One of the Lucky Ones
- Blog Post by: Gary Cunningham
- September 15, 2011 - 5:12 PM
One of the Lucky Ones
I was returning to Minneapolis from the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, in Durban, South Africa, where I had spent the last two-and-half months as an observer, part of a contingency from the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
After a 10-hour flight from Durban, the last leg of my journey was from Amsterdam to JFK Airport in New York and I had a 5-hour layover. I was walking around the airport and I happened to I run into my friend, colleague, and fellow traveler, the Hon. Judge LaJune Lang, who was also in Durban for this life-changing experience. We sat down and chatted about what we had learned at conference. Little did we know that over the next 24 hours our lives would be forever changed. LaJune suggested that if I changed my flight to the one she was on, I could get home sooner. After a 10 weeks away, I was looking forward to being among friends and family. I tried to change flights, but as fate would have it, hers was full. As we said good-bye, I thought we would be meeting again soon in Minneapolis.
As I got on the plane, I noticed that many cultures were represented: France, Germany, Holland, Cameroon, China, India and Israel—to name a few. Rich languages filled that air as people jostled about to get their seats in the jumbo jet. The attendants on this Northwest flight were friendly, helpful and cheerful as they got the 600 of us ready for takeoff. I found myself in an aisle seat in the middle of the plane.
After settling in, I got to know my fellow passengers. Seated next to me was a Catholic priest named Richard, a native of Calcutta, India, who worked for the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center. To his left, was an older man named Mordecai, returning to the United States after an extended stay in Israel. We introduced ourselves and talked about where we had been, what was awaiting us in the United States, our families, and our work. After the small talk, we nodded off, read our books or listened to our music.
I was awakened out of my dozing by the captain, who said the bathrooms were being locked down for the duration of the flight. And wouldn’t you know it, just my luck, right at the time I had to go. I thought this was strange and so did my fellow passengers. The flight attendants were scurrying up and down the aisles, trying to look casual, but with worried looks on their faces. Something was going on but we did not know what. Suddenly, the plane sharply changed direction and altitude. My stomach tensed. The priest and I looked at each other: Was something wrong with the plane?
A few moments later, the captain came back on the intercom, his husky voice breaking with emotion: “The United States is under attack!" He had no further information at the time but would let us know as soon as he did. We were 2 hours from New York City. At first there was complete silence. Then everyone on the plane began to talk at once. "What does this mean,” I asked no one in particular, “‘The United States is under attack’” ? I had never heard those words before: The United States is under attack.” They still haunt me.
It was a surreal experience, filled with tension. Flying high over the Atlantic Ocean without a clue about what was happening. Ten minutes later (although it seemed like forever), the captain came back on the intercom with a little more composure, he said the attack had been on the World Trade Center and that all U. S. airspace had been shut down. We were being diverted to Gander, Newfoundland.
A few hours later—or what seemed like years—I looked out the window and saw that we were landing on a small runway on a bright and sunny day. Snow covered the ground off the runway; just beyond the terminal was a large forest of evergreen trees. We taxied a while and then stopped. We saw jet after jet fill up the space on this small runway. The captain then allowed us all to use the restroom. It was a long wait for over 600 people. The captain’s information was sketchy and the elderly Jewish man, Mordecai, became the unofficial source of what was going on: he had a short wave radio (I suspect the captain was reluctant to share information for fear he would be passing it on to terrorists who might have been on the flight.)
Waiting on the tarmac, the minutes turned to hours. Passenger started walking around the plane. The captain opened up the exit doors for fresh air. The flight attendants served the last of the food on the plane and many people tried to call their loved ones. But their cell phones did not work. The captain said we could not disembark until we had been thoroughly checked out by Canadian customs. A Mountie, dressed in red jacket, dark pants and the broad-brim hat, soon appeared. He asked for our IDs and said sandwiches would be brought on board shortly. They ran our IDs through a number of databases, including those of the CIA, Interpol, and the Israeli and Canadian intelligence services. And we waited. There was no place for us to stay and no provisions for over 6500 passengers who had descended on the quiet town of Gander, population 10,300. But the town folks eventually mobilized and come up with a solution.
At about 7 p.m. the next day, 22 hours after we had landed, we disembarked. I remember the mass of people 6500 who lined up to go through a makeshift customs inside the terminal. It took 4 hours. My fellow passengers and I then boarded buses and were driven from the airport along a beautiful wooded area filled with evergreens, poplars and birch to our respective lodgings. It was cold and there was significant snow on the ground and in the trees. When the bus stopped, it was dark and hard to determine where we were. I recall being herded into what looked like a 1970s two-story, brown concrete building. Once inside, we were greeted very warmly and served a wonderful meal by the women of Gander. They were so hospitable and so happy to help. It was an emotional experience for me and my fellow refugees. Some people wept openly; others were just glad to be off the plane.
The people of Gander were certainly organized. The women took us in small groups on a brief tour of the facility, complete with rules for using the showers and other amenities. They had clothes available in all shapes and sizes (all our luggage remained on the plane). They had food prepared for us. (I don’t think I’ve ever had a better meal.) In the basement gymnasium, each of us got a foldout cot and two blankets. The room was already crowded with people arranging their things and setting up their beds for the night. Some families had erected sheets on makeshift clotheslines for privacy. Then we got in line and 600 of us used one phone to call family and loved ones.
I had never felt so disconnected from everything I knew. I was a stranger in a strange land and got a very small taste of what it is like to be a refugee—not knowing what was going on in the outside world, feeling totally disoriented, and nothing but the clothes on my back and what was in my carry-on bag. But all of us Gander refugees were in the same boat. We were taken then upstairs to the lounge with its large TV. A video showed the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. The room was packed and everyone was crying. It was mind-numbing to see those pictures played over and over again and to realize the magnitude of the loss of life. My shock, grief and disbelief were beyond anything I could have imagined.
I spent a few more minutes talking to the other passengers and then lay down in my space on the gymnasium floor. I thought about how this day would change the world. I don’t think any of us slept well that night. I know I didn’t. Throughout the night, I heard children crying and muffled whispers. When I woke up, I realized that I was in the basement of a Catholic school; the rising sun through large windows at the top of the room provided a dim light. I was disoriented, I was tired, and I was in shock.
On that first morning and thereafter our daily ritual was to rise to get cleaned up in shifts, to eat in shifts, to use the restroom in shifts, and to use the Internet computers in shifts—everything in shifts. When it was warm enough, we would sit outside and talk; some got a ride into town. There was much speculation about what would happen next, who was behind the attack, and when we could go home.
On the third day the flight crew, led by the captain, held a large group meeting about where things stood. They still knew little. In fact, the captain did not know when we could return. Not until the seventh day did the captain return and say we had been cleared to land at LaGuardia Airport in New York City in the next day or so. He said there was a storm front over the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland that could turn into a blizzard; if we did not leave in the next day or so, he said we might not get out of Gander for some time. He gave everyone the choice of getting back on the plane or making other travel arrangements. It was a decision point for all of us. The drive from Gander, Newfoundland, to the United States was a two-week affair. Yet a number of passengers would not, under any circumstances, get back on the plane. I decided to get back on the plane.
The next morning, the yellow school buses reappeared outside the school yard. We all got on and were driven back to the airport. Security was tight; it took 8 hours to get through the makeshift customs. Each of us was interviewed thoroughly—some of us more than once—and our photographs were taken. It wasn’t until about 7 or 8 that night when we all boarded the plane. Once again, we sat on the runway for several hours. A light snow began to fall. None of us knew why we were waiting. Eventually, the captain announced that he was waiting for our luggage to be removed from the plane. A forklift arrived; I could see it is yellow lights flashing and feel the plane rock as our luggage was removed.
Suddenly, two Mounties appeared with their guns drawn. They went directly to the rear of the plane and escorted two French passengers off, a man and woman, in handcuffs. It happened very quickly. I had talked with them briefly at the school. They seemed like nice, warm people. Then two other Mounties showed up with battery-operated drills and removed their two seats from the plane. We did not know what was going on and we were all very quiet. It was another scary moment.
Finally we were airborne, en route to LaGuardia, or so I thought. A rumor that we were bound for Detroit proved true. When we landed that morning, I was so happy that as soon as I got off the plane I literally kissed the ground. Northwest Airlines employees escorted us right through to the front of the airport. There, I saw the longest line I have ever seen in my life. It stretched at least six blocks from the main entrance. We bypassed the line and were escorted first through the front door and then through security. At that point we were told to find our connections. I got on a flight to Minneapolis and was back home in 2 hours.
I was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of people, thousands of my fellow citizens, lost their lives on 9/11. Many families lost their loved ones. I will be forever indebted to the people Gander, Newfoundland, and I will forever be in sorrow for what we all lost on 9/11.
The warmth, the generosity and the human spirit exhibited by the people of Gander is something that I will never forget. They gave from their heart to those of us who, for a time, had nothing. They provided shelter, food and clothing to over 6000 people on a moment’s notice. Most of all they provided warm smiles and comfort to people that they had never met and in all likelihood, would never meet again. It was one of the most moving experiences in my life.
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