For thousands unexpectedly separated from their loved ones at the worst of times, a region of strangers stopped everything to provide care and support. And the passengers on Delta Flight 15 on Sept. 11, 2001, never forgot.
Perhaps you’ve heard that 53 international flights — about half being U.S. commercial planes — were re-directed to Gander, Newfoundland, in response to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on 9/11. Suddenly a relatively sleepy aviation hub used as a refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights was filled with “plane people,” thousands of stranded travelers.
The length of stay was uncertain as all public air travel came to a halt and local officials scrambled to assess and address the need. The passengers on Flight 15 would end up in Lewisporte, about 20 miles from Gander. The town’s mayor, Bill Hooper, put out the call to his community for bedding and food. Much more came in return. “They cared for us in so many different ways, but they did it in such a marvelous way. They didn’t hover over you … they just seemed to be very perceptive about what the different people needed,” said Shirley Brooks-Jones, a retired administrator at The Ohio State University, “Essentially, they closed down the town. Everyone was helping. And the shopkeepers in the few places that were open wouldn’t let anyone pay.”
The “plane people” stayed in Lewisporte for three days before getting clearance to fly back home. Tight bonds were made both among the passengers and their caretakers. Brooks-Jones would call it “the most beautiful experience I have ever had in my life.”
As Flight 15 finally prepared to leave Gander, Brooks-Jones asked the captain for permission to address her fellow passengers. There was discussion of the hospitality they’d received and soon pledge sheets — asking for donations to provide college scholarships for the young folks of Lewisporte — were circulating around the plane. By the time they landed in Atlanta, $15,000 had been committed.
When Brooks-Jones returned to Columbus, Ohio, an anonymous donor matched the contribution. The Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund — formally established and managed by the Columbus Foundation — has now sent well more than 100 Lewisporte Collegiate School students to college and trade schools. More than $2 million has been donated.
Brooks-Jones, pictured above with Raie Lene Kirby of the first cohort of Lewisporte Scholars, has been back to Newfoundland more than two dozen times — each spring to award scholarships and each Sept. 11 to honor the events that tragically brought her to the province in the first place.