We pause to remember the thousands of people, most of them Americans, who lost their lives in the terrorist hijackings of commercial jets on September 11, 2001, 15 years ago today, in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
The attacks caused federal officials to close US airspace: all airways over the United States were shut down, and planes that found themselves outside US airspace weren’t allowed to come in.
Air traffic controllers advised planes to land at their earliest convenience, wherever they were. More than three dozen planes diverted to the international airport in the town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, with a population of a little more than 10,000 people.
One flight, Delta 15, landed and found itself amid 20 or so other planes that had already landed. Then passengers were told what had happened in the US, but officials had to keep them on the plane until 11 AM on the morning of September 12.
When they deplaned and were processed by Canadian authorities, they were taken to hotels. The 218 passengers from Delta Flight 15 were taken in school buses to the town of Lewisporte, about 45 kilometers from Gander. Authorities were expecting an influx of about 10,500 “plane people,” according to an email message written by a member of the flight crew.
Yet the people of Gander and Lewisporte opened their arms and homes to the stranded passengers. Bakers made bread. Nurses made a local urgent-care facility available. Dentists were even available. Local schools were closed, as passengers had to live for a few days in their classrooms and gymnasiums.
When the flight was finally allowed to resume to Atlanta, some two days later, passengers felt so much gratitude for the people of Lewisporte that a scholarship fund was established so high school students from the area could afford college.
According to Shirley Brooks-Jones, one of the passengers aboard Flight 15, that fund, which was initially set up by a doctor from Virginia, is now endowed in an amount close to $1 million. More than 200 students reportedly have received college scholarships through the fund. She said in an NPR interview:
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, PhDs. It’s wonderful. I mean, I just can’t believe—I have to pinch myself and think, gee, Shirley, is this really happening?