for three reasons: the weather, the sights — natural, historic or artistic — or the culture. Nobody travels to Gander for the first two, he says.
And when he asks visitors why they’ve come, he says many of them tell him it’s because of what they’ve seen in “Come From Away.”
“A lot of them say to us they’re coming for the experience, the kindness or the reception that those people got,” he says.
There’s an inescapable conclusion: essentially, nowadays, tourists are travelling thousands of miles to have people be nice to them.
“And they hope to see a moose,” adds Dianne.
If there’s been one major change in Elliott’s life over the past 20 years, it’s that he’s far better travelled now than he was before
Most of that comes courtesy of the producers of “Come From Away,” who delight in inviting Ganderites represented in the musical to attend performances of the show in New York, London, Toronto and Sydney, among others.
Elliott’s seen “Come From Away” 85 times he says. At this point, he knows most of the script by heart, certainly those of his character in the play. When asked, he refuses to sing any of it — a decision for which his friends say we should be thankful — but he can and will recite some of his character’s lines verbatim.
“I’ve been all around the world with ‘Come From Away.’ And this is what people tell you,” he says. “We need to be more like you people.
“And I think today that’s what the world’s missing. We look around our world today, and we’re living in a troubled world. And we need to be more compassionate towards people.
“We don’t have to agree with everybody. But I guarantee you, if you’re hungry, I’m going to bring you in and give you something to eat. If you have nowhere to sleep, I’ll provide somewhere for you to sleep.
“And I think today that what we need to get back to in the world is showing a bit more compassion to other people, even though we can have a lot of differences.”
Steve McKinley is a Halifax-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @smckinley1