“The whole campus, came to a standstill as the world witnessed the World Trade Center in New York, United States of America turn to ashes within hours.”
Nearly two decades after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Mac Moss, a former College of the North Atlantic (CNA) Campus Administrator who was working at Gander campus on that fateful day, easily recalled the horrific experience of watching the towers crumble.
In the hours, days and even years that followed, people around the world remain in awe about how a town as small as Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador accommodated the 6,700 unexpected guests who landed on their doorsteps – nearly doubling the population of the idyllic town within a few hours.
Previously untold stories have since made their way to the stages of Broadway through the hit show Come from Away
and numerous stages around the world.
Now, 17 years after the catastrophic event, things have gone one step further, as Bell Media premieres HBO Canada’s documentary, You Are Here: A Come From Away Story.
“No one, in their wildest dreams, could ever have thought to plan for 38 jumbo jets arriving within a couple of hours with approximately 7,000 passengers and flight crew, but that was the situation we faced on the morning of September 11, 2001,” said Moss, who was interviewed for the documentary, but wasn’t featured in the final product.
Of the town’s 400 hotel rooms, half were already occupied by normal area visitors.
“The town had to come up with a plan to house, feed and care for them. We were fortunate that the Canadian Red Cross and Salvation Army had contingency plans for emergencies and while, not ever in a million years expecting that 6,700 people would be dumped in their lap – nevertheless, they had a plan to provide the essentials to stranded passengers.”
As a proud resident of Gander, Moss says people often wonder why his hometown is being singled out when so many other areas had numerous planes diverted their way, including St. John’s with 27 jet airliners and Stephenville with 1.100 passengers on eight international planes.
“Planes landed in St. John’s, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, etc. and several other places … 7,000 people can be accommodated in their hotels in the blink of an eye. Gander has 400 hotel rooms. There was no alternative but to call on organizations, institutions, and nearby communities to provide assistance. The town is recognized for displaying astonishing kindness as a community while caring for 7,000 passengers and flight crew without any hesitation.”
Moss, among many others interviewed in HBO’s documentary, You Are Here: A Come From Away Story,
recalls how the town opened their homes, and their hearts, to the displaced passengers, never expecting their efforts would later become known around the world.
He is extremely proud not just of what the CNA team was able to accomplish in the days that followed, but of the students and volunteers who did not hesitate to lend a helping hand when the world came to a standstill.
With small gestures of kindness, staff, students and volunteers came together as a community to help the 442 unexpected guests who lived at CNA’s Gander campus for five days. Everyone took turns cooking meals, offering rides, providing showers, telephone time and many emptied their linen closets to find sheets, towels, pillows and blankets.
“Cafeteria chefs, commercial cooking instructors, students and several volunteers worked around the clock to prepare meals. Several stores donated toothbrushes, diapers and underwear, and school bus drivers paused a strike to help out,” Moss recalled.
“Along with providing food, shelter for the stranded passengers, to help engage passengers in a diversion, Glenn Evans, a former instructor, students and volunteers visited Cobb’s Pond Park; while volunteers cleaned up classrooms in the absence of the passengers.”
Sharing his thoughts on the documentary Moss says, “The film focuses to share emotions, of the people and reveal first-hand accounts of the great sacrifices the community.
“The compassion and generosity eventually became one of the means of healing and reconciliation for many, especially the survivors of those murdered on 9/11 as well as the first responders who lost their own lives saving others on that fateful day.”
Through the vision of director Moze Mossanen, You Are Here: A Come from Away Story
narrates the unique tale of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and passengers who were the inspiration behind the hit Broadway play.
Mayors, community workers, police officers, TV reporters, and more – these real-life people shared their stories of how they worked tirelessly alongside countless others to comfort and care for their unexpected guests.
“We aimed to portray the positivity and the amazing kindness of the people of Gander,” Mossanen said. “Along with the first responders, the film shares the stories of real-life passengers who were looked after during those five unforgettable days; including a couple who met, fell in love, and ultimately honeymooned in Gander; the pilot of an American Airlines jet whose life was turned upside down; and, a U.S. businessman who was so touched by his hosts’ generosity that he went on to create Good Samaritan initiatives in Austin, Texas.”
For Moss, at the heart of the experience is how even something has horrific as 9/11 could not break a community that held its moral value of helping each other despite the challenges.
“Every day of our lives we get an opportunity to practice the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ Only once in a lifetime does an opportunity come along to practice this rule on a grand scale. Our passengers were wonderful. Not once did any of them try to gain advantage or preferential treatment because of their social position or station in life. Not one of them complained about receiving only a thin blanket or sheet to lie on. No one complained about the food.”
And never was language a barrier despite hosting people from various countries around the world.
“A number of my teaching staff spoke French, one spoke Spanish and one, with the aid of an electronic translator, communicated with a group that spoke Yugoslavian. Other than that we got by in English. Perhaps the language of caring spoke for all of us.”
Public Relations Specialist
College of the North Atlantic