Mint Brook: September 11, 2001
One story of many in the Diocese of Central Newfoundland
Contributed by Bishop John Watton, Diocese of Central Newfoundland
On September 11, 2001, I was in my office installing crown moulding. I was the rector of the Anglican parish of Badger’s Quay Pools Island at the time, located in the township of New Wes Valley. Karen called me to look at what was happening on television. Remember: in 2001 for many of us, internet was just a dial-up nuisance. Over the next hours we, like many others, entered a vacuum as we were glued to our TVs. The scenes were nebulous, confusing and evocative. At some point a vague picture of what happened, and what was happening, unfolded. We sat, talked, walked around the house, prayed and acknowledged our feelings of sadness, fear, and concern.
Just as the sun was setting, I received a phone call. It was the Rev. David Torraville, who at the time was the diocesan executive officer. He was calling me partly because of my work in relation to youth outreach and community, and my deep connections to our diocesan camp at Mint Brook, Nfld. We had been asked to help. In all, 38 commercial planes and four military aircraft were forced to land at Gander International Airport.
Somewhere around 6,500 passengers were stranded in Central Newfoundland, and the diocese had been asked if they could do just a little bit more outside of what our local central Newfoundland churches had already started.
We were going to take all passengers of US Airways flight 27 bound from Paris to Philadelphia at Mint Brook Camp.
That phone call made things very real for me. I got on the phone, called our church leaders, then the mayor, local businesses, and whoever I could think of to ask for help in gathering food, water, blankets, toiletries or anything that might be needed for these people when they arrived. It didn’t take long for me to be bombarded with phone calls… questions—What to do? How are we going to do this…?—and offers of help.
What happened was amazing. The connections were solid and focused. Within the space of just a couple of hours, we had at least a dozen vehicles including Carter’s furniture van, along with the fire department’s transporter packed and ready to go. The community came alive and unified in a common purpose.
In order to coordinate things, I arranged for everyone to meet in front of my house at a specific time and we would leave for Mint Brook together.
When we arrived at Camp, others were waiting and we worked into the wee hours of the morning preparing the cabins and auditorium to receive our guests.
I like to describe the people on “our flight” (as we came to call it) as, “the butchers, the bakers and the candlestick makers”. We met people from all over the world, who spoke all sorts of languages, had all kinds of vocations, and related to what was happening out of many varieties of cultural and religious experiences.
I remember having conversations with some of the passengers about what it was like on the aircraft. Just when the passengers had a sense that they were across the Atlantic, the pilot announced that they had to land in Newfoundland because of engine problems.
After landing the pilot, explained the real reason for the arrival in Gander. “There is a security problem in the United States,” he said, “and all airspace has been closed to incoming and outgoing traffic.” With all of the planes in Gander, processing and recording all of the people took quite some time. Those on flight 27 spent almost 20 hours on board as they waited.
The events in the United States began to trickle in through passenger announcements as well as through cell phones. The news that planes had hit each of the World Trade Center towers. Then came the news that the towers had collapsed. The crew took an inventory of food and water on board, and asked passengers to ration what they had carried on board with them.
When they were finally able to disembark, inside the airport, people were greeted with food and they were directed as to the next steps. This group was told that all hotels were full, so they were to be accommodated at a church camp. They had really no idea of where they were, what they were headed into, or how long they would be there. They felt that they were in the middle of nowhere. They were loaded onto school buses and taken to Mint Brook.
We understood that these people were going to find themselves in another uncertain position. No billets, no hotels, just the best we could offer—a few cabins, rows of mattresses on the auditorium floor. Camp is a communal setting; I can say that overall, they took it well. Our friends were with us for five uncertain days; but in that timeframe, a special community was born, and friendships formed. Food, recreation and fellowship are the hallmarks of any church camp, and our “campers” took advantage of it. Canoeing, nature walks, prayer gatherings and great meals in our kitchen became part of every day.
At night, many of them would ask us to turn off all the camp lights so that they could lie on the field and see the stars.
In the evenings, hikes were made down the road to the shared cabin garbage bin, so they could see the black bears foraging there.
We tried to hook up a satellite dish, so that our friends could be connected to their own local and global news, but were unable because of the geography of the location. So we purchased a number of televisions and VCRs, and kept up a steady flow of recorded news reports and whatever newspapers we could find. Multiple copies of each item were delivered from people all around Central Newfoundland. I set up a website where people could receive and send messages that I relayed back and forth.
At one point, the captain of the flight came to visit and check on his passengers.
In the evenings, impromptu gatherings with music, storytelling, and sharing always took place.
Ours is one story of many, because people everywhere were offering hospitality and provision in many ways. New Wes Valley came alive—I made a few phone calls, that’s all. After these people arrived at camp, the support continued. Many would come to the camp, take visitors home for a break: to use a phone, shop, or even have a night away from the camp. Karen and I had a couple for an overnight at the rectory. It turns out they were cruise ship entertainers. They started playing and singing, and woke up all of our kids.
When it came time for them to leave, we gathered to say goodbye. Some farewells were boisterous, some very quiet. All were heartfelt.
There is more… much that can be said, but I am thankful for the chance to have shared these few images with you.