In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, our Canadian neighbors sprang into action to help clear American airspace of any other potentially dangerous flights. The action was known as Operation Yellow Ribbon, and in those uncertain first hours after the attacks, it was hugely helpful. The mission also made a tiny town in Newfoundland world-famous for its hospitality.
Canadian authorities began diverting flights heading into the U.S. to various locations around Canada to help neutralize any lingering threats, but the task was a tricky one. It wouldn’t have made much sense to pull flights away from American airspace only to route them to Canada’s major centers, so the ideal landing spots for these planes had to be relatively remote, while also having a large enough airport to accommodate all the traffic.
As luck would have it, Canada had just such an airport in Gander, Newfoundland.
Gander and the “Plane People” of 9/11
The tiny town only boasted 10,000 residents, but what it lacked in population size, it more than made up for in airport capacity. Gander International Airport had previously served as a refueling stop for transatlantic flights and had served as a staging point for U-boat hunting flights during World War II. Gander ended up receiving 38 flights in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, second only to Halifax’s 47 diverted flights.
Landing all the planes in Gander was easy. Figuring out what to do with the 6700-plus passengers and crew members who were stuck on the ground until flights resumed was quite a bit tougher. Towns of 10,000 people aren’t exactly built to accommodate sudden 66 percent population surges, so they didn't have the hotel or restaurant capacity to take in all these stranded flyers.
Gander’s population may have been small, but the town was also immensely hospitable. To say the locals bent over backwards to accommodate their unexpected guests—dubbed the “plane people”—would be a gross understatement. When flyers stepped off their planes, Gander’s citizens met them with homemade bagged lunches. The town converted its schools and large buildings into temporary shelters, and when those lodgings filled up, citizens took strangers into their own homes. Medical personnel saw patients and filled prescriptions free of charge.
When the stranded passengers finally got to fly home a few days later, they couldn’t believe how wonderful their Canadian hosts had been. As former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien told Gander’s citizens in a memorial on the first anniversary of the attacks, “You did yourselves proud, ladies and gentlemen, and you did Canada proud.”
A Kindness Remembered
In 2016—to thank the town for its role in helping thousands of temporary transients in the wake of the attacks—New Yorkers gifted Gander with a piece of steel from the World Trade Center's south tower, courtesy of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. “The people of Gander … stepped up and performed their own acts of courage and heroism on 9/11 and soon thereafter for the thousands of people who descended upon them or were stranded with no advance notice whatsoever,” Catherine Christman, a spokesperson for the foundation, said.
The story of Gander and its people also made its way to Broadway in early 2017 via the musical Come From Away. In June 2017—as Gander residents gathered together to show their support for the show—the play's director, Christopher Ashley, won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical (the musical was nominated for six more).
A movie adaptation of the play was in the works, though it’s now paused indefinitely due to COVID-19 (the Canadian border closed right around the time production was slated to begin in Newfoundland). Instead, a professionally shot film of the stage production will premiere on Apple TV+ on September 10, 2021. It’s directed by Christopher Ashley, and will feature a medley of the musical’s original and current cast members.
This story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.