By ALEX ELLEFSON
August 31, 2016
They called them the “plane people.”
When air travel over the United States was suspended immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, passengers on international flights from Europe were rerouted to Gander, Newfoundland. The remote Canadian town, home to about 10,000 residents, sprang into action when 38 planes unexpectedly dropped almost 7,000 people at their doorstep.
In honor of their good deed, children attending summer camp at the Hartley House, located on W. 46th St. in Hell’s Kitchen, painted wooden stars with expressions of gratitude for the people of Gander.
The stars will be presented to the town by a group of 12 New Yorkers — made up of members from the 9/11 community, including docents from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and volunteers from the 9/11 Tribute Center — on the 15th anniversary of the attacks.
“We felt like we had to go to Gander to thank them from the bottom of our hearts,” said Paul Vasquez, one of the docents organizing the trip. “On a day as sad and tragic as 9/11, the people there did something positive and showed love is stronger than hate.”
Vasquez reached out to his city councilmember, Corey Johnson, to help find students to paint Stars of HOPE — wooden stars meant to be decorated with hopeful messages and displayed in areas impacted by disasters. The councilmember connected the group with the Hartley House.
Johnson went with Vasquez and fellow docent Maria Jaffe on Thurs., Aug. 25, to collect the stars from the kids and speak with them about the sacrifice and kindness shown by the people of Gander.
“By designing and sending these beautifully decorated stars, the kids of Hartley House are showing our City’s deep and everlasting gratitude, and demonstrating that the memory of Gander’s service lives on through the generations,” Johnson said in a statement.
Jaffe explained the idea to make a pilgrimage to Gander first took root this summer when a woman organizing Canada’s National Day of Service in Gander visited the museum.
“Ironically, she came to the museum two weeks after a colleague was describing a book about what happened in Gander called ‘The Day the World Came to Town,’” Jaffe said. “I think the story just reinforced that feeling [that] people are inherently good. They rose to the occasion during a time of great need.”
The woman who met Jaffe at the museum is Maureen Basnicki, whose husband was at a business meeting on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower when it was struck by one of the planes. After her husband perished in the attacks, the Toronto resident worked to get Canada to observe a “National Day of Service” on Sept. 11.
This year she’s organizing activities in Gander to raise awareness about the day of service — officially recognized by Canada in 2011 — and invited Jaffe and friends to the town.
“When you think of 9/11 you think of hate and horror, the visuals of the planes going into those buildings. I want to work to change that image,” said Basnicki. “I would rather dwell on the goodness that came about that day.”
When the group arrives in Gander, they will present the stars at schools, churches, businesses, and other places in the community that helped out the stranded airplane passengers. They will also join the town in observing a parade of first responders as well as an ecumenical ceremony held on the anniversary.
Kelly Sceviour, the events coordinator for the town of Gander, remembers the day the planes arrived.
“It was surreal. We started seeing aircraft after aircraft landing,” she said. “And we just did what we had to because we didn’t want anyone to be alone at such a horrible time.”
Sceviour recalled how the local news station would broadcast supplies that were needed and the community would rush to respond. One of her most vivid memories is how the town found ways to entertain a group of children bound for Disneyland by bringing in the town mascot, Commander Gander, alongside some fairies and princesses.
Sceviour said she was humbled by some of the recognitions heaped on Gander for their hospitality. However, she explained it was just part of their nature to be welcoming.
“We would have done this for anyone,” she said. “It’s just who we are. We would never let anyone be stranded or left behind.”
Jim DeFede, whose book “The Day the World Came to Town” recounts how Gander opened itself up to the stranded passengers, said sacrifice and an eagerness to help is a deeply ingrained value among the people of Newfoundland.
“They have this saying in Newfoundland: You can always add a little more water to the soup,” DeFede explained. “Meaning, if our neighbor is hungry, we might not have a lot, we might just have soup for dinner, but we can always water it down and invite our neighbor over to eat.”
He described how the town dropped everything to accommodate the thousands of guests. Bus drivers who were on strike immediately got behind the wheel to ferry newcomers around, kitchens started making fresh food, and pharmacists would fill prescriptions without asking for payment. The whole town opened itself up — packing churches, schools, hotels, and homes with the unexpected guests.
“I think the story of Gander is about how at a time of incredible darkness, when everyone wondered if there was any humanity left in the world, the folks in Gander reminded people there is hope and light,” DeFede said.
Both Jaffe and Vasquez agreed that the story of Gander was like “a beacon of light” piercing through a very dark day.
“The story of Gander is so positive and uplifting,” said Vasquez. “To travel there on the anniversary of 9/11, I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.”