Magazine article The New Yorker

Plane People

Magazine article The New Yorker

Plane People

Article excerpt

Plane People

The town of Gander, Newfoundland, has six traffic lights and a population of less than thirteen thousand. Snowmobiling is popular, and people leave their car doors unlocked while they're at the grocery store. Its distinguishing feature--and the reason it exists--is its airport, which opened in 1938 and was once the largest in the world, making Gander a crucial transatlantic refuelling stop in the days before long-range jet travel. On September 11, 2001, after flights were rerouted to their nearest airports, thirty-eight jets suddenly landed in Gander, stranding some seven thousand passengers for up to five days in a town with only five hundred hotel rooms.

"The first thing I did was declare a state of emergency," Claude Elliott, the Mayor of Gander since 1996, recalled the other day. A stout sixty-seven-year-old with salt-and-pepper eyebrows and a thick Newfoundland accent, Elliott was in New York with his wife and daughter for the opening of "Come from Away," a new Broadway musical recounting Gander's act of extreme hospitality. It was his third time in New York City. "Going out for breakfast, we were standing on the street corner and I told my wife, 'There's more people here this morning than what live in Gander,' " he said.

Elliott's mayoral duties typically include welcoming conventiongoers and negotiating local disputes, such as the school-bus drivers' strike that was in effect on 9/11. The arrival of the plane people, as the locals called them, nearly doubled the town's population. "I didn't go home for five days," Elliott, who is retiring as mayor in September, recalled. Elementary schools were converted into makeshift dormitories. Volunteers from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross made lunches, and the hockey rink became a walk-in refrigerator. Other logistical problems were trickier. "We ran out of underwear," Elliott said, so more was trucked in from St. John's, two hundred and seven miles away. The plane people hailed from ninety-five countries, including Zimbabwe; kosher meals were required, as was a place for Muslim passengers to pray. A town veterinarian took care of the animals in the planes' cargo holds, including two chimpanzees en route to the Columbus, Ohio, zoo. "A few years later, I got a letter from the Columbus Zoo and a picture of a baby chimpanzee, and they'd named it Gander," Elliott said.

By Day Two of the crisis, Elliott was at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall, initiating marooned passengers as honorary Newfoundlanders, in a ritual named "screeching in": visitors wear yellow sou'westers, eat hard bread and pickled bologna, kiss a cod on the lips, then drink the local rum, called screech, while onlookers bang an "ugly stick" covered in beer-bottle caps. …

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