9/11 Remembered

9/16/2002 8:47:33 AM

Eight planes landed in Stephenville, rerouted from their American and Mexican destinations. This was the view from Headquarters/Bay St. George campus

From left, Sue Riccardelli, Morris Plains, New Jersey; Liz Gilbert, Clerk III Gander campus; Ula Turner, WPEO, Gander campus; and Maureen Murray, Morris Plains, New Jersey. The two women visited the Gander campus in July of 2002.

By Tanya Alexander

September 11, 2002 - Along with the rising sun, early morning September 11, 2001 brought news of the most heinous terrorist attack in North American history to residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. With it descended a heavy fog of helplessness.

The usual 9 a.m. bustle at Bay St. George campus/Headquarters of College of the North Atlantic slowed to a crawl as people trickled in around the lobby television in disbelief. They were watching the aftermath of what was then thought to be a bizarre air traffic accident involving a commercial jet and the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center, when a second commercial jet appeared from nowhere and slammed into the South Tower. As the world watched through live telecast, one tower collapsed, one was ablaze, and the horrendous had turned into the utterly incomprehensible.

Little did students and employees of CNA know at that moment that they would become a beacon of light in the darkest of hours.

Cyril Organ, Associate District Administrator at Building 432 of the Bay St. George campus, was at work and was paralyzed in horror along with the crowd gathering in the lobby. Then he received a telephone call informing him that up to 27 planes would be landing at Stephenville Airport en route from Europe and other countries to US destinations (poor weather allowed only eight to land). He quickly sprung into action to ready the college to host the passengers, and the feeling of helplessness began to dissipate.

Organ first cancelled afternoon classes, then called a staff meeting to determine team leaders who would arrange for the necessary food and accommodations for the unexpected guests. Next, students were called to the dining hall where the situation was explained and their input was encouraged. Students rose to the occasion. Those from Tourism Studies created an information booth, Cooking and Baking students began preparing quality food, Music Industry and Performance and Recording Arts students prepared to perform in and outside the two campus buildings where passengers would be gathered, and many students living in residence offered to give up their rooms.

When the eighth and final plane touched down in Stephenville on September 11, the town of 9,000 rallied to provide food, lodgings and comfort for 1,113 people. After hotels were filled, they turned to institutions in the area including College of the North Atlantic. Some were bussed into Corner Brook.

Wade Pinhorn is the Coordinating Instructor for the Music Industry and Performance program at the L.A. Bown Building of the Bay St. George campus. He was in class when he was informed of the situation. The response was immediate.

“We were informed by the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) that flights were on the way,” he says.

“EMO started things rolling with blankets, pillows and other supplies, then the college kicked into high gear.”

Pinhorn says that lodging, email, and Internet access were some of the intervention offered by the college, along with food, beverages, shower facilities and as many cots as they could fit in the L.A. Bown auditorium. Ensuring that the impromptu visitors were well cared for eased the feelings of helplessness.

“The college had facilities available, and we all felt like we should do something to help. It was partly self-serving, in that we wanted to make ourselves useful, but mostly it was just instinctual.”

Back at Building 432, Elvina Robson had begun her shift in the dining hall. She and her co-workers received news from Cyril Organ about the turn of events later that day. The first thing she did was call her children to see if they were okay.

“They are teenagers, and didn’t really show much interest in the news at first. It wasn’t phasing on them. They just said, ‘yeah Mom, we’re fine’,” she laughs.

“I just didn’t know for sure. You don’t expect something like this to happen so close to home.”

Once she knew her children were safe, the second thing Elvina did was offer her services to College of the North Atlantic for as long as she was needed. By this time, several planes had landed, so the kitchen staff began preparations. However, aircraft remained on the runway until the next day before passengers were allowed to disembark. By this time, everyone at the college was ready and waiting. Elvina and her co-workers had been working through the night to prepare what they thought would be enough food for an undetermined number of people.

When they arrived, Elvina says her heart went out to each and every one of them.

“You saw a lot of really frightened people, and most of them didn’t know where in the world they were - literally!”

Many passengers were from Mexico and Great Britain, says Elvina, and had never even heard of the province, let alone known where it was on the map.

“Once they knew they were in a safe place, they relaxed a little.”

In fact, the college became like another home. Parents looked to kitchen and other college staff for things like help with making baby formula, and sitting with the small children while they ate.

There was a language barrier, says Elvina, but they worked through it. She says the kitchen staff is accustomed to an occasional contingent of international visitors, and were able and willing to accommodate vegetarian and kosher meals, and the cultural differences, even in English.

“We have fries listed in our menu, but we know that in England they say chips. Even those from Mexico who didn’t speak English would recognize the word chips, so that’s what we used.”

By the time Elvina looked up, she had spent over 24 hours at work feeding some 400 people. That’s when Cyril Organ insisted she go home.

“I had gone home, gotten cleaned up and rested a little, and when I returned Elvina was still there. Now that’s dedication,” says Organ.

“In fact, I would say the highlight of those four days was the exceptional service in the dining hall. If any one moment was evidence of what we had to offer, it was found there.”

He says faculty and support staff were equally dedicated, along with students.

“Everybody did the right thing for the right reasons. Enough said.”

Another beacon

It happened that some of the flights expected in Stephenville were routed to other areas. The Gander campus of College of the North Atlantic received a call that morning from college President Pamela Walsh, putting the campus on alert to assist in the crisis. Mac Moss, Associate District Administrator for the Gander campus, helped with organizing teams to provide basic services like food and water, accommodations, telephone and Internet services, and luggage storage.

Later that evening, the local Emergency Response Centre advised Moss that of the 38 aircraft lined up on the tarmac, the campus would be receiving 234 passengers from an Air France 747 aircraft. Within the hour, instructors, support staff, and the cafeteria food service operator, Western Catering, were ready to roll.

A Commercial Cooking program had started a few days before, and Coordinating Instructor Barry Steele and Instructional Assistant Elizabeth Moss offered their services to get things ready for the passengers. They headed straight out to grocery stores to gather food.

“By the time the passengers arrived at 9:30 p.m., our cafeteria, which is normally equipped for 150 students, was equipped to handle the 234 Air France passengers,” says Elizabeth.

“The first night we could only make quick things, but a couple of days into it, we were preparing very nice meals.”

She says that when they revealed a full course meal including stuffed chicken breast – something akin to what you would see catered at a wedding - the guests were amazed.

“Some were on their way home to New York after a holiday in Paris, and said that they had not eaten as well there as they did here! They really appreciated the efforts we made.”

Other things were appreciated as well, says Elizabeth.

“Our staff arrived ready for the long haul with overnight bags, and some stayed for up to 30 hours at a stretch.”

There was someone on all shifts, including security for the luggage room, because many passengers were lugging all of there possessions everywhere they went.

“We tried to make them feel at home and offered to look after their luggage so they could move around freely. At first they didn’t understand that in Newfoundland, it’s so safe, you don’t even lock your doors.”

In retrospect, Elizabeth says she is very happy to have helped these people in need, and she would do it again without hesitation.

“I think everybody gained from it. It makes you stop and think… the world is not as secure as we thought it was,” she says.

“You have to put yourself in their shoes – dropped down in the middle of nowhere with very scanty information. It could have been any of us.”

Mac Moss says the success of those few days was due to a community effort. Local businesses donated toiletry items to the Salvation Army, which prepared basic survival kits for the thousands of passengers, including those at the college.

On the morning of September 14, Gander campus had just said goodbye to the Air France group and were putting the campus back in order to resume classes when they received another call.

“Passengers from a Lufthansa flight were staying at a church camp where the wells ran dry. We immediately recalled our staff and by the time the passengers arrived at 4:20 p.m., we were set up again to provide basic services.”

The flight was called for departure later that evening and by 10 p.m. they were on their way back to Germany.

Unexpected Gifts

While passengers were at Gander campus, they took up a collection and donated approximately $3,500 toward a scholarship fund. Since last September, a total of approximately $16,000 has arrived at the Gander campus from these passengers, along with a plaque of appreciation.

In May of 2002, Mac Moss was part of a delegation from Gander and Halifax that was flown to Frankfurt, Germany to witness the christening of a new aircraft in honour of the two towns. Frankfurt Mayor Petra Roth was one of the passengers stranded in Gander, and personally met with the delegation in Germany and treated them to an honorary dinner at City Hall.

ABC’s Prime Time came to Gander last year and filmed a documentary on the event, and returned again in July when two women who had been stranded in Gander on September 11 returned to the college to visit the volunteers who assisted them. Some of the footage will be aired during a day-long special hosted by Peter Jennings on the anniversary of the tragedy.

The campus has also been approached by CBC, CTV and NBC for interviews in connection with 9/11 which will be aired on the anniversary.

Pain and passage

As the one year anniversary arrives, the world’s thoughts undoubtedly drift back to the events that changed a nation. Ruth and Ronald Hardey have reason to reflect. They were two of the many thousands who were stranded in Newfoundland and Labrador on September 11. They were on their way home to New Orleans, Louisiana from a vacation in Europe. The couple had no idea why their plane was being rerouted, and they say they weren’t extremely worried at first.

“We had no idea what had occurred,” says Ruth.

“As time went on, and we were kept in the plane, I decided to get some sleep. Then we found out we were going to be guests of College of the North Atlantic.”

At that point, they had been grounded for many hours, and were apprehensive, anxious and fatigued, all further exacerbated by a body search.

“We didn’t know why we were being searched,” says Hardey.

“It didn’t really bother me, but I was perplexed.”

Once settled in to Building 432 of the Bay St. George campus (students had kindly given them a room), they were well taken care of.

“It was a remarkable kind of experience. We were given our own room and access to telephones and Internet so we could contact our loved ones, we were entertained, and we were fed,” says Hardey.

“We were fed very well. In fact – and we laughed at ourselves about this – we ate constantly. When we were worried, we ate. When we were bored, we ate. When in doubt as to what to do, we ate,” she laughs.

When they finally departed Stephenville, it was with mixed emotions – they were so moved by the warm and genuine care they received at the college, but were anxious to return home at last. When they touched down in the US, they were pleasantly surprised by the welcome.

“When the plane touched down in Atlanta, we noticed a large crowd gathered outside waving American flags and “Welcome Home” banners,” says Ruth.

She says that from the moment they left the plane until they reached the luggage carrousel, they were hugged and welcomed by these strangers.

“We were stunned once we realized they were there for us. Then someone thrust a small flag in my hand, and I just sobbed.”

It’s been a challenging year, says Ruth. One filled with sorrow for those who lost their lives, a fierce patriotism for their beloved country, and a gratitude unending for the little remote province that kept them safe from harm.

“There’s not a day goes by, where we don’t speak of you all. We’ve told countless people of your generosity,” says Ruth.

And it goes beyond that, she says.

“There was a touching of human beings that transcended boundaries, politics… everything. It was human and humane what you people did, and we’ll never forget you.”

As we look back on what happened on September 11, 2001 in New York, USA, we remember it as a tragedy, and a crime against all human kind. But the elements of honour, kindness and courage have brought us through and will continue to sustain us.

The fog has lifted.

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For more information, contact:

Stephen Lee
Communications Manager
(709) 643-7929


Tanya Alexander
Public Information Officer
(709) 643-7928