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The Day the World Came to Town

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

If the title of this book doesn’t intrigue you, the story certainly will. I just finished reading Jim DeFede’s account of events that occurred on September 11, 2001, far, far away from Ground Zero. While most of us focused on watching and hearing the news from New York, other events occurred at the same time but were eclipsed by the Twin Towers tragedy.

Within minutes of the attacks, the United States shut down airspace to all incoming airline flights. At the time, there were about 400 international flights in the air, most from Europe, headed to the U.S. A few of the planes had not reached the point of no return over the Atlantic and were able to turn back to their departure airports. The others were given one choice—divert to a Canadian destination immediately. The pilots were given no reason and no option. News of the attack was being withheld as a precaution against alerting more terrorists feared aboard the incoming flights.

Fifteen Canadian airports nationwide from Vancouver to St. John’s suddenly found more than 250 jets desperately landing one after the other. The Day the World Came to Town is the story of Gander, a small town in Newfoundland that watched as 38 jumbo jets and 6,595 passengers and crew landed in the space of just three hours on the abandoned airfield that was once a busy U.S. military facility during and just after World War II. With the town nearly doubled in size, the people of Gander quickly pulled together an extraordinary plan to house, feed, counsel, aid, and entertain the “plane people” from 100 countries, travelers bringing with them a variety of languages and a variety of cultures new to these island-bound Canadians.

DeFede tells the stories of passengers and islanders in short vignettes that cover a crazy-quilt variety of episodes ranging from what to do with an orthodox rabbi to the ritual Newfoundland “Screech-In” to finding appropriate underwear for the chairman of the Hugo Boss fashion company. The unconditional generosity and heartfelt empathy that poured out from individuals, from local stores, from churches and organizations, and from government officials (yes!) created moments of humor, concern, surprise, and tenderness.

In 2011, Gander hosted a reunion of the “plane people” which was also attended by the play-writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Some of the travelers stranded on September 11, 2001, have made regular return trips to Gander to thank the residents and renew friendships that grew out of that time.

From the many interviews Sankoff and Hein collected grew the multi-award-winning musical Come From Away. The first professional production was a collaboration between the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015. The musical has won rave reviews wherever it has played, and Beverly Bass, the American Airlines pilot whose plane was the fourth to land in Gander, admits she has seen the musical 101 times.

A documentary titled You Are Here was produced in 2019, although it is not available on DVD as yet. I’m itching to see it as well as the musical now that I’ve read the stories. There is quite a lot of information including video clips on the Internet if you want to find out more about the musical and documentary.

In the meantime, read the book! You won’t be disappointed.

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