9/11. The tragedy of that day still overwhelms me. It’s so unfathomable yet it all actually happened. I tell my story every year. Amidst the dark evil that occurred that day is this story that’s a beacon of light. It’s about the incredible servanthood of the people of Newfoundland that day. I was one of the “plane people” who landed there.
The morning of 9/11, I was flying home from a trip to Switzerland where I did some youth ministry work with a church. This trip had been planned for a while and as it grew closer, my mom decided she’d like to come with me. I was 24 yrs old at the time and didn’t mind being independent but was very grateful to have her company. On the flight home, the pilot came on the intercom and said something about having to stop to refuel. That seemed a little strange because usually these flights don’t have to do that. A little bit later he came on again and said something I didn’t even pay attention to. My mom turned to me and asked, “did he say something about terroists?” I thought she was crazy and said “of course not.”
After a while, he spoke a third time and announced we were making an emergency landing in Newfoundland because of terroist attacks on the U.S. We had no knowledge of what had actually happened. We wouldn’t find out and see the video footage for more than 24 hours later. All we knew is that we were landing in Newfoundland. We didn’t know how long we’d be there, where we’d stay or how we would get home.
When we landed on the tarmac along with 8 other planes, we were not allowed to get out. This town never had this many people visit all at once before but unbeknownst to us, they were hard at work preparing for our welcome. We stayed in our plane on the tarmac and there we sat. And sat. And sat. We sat on the tarmac for a full 24 hours. That’s not a typo. A full 24 hours. Babies needed diapers and formula so that was brought onto the plane. The flight attendants put on coffee in the back and said help yourselves. We wandered the aisles and we prayed. Thank goodness my mom decided to go on this trip with me.
On our flight, before the attacks were announced, a 2 yr old boy sitting behind us with his mother, decided to befriend me. He wanted to play peek-a-boo non-stop. He would get my attention if I stopped playing and peek through the arm rest of my seat. He decided he wanted to be best friends which slightly annoyed me before learning of the terroist attacks. It turned out to be a huge blessing later on. As night fell, we all accepted the reality that we had to get comfortable and try to “go to bed”. But this little boy was having none of it. I am sure he sensed the stress in the air and he cried the whole night. His poor mother. She laid across a row of seats and did everything to comfort him but he wouldn’t settle down. But we were all in this together and it just was what it was. All of us on the plane had accepted the reality that this was our situation so we hunkered down and tried to sleep. Finally morning came and the town was ready for us! We were allowed off the plane but could not retrieve any of our luggage. It was too much of a safety risk.
About 1,113 of us were graciously welcomed to Stephensville, Newfoundland’s tiny airport by being led into their little main building where the Red Cross was waiting to serve us. Wow, my mom and I were not prepared for that. My parents have served in the medical field and with the Red Cross for many years, my dad has been on the board, they’ve given blood and so much time and energy to the Red Cross to help them help others and now we were on the receiving end. They gave us blankets and food and water and people to talk to and hugs and hope and even joy. We were in a position where we had to receive. We were the ones in need this time. We were led to the local college, CNA, College of the North Atlantic and there found out that the entire student body had moved out of their dorms to offer us rooms. In fact, all the departments and students rose up to the occasion to make our stay as comfortable as possible. Tourism Studies set up an information booth, Cooking and Baking students had prepared food and even Music and Performing arts set up to perform in between campus buildings.
We had stuck with my new little best friend and his mother and when it came time to be assigned lodging, they thought we were traveling with a small child and assigned all of us to a dorm room together. This was a HUGE blessing because the dorms were given to the elderly and those with small children. Everyone else slept on cots in the gym. This was also a blessing I believe God had for this mother because now we could be of help to her with her little boy. As we were led into this college, we finally were able to have access to a TV and saw what had happened. It’s like the grieving started over and the little bit of panic settled in of, “how could this have happened to our country and will we ever get home?”
We were on the phone as soon as possible with my dad and my new fiance(now husband) who had been collaborating to form a plan to rescue us! They had several ideas but we decided to wait it out and see what unfolded. We spent about 3 1/2 day in Newfoundland. We made several trips to the Walmart to get some clothing necessities, toured the beautiful little shops in town and this college fed us like kings and queens. The children of the town had made cards while we were sitting on the airplane on the tarmac and they were plastered up all over the walls saying “I’m so sorry about your country.” “We are praying for you.” “Welcome to our town.” It was incredible. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever felt unified with humanity on a global level. And it was a quiet, small town I’d never heard of that made me feel that way.
I don’t remember every detail of that week. My mom remembers other details that I don’t. But we talk every Sept. 11th and reminisce about our experience that was like none other. I don’t make it through the day without tears. It was such a powerful experience of light and hope paired with such unfathomable evil and sorrow.
Psalm 57:1 Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.
Being tucked in the shadow of God’s wing until the disaster had passed has never felt more real than it did that week in Newfoundland. It was the safest place we could’ve possibly landed to stay. God extended such mercy through the people’s service towards us whether they knew it or not. It was the most peaceful few days when it should’ve been full of panic and anxiety. We didn’t find out that air traffic would resume and we would get to go home until after being there three days. We should’ve been stressed and worried but I remember a peace and joy as we wandered the town and got to know the locals who were at our service with any help we needed. However, we were ready to go home and welcomed the news when we heard the date we’d be able to depart.
We landed in Atlanta and the welcome we received there was just as incredible. I looked out the window of the plane as we taxied in and saw airport staff cheering and clapping. Our plane landing was a victory over darkness I realized. When we got off the plane at the Atlanta airport, we were the only passengers in what is usually a hustling and bustling place. The halls were lined with staff waving American flags and cheering. And there was my dad. He had driven from Ohio to Atlanta as soon as he found out we would be flying in there and of course, he was there to greet us. As he had been waiting around there, a reporter interviewed him and snapped a photo of us reuniting with a hug. I still have the article.
I visited Ground Zero about 2.5 years ago and was overwhelmed with the beautiful memorial and the pools. What was even more overwhelming was the little church that has now become a museum, who had served so many of the emergency workers and injured during the aftermath. The smallest, most unassuming building, usually dwarfed by that huge metropolis, ended up having the biggest impact in providing life, hope and mercy when it was needed most. I will never forget. 9/11/2001.
Article of the story of the planes landing in Stephensville