When international flights were diverted on Sept. 11, 2011, the population of Gander, Newfoundland suddenly doubled

Special to WorldTribune.com

Courtesy of Heartwarmers.

by Michael Smith

September 11, 2001, Shirley Brooks-Jones, a retired staff member at
Ohio State university and two hundred and seventeen fellow passengers sat
on Delta flight 15 from Germany to Atlanta, Georgia.

 

Officials and first responders arrive for a memorial ceremony Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada to mark the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. / AP

They sat in comfort, while unbeknownst to them, terrorists attacked
the United States of America.  Hijacked passenger jets, filled with hundreds
of passengers were flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center in
Manhattan, New York and into the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
The United States made the unprecedented move to shut the airspace
over the United States to all but military aircraft.  International flights
to the USA were diverted to Canada.

The small town of Gander, Newfoundland, was overwhelmed by
thirty-eight planes, carrying almost seven thousand passengers.  In a matter
of hours, the “plane people”, as they became known, nearly doubled the
population of the town.

A plea went out to the residents, “Please do what you can for these
people.  Come out, lend a hand, anything you can do will be accepted.”
Gander residents opened their homes, their stores, their schools and
their hearts.

On Delta flight 15, Shirley Brooks-Jones, her fellow passengers, plus
the crew, sat on the runway, unable to disembark. Captain Michael Sweeney
kept things under control. The air conditioning and bathrooms continued to
work and food was provided. After more than twenty-eight hours, they were
allowed to leave the plane and to meet an amazing population of people.
They were greeted with open arms.

I had the opportunity to speak to Shirley Brooks-Jones recently.  She
told a wonderful story of caring and love.

“Michael, you wouldn’t believe it.  The residents of Gander took people
into their homes.  Even in the stores, they wouldn’t accept our money.
People needed clothes, Walmart gave it to them.  Many people had
prescription drugs on their checked baggage, which they couldn’t take off
the plane; doctors examined them and wrote new prescriptions for free. The
prescriptions were then filled at local drug stores at no cost.

“One man said he was at the store getting supplies and the cashier
offered her home to them, so they could shower.

“It was amazing, Michael. I remember being on the bus to Lewisporte
from Gander, where we would be housed after we were allowed off the plane.
I looked at the scenery.  It reminded me of southeast Ohio, where I grew up
at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. I felt at home.

“The US airspace reopened on September 13th, but we didn’t leave until
the 15th.  We spent four wonderful days with our now extended family.”
On the flight to Atlanta, Shirley looked down at the small town of
Gander and nearby Lewisporte, thought about her wonderful experience there
and knew she had to do something.

She asked to speak to captain Michael Sweeney.  “Captain Sweeney, I
would like to make an announcement over the intercom.  I want to ask for
pledges to start a scholarship fund for the students of Lewisporte.  These
people can’t afford to send many of the kids to university.  I want to give
back what they gave us.”

Captain Sweeney, against rules, agreed to Shirley’s request.

Several people helped Shirley create pledge sheets, which they handed
out to the passengers.  At the end of the flight, they counted pledges
totaling more than fifteen thousand dollars.  An anonymous donor matched
the total.

The fund, called Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund and
managed by The Columbus Foundation has since raised more than one million
dollars and continues to grow.  (Website is here:  http://goo.gl/aydmC )

A committee in Lewisporte, made up by the principal, counselor and
teachers distribute the funds based on the guidelines agreed on by Shirley
and the Columbus Foundation.

The scholarships are given to children, as long as they maintain an
average of 85%, to receive help for further education.  They need to be
active in the community and write an essay as to why they want to receive
the scholarship. Some of the students have gone into the ministry, medical
fields, etc.

Since that dreadful day in 2001, Shirley has returned to Gander and
Lewisporte twenty-two times.  She returns for memorial services each year
on 9/11 and again in the spring to hand out scholarships.

When there, she walks through the streets and is greeted, “Hey,
Shirley!  You’re back.  It’s great to see you again.”

She’s part of their family — forever.
In 2007, Shirley received a call from a protocol office to announce
she was nominated to receive “The Order of Newfoundland and Labrador” and
asked if she would be willing to travel to Newfoundland to attend the
ceremonies.

Shirley said, “Michael, my knees weakened.  I almost fell to the
floor.”

The date for the ceremony was December 7, the day Japan bombed Pearl
Harbor.

Nine people received the award that day.  After the presentations, the
Lieutenant Governor held a luncheon.  During the luncheon, a lady walked up
to Shirley and thanked her for all she had done for their community.  She
then added, “You may not know this but you where the 9th person to receive
the award at the exact moment when the clock chimed 11.”

Shirley has been interviewed many times since that tragic day.  She
was once asked to describe how poor the communities of Gander and
Lewisporte were.

Shirley refused.  “How can you ask me how poor they were?  They are
not poor.  They are richer than all of us.  They are rich with family,
life, caring and heart.”

The love and appreciation the people of Gander/Lewiesporte showed to
those stranded will never be forgotten.
It is their legacy.

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