By mid-afternoon, the news was official: US airspace would remain closed until further notice. In Gander, churches, schools and charities were already being prepared to accommodate the passengers.
The mayors of the villages in the region in turn donated their equipment. The Salvation Army summer camp could accommodate several hundred people. The air base officers club was quickly transformed into an accommodation center.
Passengers were denied access to the city’s 550 hotel rooms reserved for pilots and flight attendants whose rest was essential for resuming flights.
In addition to the crews, the 38 planes carried 6,132 passengers. The landing took place one plane at a time. The luggage remained on board. Once security checks and customs and immigration formalities were completed, the Canadian Red Cross was responsible for taking over to register each passenger and the accommodation assigned to them. To speed up the movement, television sets were turned off and public telephones declared “out of order”.
The school bus drivers, on strike, put up their signs and worked tirelessly to lead the passengers to the various accommodation centers.
The Salvation Army collected food. The population donated food, bedding, clothing, whatever the passengers might need. Countless cars lined up outside the community center to drop off sheets, blankets and pillows. Stores donated thousands of dollars worth of products, including toiletries and a special shipment of 4,000 toothbrushes.
Ten hours after landing, the passengers and crew of Lufthansa Flight 400 were cleared to leave the aircraft. The volunteers who were waiting for them at midnight in the requisitioned school establishment gave them sheets and toiletries, indicating that there was water and food at their disposal.
Werner Baldessarini was surprised to see so many people welcoming them at such a late hour. Not all cots had arrived, he put a blanket and pillow on the floor in a corner of the gymnasium, curled up in his cashmere suit, and fell asleep.
After several hours, George Vitale, still on board, learned that his sister had left the area after the first plane had struck the South Tower. He was relieved to hear the pilot announce at 2 a.m., in the middle of the night, that Canadian customs formalities would soon be completed.
Mr. Vitale and the other passengers were sent to Appleton, about 25km away, a pretty village of 600 people on the banks of the Gander River. At the community center, he was greeted by the reassuring smell of coffee, then by the presence of a television. He knew the two towers had collapsed, but he remained paralyzed in front of the images.
People gathered around the device, horrified, several were crying. The television remained on all night. At the back of the room, the image flickered like the flame of a candle.
It was almost 4 a.m. when Aer Lingus passengers were transferred by bus to the premises of the Royal Canadian Legion. Despite the hour, volunteers were waiting for them with hot soup and sandwiches. But most travelers wanted only one thing: a blanket, a pillow, and a place to lie down.
Hannah O’Rourke lined up to call. Although it was very late, she called Kevin’s house. His wife Maryann picked up. The news was not reassuring. Kevin’s captain had called her earlier. “Kevin is missing,” says Maryann. They still hope to find him alive. ”
“Let’s pray that everything will be okay,” Hannah replied firmly before handing the receiver to her husband. Maryann repeated the information and Dennis burst into tears.
George Vitale laced up his sports shoes. He had all his belongings in hand luggage. For a long time, running served as an outlet for the stress inherent in his work. Almost every day, he left his Brooklyn apartment to run towards the Manhattan skyline with its Twin Towers as a landmark. Until 1996, the governor’s Manhattan offices, where he handled security, were housed in the South Tower. Would he have the strength to run again towards this horizon, the two towers of which had been obliterated?
He had called his family as soon as he arrived in Appleton. “How’s Anthony?” he asked his brother Dennis.
“It’s okay,” the latter replied without much enthusiasm.
George Vitale was relieved.
“But David is missing.”
Anthony’s younger brother David, 38, had only joined the fire department three years earlier. He had a wife and a 12 year old daughter. M. Vitale remembered a laughing boy and a good father.
Along the river at Appleton, George Vitale wanted to clear his mind. The rapid pace of his stride kept his pain at bay.
After a few kilometers, he returned to the community center. There was no shower, but a couple invited him into their house so that he could bathe. They also told him not to hesitate to help himself from the refrigerator and to use the phone and the computer. They handed him the TV remote, then left.
M. Vitale could not believe it. Without hesitation, this couple had left a stranger alone in their home. It was a mark of confidence and he desperately needed it – something to chase away the pain that gripped him.
After a few hours of sleep, Hannah O’Rourke ventured four blocks from the Royal Legion Hall to the Parish Church of St. Joseph. “Father, will you pray for our son?” She asked the priest.
She called her daughter after morning mass. Being so far away accentuated his feeling of helplessness. “We still have no news,” Patricia announced. Don’t despair, mom. You know Kevin; he will get out of it. “
Some citizens offered to welcome Hannah and Dennis into their homes. They refused, fearing that they would miss a call or that they would not be known where to find them if they left the accommodation.
Several people took turns with the anxious couple. Beulah Cooper, 60, whose son was a volunteer firefighter in Gander, felt a special affection for the 66-year-old Hannah herself. This kind-hearted woman loved to tell jokes and didn’t shy away from them around Hannah. She smiled, sometimes laughed, which encouraged her to continue.
All of Gander’s businesses mobilized for the passengers. The KFC, Subway and local pizzerias delivered plenty of meals. The food cooperative will provide continuous service.
The telephone company established a bank of telephones and computers. The cable television service ensured that there was a device in all the shelters. Pharmacists filled more than a thousand prescriptions in the 24 hours following the arrival of passengers, calling doctors or pharmacists in the cities of origin for clinical information.
It is also important to emphasize the good news that is happening around the world.