Ten years after 9/11, the legacy of the special bond between stranded passengers and their local hosts remains strong

‘The greatest gift’:
Ten years after 9/11, the legacy of the special bond between stranded passengers and their local hosts remains strong

The contributions have streamed in from all over the world. They began the day of Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, with the passengers and crew of Delta Flight 15 making the first pledges as their aircraft completed a transatlantic journey from Frankfurt to Atlanta interrupted three days earlier. Since then, the offerings kept coming, from a two dollar gift by a struggling student in Columbus, Ohio, to a $15,000 corporate donation.

The Delta Flight 15 scholarship fund was created to thank the residents of Lewisporte, N.L., who provided shelter and warmth to diverted passengers forced to land far away from home on 9/11.

Today, Raie Lene Kirby is a fourth-year medical student at Memorial University in St. John’s. She is focusing on family medicine. Ten years ago, she was a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Lewisporte Collegiate enlisted to help out with the influx of hundreds of so called “plane people” on their doorsteps.

“Everything stopped, and all the attention was on making these people feel comfortable, making sure that they had everything they needed,” she recalls. Kirby mainly helped care for the children of passengers when they needed a break. It was an “amazing thing,” she says, to see how people came together.

A year later, Kirby was among the first recipients of a scholarship from the Delta Flight 15 fund. To date, 134 scholarships have been presented to local students, helping them pursue fields from medicine to engineering to business to the ministry to teaching to nursing to geophysics. The fund is now closing in on $1.5 million in total value.

“To me personally, 9/11 events in Lewisporte have provided innumerable opportunities to reaffirm the genuine goodness of a people who honestly care for their fellow human beings, who are not afraid to be different, and who have accepted me as if I were one of their own,” says Shirley Brooks-Jones, a passenger on Delta Flight 15. “This, to me, is perhaps the greatest gift — to be a part of a place and a people who are simply extraordinary.”

Brooks-Jones is a retired Ohio State University administrator who has tirelessly promoted the fund. Her visit to Lewisporte this month will be her 20th since that first unscheduled stop on 9/11. In recognition of her efforts, the provincial government awarded her honourary membership in the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2007.

The story of Delta Flight 15 is just one of many positive tales to come from that most terrible of days. According to figures compiled by NAV Canada, more than 130 aircraft were diverted to locations in Atlantic Canada on 9/11. Thirty-eight went to Gander, one to Deer Lake, 21 to St. John’s, eight to Stephenville, seven to Goose Bay, 47 to Halifax, and 10 to Moncton. Gander — a town of about 10,000 — received 6,600 diverted passengers alone.

A number of events are planned to commemorate the tenth anniversary. Kirby has been invited to a dinner at the Canadian consulate in Atlanta — the home of Delta’s headquarters — this month. “In the end, it’s always important to remember what happened that day, and that the world came together to try to make a difference,” Kirby says.

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