In a quiet corner of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander, there’s a sobering piece of a steel beam cut from one of the fallen Twin Towers after the 9/11 terror attacks. The Newfoundland and Labrador town got the beam as a thank you for famously opening its heart to 42 planeloads of people in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 and caring for nearly 6,700 of them for days.
The scorched steel isn’t kept behind glass. It’s right out in the open for everybody to touch and connect with — and it’s one of three such pieces spread across the town. A few steps away, a bulletin board labelled “Dear People of Gander” showcases some of the thank you letters and cards the town received and hints at the heartwarming story that unfolded here and still captivates a world hungry for good news.
tap here to see other videos from our team.
A tactile reminder
The last time I was in this town of 12,000 for more than gas, groceries and lunch was February 2017. Come From Away had just launched in Toronto to rave reviews but had yet to become a smash hit on Broadway. Now the musical about the town that welcomed so many stranded passengers — sparking romances and lastings friendships — is playing around the world and winning Tony awards and nominations.
With the momentum of Come From Away, Gander launched a guided tour about its 9/11 experience in June 2017. Abby Moss of Beyond Words Tours took three of us on an abbreviated private version of the tour that usually runs nearly 3.5 hours and costs $99.
The fabulous airport
“We’ll head to the place where the passengers started their journey and where we start our journey,” says Moss, who was in Grade 1 when 9/11 happened and remembers being sent home at lunch. She was an adult when Come From Away hit Broadway in 2017 and Ganderites realized the untapped tourism potential. This year, tours runs daily from June to August as a fundraiser for the museum.
We hop into a branded van and zip over to Gander International Airport. It opened in 1938, was a strategic base during the Second World War, and was one of the world’s busiest airports by the 1950’s as planes needed a spot to refuel before and after crossing the ocean. Traffic plummeted after that changed, but Gander was perfectly positioned to help on 9/11 when wide-body planes on transatlantic flights were forced to land.
The airport received 38 commercial and four military planes. Passengers fanned out across Gander and into neighbouring communities like Appleton and Gambo. “Gander gets a lot of the credit,” Moss admits, “but we didn’t do all of the work.”
The second piece of steel
Moss takes us to Gander’s second piece of World Trade Center steel, this one presented to the airport “for the profound humanitarian role” it played in the wake of the attacks.
I spot Jerry Cramm, the security guard who doubles as an impromptu tour guide when the airport is between flights. He’s the one who first showed me the international departures lounge where the “plane people” were processed on Sept. 11, and where long before that Queen Elizabeth, Fidel Castro and James Dean once passed through. (You can find out more about the airport’s famous guests back at the museum.)
I love how this portion of the airport is frozen in 1959, the year it was built. The National Trust of Canada calls it a “mid-century gem” and says design experts consider it “the single most important modernist room in Canada” with its massive mural, geometric terrazzo floors and once cutting-edge furniture.
Moss details some of the mural’s intricacies and then reveals a stairwell that leads to a public viewing area over the lounge and then to a window that overlooks the tarmac and the airport’s iconic “Welcome to Gander” sign. On our way out, we pass by the construction site for a much-needed restaurant downstairs.
The third piece of steel
Before seeing an exclusive mini 9/11 exhibit and Commander Gander (the town’s goose mascot in flight goggles), we swing by the lobby of Gander Town Hall to touch the town’s third piece of World Trade Center steel. This one came from the Bethpage, New York fire department in appreciation for “the comfort and care” given to stranded passengers, including the parents of New York firefighter Kevin O’Rourke who died while helping evacuate Tower One.
A sobering memorial
It’s not part of the “Come From Away experience,” but Moss agrees to use some of our tour time to drive to the Silent Witness Memorial. The Arrow Air Crash killed 256 people in 1985 that includes the aircrew and American military personnel returning from a peacekeeping mission. Here in the woods, where the plane stalled and crashed after refuelling in Gander, there’s a sculpture of an American soldier holding the hands of two civilian children clutching olive branches. Nearby, the Cross of Sacrifice was crafted from the remains of the emergency exit door of the ill-fated DC-8 carrying the peacekeepers from Egypt to Kentucky. Experts said ice on the wings caused the deadliest aviation disaster in Canadian history, but some still suspect an explosion or other nefarious causes.
While you’re in Gander
Moss helpfully points out Gander’s shops, eateries and hotels and shares trivia, like the fact the town shaped its original streets like the head of a gander (a male goose).
I have an ongoing obsession with the Creamsicle cake that’s occasionally on the menu at Alcock & Brown’s Eatery in the Quality Hotel & Suites, which has an indoor pool. I can vouch for the home cooking at the All-New Rosie’s Restaurant & Bakery. Sometimes I go for the turkey mess, other times I luck into the jiggs dinner, a traditional Sunday meal made of boiled meat and vegetables that’s served here on Thursdays. For caffeine, I like Jumping Bean Coffee. For homemade mittens and other souvenirs, go to Moor-Crafts and Gifts.
Before you leave town, check out how many streets are named after aviators pioneers, like John Alcock and Arthur Brown, the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. It’s one of Gander’s unique traditions.