Twenty years ago, a former secretary of the U.S. navy named Richard Danzig was on a flight from Paris to Washington when it was unexpectedly diverted to Halifax.
The plane landed and passengers were moved to the military base in Aldershot, N.S. Another man on the flight lent Danzig his cellphone, which is how he started to understand the tragedy that was unfolding in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We weren't seeing any of this as all the rest of the world was, live time," Danzig told CBC Radio's Information Morning Friday from his home in Washington. "We were in the air."
The horrific events of the day would leave thousands of people dead and much of the world in shock as the World Trade Center towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, and U.S. airspace was closed. Yet in Nova Scotia, Danzig was surrounded by people who wanted to help him and the other 8,000 passengers from the 40 planes suddenly stranded in Halifax.
"You had this remarkable human set of connections in Canada, and then on the other hand you have the inhumanity of the act and what we were seeing on the news," he said.
Danzig had an office in the Pentagon at the time, and knew people who worked with those who had died. But he was stuck in Nova Scotia, needing a place to stay and to connect with friends and family in the U.S.
Enter Penelope Jackson.
Jackson was also new to Nova Scotia, having just moved from Ontario to Kentville that August. When she and her roommate, Audra Williams, heard passengers were stuck at the military base, they wanted to help. They called lines set up for that, but couldn't get through.
So they raced to the military base to offer what help they could. They had a big bungalow in the woods with extra space.
"I think the whole province had the same instinct as us, which was we wanted to do something to help," she said.
They walked around, approaching strangers and offering a free bed for anyone who needed it. Danzig, and another man from the plane — they only remember that his name was Alan Spaulding — accepted their offer.
Danzig told them only that he was a lawyer who had worked for the U.S. government, and did not tell Jackson, her roommate, or Spaulding, how high a rank he had held in that government.
After that night, Jackson and Danzig exchanged emails, but never spoke again, until they reunited on Information Morning.
"It's twenty years since I've heard Penelope's voice. I wonder if she's still talking to strangers," he said jokingly.
Hearing Jackson's voice during the interview also brought back "a lot of nostalgia" for Danzig.
"These were two women who were sort of at the student stage, didn't have much money," he said. "Alan and I didn't know each other before, so I think all of us found that this is just an unusual opportunity to be connected to each other."
Conversation that evening ranged from books and nature, to the unthinkable tragedy that had just hit the U.S. Neither woman suspected Danzig was not just a random American, but had recently been a high-ranking member of the armed forces.
"You had been pretty — not cagey, but private about who you were. I think you just said you were a lawyer," she said.
Death and love
Danzig had told the Canadian military who he was, and also gave them Jackson's house phone number in case they needed to reach him.
"After all the disorientation, this also was an unexpected and strange thing. Penelope and [Audra] were extremely warm and giving," he said. "I figured this is just one more stage in the adventure of seeing the world from a wholly different angle than we imagined it on the tenth of September. Or even that morning."
A senior Canadian general did call him — but got the roommate, who told him Danzig was downtown. Intrigued, she searched his name online and found out that he had been the secretary of the navy at the start of 2001.
They ended up reading his speeches and learning a lot about his career before he returned to their temporarily shared home.
Both said the bond they formed that day has remained an important part of their lives.
"When you think about it, those are probably the two most existential aspects of all of our lives: the presence of death and callousness and indifference among human beings on the one hand, and the presence of generosity and warmth and supportiveness and love among human beings."
Jackson agreed and said the older men helped the younger women deal with the horrific disaster.
"It helped us probably more than it helped Richard and Alan. To have real adults around who were such a calming presence when we had no community in Kentville yet. We were really shocked," she said.
"It was a very natural almost like a summer camp-like connection. It felt like a very safe and secure place."
The two hope to reconnect again on the thirtieth anniversary of the event.
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