Monday, 29 June 2015

Don's evacuation to Gander on 911

A Personal Memoir by Donald Alcock

11th-15th September 2001

News of the attack filtered quietly into the cabin of our 777: "This is your Captain speaking. We're getting reports about some terrorist activity in New York and we have to divert our flight to Gander. I don't know much more about the nature of this activity but I'll keep you informed."


Abrupt change of destination

I was on my way from Gatwick to Mexico via Houston. Gander is in Newfoundland, a long long way to the North. I had been there once before, in the propeller days, when aeroplanes could not fly the Atlantic in one hop. I did not particularly want to see Gander again, and recited to myself the nursery rhyme: "Goosey goosey gander, whither shall I wander..." which seemed appropriate.
We learned the horrible details of the attack bit by bit. The captain probably heard the news as it happened, but figured it might spread panic if he were to give it to us all at once. In that case he was probably right. We did not panic; just gaped at each other in disbelief. With a mind befuddled by sleep, a neck stiffened by economy class seating, I tried to put feelings of horror to one side and summarize my paradoxical situation: Half way from Gatwick to Houston a fanatical attack on the World Trade Center in New York had caused us to turn sharp right and fly a thousand miles North to Gander! It made little sense until we learned that every aeroplane flying over the US had to put down outside US airspace, and Gander could cope with the numbers.
Our situation engendered a solemn party mood in the cabin. The stewardess issued drinks with some generosity, and by the time it was my turn all the liquor had been drunk. I got a tin of gassy drink in a cold wet tin. And then it was time for seat belts and landing in Gander.

Gander Airport

Ours was no ordinary landing. After touch down we taxied along an endless row of aeroplanes, their high tails displaying emblems of numerous countries. As we taxied slowly along, rumour circulated that there was inadequate space for us at Gander, and that we would have to take off again, but this was just a rumour, the organization of aircraft movements at Gander was brilliant. We stopped at the end of a very long row of airliners. Some said there were 87 aeroplanes on the ground. Eighty-seven!
Word got around of a long wait to come. A long wait in our seats. We would have to take our turn at Security before the doors could be open for us to breathe fresh air. This particular rumour was justified; we sat in the cabin for hours and hours. Some said it was thirty hours since take-off until the doors were opened again, but I never verified this because time zones were all over the place, as was my brain. Anyway, it was a long, long time to be sealed up in the cabin of an aeroplane. But that was the worst part of our ordeal, which became a wondrous experience of kindness and generosity from the Canadian folk upon whom we had so rudely landed.

Eight thousand stranded

I learned there were eight thousand refugees distributed over the airports of Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia. Never before have so many stranded passengers been made so welcome and well treated.
We clumped down the steep steps of the mobile stairway to the tarmac where a huge policeman greeted me with a smile full of teeth and the question "Hello, Sir, and how are YOU today?" to which I replied, without rancour, "Well frankly a bit pissed off." This joke went down very well, and the laughter spread to a dangerous looking posse of armed Canadian police near by.

Medication supplied

After suffering a gentle but searching assault of my person by metal detectors - and a shameful public display of our most intimate medicines and toiletries all over the bench - we were shown through to a disused terminal building, now full of chairs and trestle tables manned by smiling Canadians who urged upon us sanwiches and cans of cold fizzy drinks. With eructation from the gas, and mouths full of sandwich, we explained who we were, where we lived and where we hoped to go. Then we were asked:
    "Are you on any medication?"
    "Yes, I take pills for high blood pressure."
    "Have you enough to last you a few days?"
Unfortunately I hadn't. They were in my case in the bowels of the 777. So I was asked to join several others who found themselves in a similar predicament. We of the sick parade were then cared for by kindly nurses and doctors who prescribed the medicines we lacked. Subsequently, when we were safely ensconced in our billets, a pharmacist came along and presented us with the necessary tablets. Nobody asked for any money.

To Gambo by school bus

After the interrogation we were shepherded onto a fleet of school buses and driven to our respective billets, typically a church hall because there are a lot of active churches in Newfoundland. My billet was not in a church hall; it was the meeting hall of the Society of United Fishermen (SUF) in a tiny town called Gambo. Happily this billet had a bar. A group down the road was billeted on the local fire brigade, which presumably had no bar but they quickly found ours. Clearly, some contingency plan was being enacted, but whose plan was it? Could anyone have foreseen eight thousand tired and hungry people descending upon them? Yet they were ready for us.

More than soup and bread

We were fed copiously and well. Soup and bread one might expect under the circumstances (indeed the soup was good) but here there were also apples, oranges, bananas and grapes. There were biscuits and cakes. There were casseroles and oven bakes. And nobody asked for money.
One morning I went to the serving hatch for some breakfast cereal, where the Canadian volunteer in charge of the billet asked me "How do you like your eggs? Boiled, fried, scrambled?" All eight thousand of us, it seemed, were able to choose how we wanted our eggs done! And nobody asked us for money.

Mixed sleeping

We ate at trestle tables. These were stacked against the wall at night - when army stretchers and blankets were laid out on the floor. We slept four nights on those stretchers. They are not designed as cots but rather as vehicles for the transportation of bodies. They do not make the most comfortable of beds but are more comfortable than a bare floor. I know that many of us slept well. A sonorous choir of snorers, forced to sleep on their backs by the strictures of the stretchers, bore loud testimony to that.

Idyllic weather

The weather was idyllic during those four days, and the Canadians saw to it that we should discover the beauty of their country. They drove us on sightseeing tours in which we admired the neat white timber houses and marvelled at views from high vantage points. We were shown the salmon ladders, the woods and the streams. They said we should return there when life was normal again, and go hunting moose, or even bear. (Some may well return to bag those moose and bear, but not me. As a boy I once shot a hare, which bleated so shrilly and tragically I knew I could never go shooting again. Moose and bear are safe from me.)
A few of us are old enough to remember the blitz on London and the spirit it engendered. I felt it again up there in Gambo. Personal comfort ceased to matter much; we made do with what we had packed in our cabin baggage. Soap, towels and razors supplied by our hosts. We chatted to each other like old friends, exchanging email addresses and planning reunions.

On the way home

On the third day a fleet of school buses called to collect passengers for the flights to be released next. As each batch of passengers left our billet there was general hugging and kissing, for we remained keen to depart despite the warm hospitality shown to us by our hosts - who joined, of course, in the hugging and kissing.
On the fourth day the rest of us were collected and driven to our familiar aeroplane, where the stewardesses lined up on the tarmac and welcomed us. More hugging.
In carrying out the operation there were one or two problems resulting from a lack of correspondence between the identities of passengers and corresponding bags in the cargo hold. It was the flight after having sat ready to depart.
everyone had to identify their bag before it this took an hour or so. But eventually the sums were got right and we flew out of Gander, happy but sad to say goodbye.

Superlatives

Our Canadian hosts would keep asking us what we thought of them, and we, in trying to answer, simply ran out of superlatives. I heard on the radio that the Canadian Premier (I think it was he) had expressed regret that his country had been unable to care for its guests adequately. My fellow refugees will surely agree with me that he should stop worrying immediately and accept thanks from our hearts for the overwhelming hospitality we enjoyed. But we shall remember, with sadness, the reason we were all there. 

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