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A Safe Haven in the Sea

Globe with arrow pointing to Newfoundland, inset photo of Gander Public Library exterior (Photo: ©cnky photography/Adobe Stock (globe); Gander (Newfoundland) Public and Resources Library (exterior))
Photo: ©cnky photography/Adobe Stock (globe); Gander (Newfoundland) Public and Resources Library (exterior)

Imagine you’re on an island in the middle of the ocean, and you’ve never heard of it, and you’re trapped there.” That’s what Pam Soucy, a library assistant at Gander Public and Resource Library (GPRL), and her coworkers told themselves in the days following September 11, 2001, when more than 6,500 passengers and crew members saw their flights diverted to Gander, a tiny town of about 10,000 people in Newfoundland, Canada, after the airspace over the US was suddenly closed for almost a week.

Gander’s small airport had evolved from a strategic post during World War II to a refueling station for transatlantic flights during the 1950s and 1960s. The planes began arriving on the day of the attack. Soucy, now retired, and then–GPRL Manager Glenda Peddle, who died in 2018, knew people working in air traffic control who provided regular updates on the status of the planes that day.

“That evening,” Soucy says, “the planes were just coming in one right after the other,” 38 jets in all. She thought: “What’s going to happen to all these people? Who’s going to look after them?”

Gander residents immediately set out to find clothing, food, and sleeping space all over town for the visitors. GPRL staffers started strategizing as well. Patricia Parsons, who retired in 2015, was manager of Central Regional Libraries, administering 34 branches in central Newfoundland. Her office shared a coffee room with GPRL, which became the main branch to aid stranded passengers because of its proximity to the airport and its relatively large team of three full-time and four part-time staffers. Other branches in the nearby towns of Gambo, Glenwood, and Lewisporte assisted but had only one staff member each, plus volunteers.

“A lot of people didn’t know where they were. They thought they’d landed in Iceland or Greenland.” —Patricia Parsons, retired manager of Central Regional Libraries in Newfoundland, Canada

The diverted planes were on the ground for more than 20 hours of security checks before passengers were allowed to disembark, with most passengers given little information. “When they got off the planes, they didn’t even know what had happened,” Soucy says. She describes tears and anxiety, especially from young people traveling on their own and those who didn’t speak English.

Parsons extended GPRL’s library hours immediately, opening earlier in the morning and closing later at night. On the morning of September 12, she says, visitors started coming to the library looking for computer and telephone access to contact loved ones. GPRL’s 30 computers—including 10 laptops that had recently been donated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—were put to nonstop use, and the phone company set up booths for free calls on the street in front of the library. “The whole area was a beehive of people,” Soucy says.

“We took our own offices and all the public spaces we had and just gave them to people,” Parsons says. “The staff contract went right out the window,” she says, as did the library’s budget restrictions for things like long-distance calls and faxes.

Stranded passengers also came to GPRL seeking a quiet place away from the crowded school gyms and church basements that had been commandeered as emergency housing. “We just talked to them as normal as could be and tried to make them feel safe and comfortable,” Soucy says. Library staffers even shared their own homemade lunches.

“A lot of people didn’t know where they were,” Parsons says. “They thought they’d landed in Iceland or Greenland.” GPRL staffers pinned maps of the region to the walls and brought out books from the local history collection. Parsons showed that the ocean could be reached in an hour’s drive—which some of the visitors took her up on. “So off I went one day with two or three guys from Belgium,” she remembers, driving them in her own car to the seaside so they could have a pleasant memory from their truncated vacation.

GPRL staffers served 1,100 extra patrons that week, about 200 per day. The story of Gander’s kindness to thousands of strangers inspired the 2017 Broadway musical Come from Away, which Parsons and Soucy both say they enjoyed, despite its absence of librarian characters. Many passengers stayed in touch with the library through thank-you cards and donations. “They always acknowledged our services and our kindness,” Parsons says. Her Belgian friends even expressed gratitude for the impromptu road trip by sending fine chocolates to the library for several years.

“I always refer to it as the best of times and the worst of times for us because it was devastating for everybody, and yet we got to meet people from all over the world who came through the door,” Parsons says. “We provided a safe haven for them, which is one of our primary services to anybody.”

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