Sept. 11: The worst and best of humanity, and remember the generosity of strangers

It has been 20 years since the attacks on 9/11, and we all have memories of that day that are still vivid. Let me tell you our story.

It was a lovely day in London on Sept. 11, 2001, and Peggy and I were preparing to return home after a two week stay in the United Kingdom. It had been a delightful trip visiting friends and touring sites in Wales, Scotland and England.

We were booked on Delta flight 11 from London to Atlanta and then to Phoenix. Boarding was smooth and take-off on time with a likely early arrival in Atlanta. We had been upgraded to first class and enjoyed a nice meal and some wine. Watched a movie and then followed the progress of our fight on the TV screen as we approached North America. Passed St. John’s and heading south to Halifax, Boston and Atlanta. Then I felt the 777 making a hard right turn.

My wife and I both have pilot’s licenses and during my 22 years in the Air Force, I logged over 1,000 flying hours in a variety of aircraft including the F-105, F-4, F-15 and F-16. The captain came on the audio and stated, in a firm voice, “This is your Captain!” He repeated that statement and I expected him to say we had a mechanical problem and we were headed to Gander (the longest landing strip in Newfoundland) for an emergency landing. I was wrong.

He announced, “The United States has been attacked by terrorists and we have been ordered to land at the nearest airfield. That is St. John’s, Newfoundland. We are preparing to make a heavy weight landing in a field we have never seen. I will keep you informed as we get more details.” Some captains were not as honest with their passengers and used an excuse of a mechanical problem.

Our fight was the third to land, and as we looked out the window, we saw plane after plane land and taxi to a parking spot. A total of 24 aircraft landed in St. John’s, with another 60 landing at Gander. 

St. John’s is the capital of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is one of the oldest cities in North America with a population of 106,000. It is also one of the loveliest cities you will ever visit. It has an international airport. In 2001, two fights a week from Toronto to London would stop and two fights a week from London to Toronto would stop. There was one Canadian Mountie to do customs. Suddenly he had 24 aircraft, and 5,000 passengers, and crew to handle.

We spent the next nine hours on the plane. The 24 captains left their aircraft and met with local authorities to determine a course of action. St. John’s was the minor league franchise for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they had just built a new hockey stadium. The Montreal Canadiens were in town for fall training and the fans, for the two teams, had filled every hotel — An interesting logistical issue.

(Courtesy photo)

The decision was made to evacuate each plane, one at a time, transport the passengers to the hockey arena, and then disperse them to schools, churches and other sites that could handle a crowd. The attempt was to keep passengers from each plane together, as much as possible, so when the skies opened they could be found and returned to the airport for departure. 

When we de-planed we found that the entire town had opened their arms for their unexpected guests. All we could take with us was what we could put in our pockets and one purse for the ladies. In the terminal were tables covered with home-made food and a telephone console to make calls to family and friends. The organization at the hockey arena was superb, and Peggy and I ended up at The Hub for the Handicapped. They had volunteers, food, blankets and pillows. We, for the first time, could see the pictures from New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. I was glued to the TV. It was past midnight when a young lady, who had volunteered, told us that her aunt and uncle wanted to know if anyone wanted to come to their house. We said yes and that is how we met our dear friends, Ashton and Cavell Stanley. Their home was in a lovely part of town. Their one son lived in Orlando and we took his bedroom. They provided exactly what we wanted. Peggy wanted a bath and I wanted a beer. Over the next three days, they showed us their beautiful city.

During those three days we saw a tremendous outpouring of compassion and humanity. One example: As we were walking around the neighborhood near The Hub, we passed a small house with two elderly ladies sitting on the porch. They called to us and asked if we were “the plane people.” We said yes and they invited us over to join them in a cup of tea. Charming. 

On Friday, the air-space opened and we left St. John’s for Atlanta. The terminal was full and we were treated as returning heroes. Eventually, we found a flight to Phoenix and made it home many days late but glad to be home. We have remained friends with our Newfie hosts and have made two trips back to St. John’s to tour the Province. In return, we hosted Cavell and Ashton in Arizona and took them to the Grand Canyon. When we returned, in 2011, The Hub threw a gala reception to honor our return. The volunteers and political leaders joined the party. The St. John’s Telegram did a full page story on our return visit. The head line, “Arizona couple headed back to St. John’s; Friendship from tragedy.”

What we found that week was the worst of humanity, attacking innocent people, and the best of humanity, in St. John’s, where people opened their hearts and homes to strangers.

Editor’s note: Dr. Leonard Kirschner is a retired Air Force colonel, a past president of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, and a past president of AARP Arizona.

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