It was a massive undertaking, but this duo in St. John's helped where they could during 9/11

·4 min read
In this file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.   (Richard Drew/Associated Press file - image credit)
In this file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. (Richard Drew/Associated Press file - image credit)
Richard Drew/Associated Press file
Richard Drew/Associated Press file

In the days after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, Newfoundland and Labrador pulled together to ensure those stranded on rerouted and grounded flights had places to stay and food to eat.

Twenty years later, two city workers say they're still deeply affected by how St. John's reacted to its surprise visitors.

In St. John's, Marie White, former deputy mayor, and Kevin Gushue, former director of tourism for the city, helped run operations at a downtown convention centre. It was transformed into a supply centre, information desk, buffet counter and sleeping quarters, and housed a medical tent for 4,300 stranded airline passengers.

"My job was to get conventions and get tourists to come in. Little did I know what was about to hit me," Gushue told CBC Radio's On The Go.

It was a regular morning until the news broke of the attack some 2,600 kilometres away in New York City, both White and Gushue recall.

White said it was her son's first day of Kindergarten. After dropping him off at school she found herself glued to the news for hours after returning home.

It took some planning from the city's side to get the ball rolling on what its response to the situation would be.

Thousands of people would become stranded, hungry and without a place to lay their head.

"We offered. We volunteered to take this on here at the convention centre," said White.

"Pretty quickly we knew that planes were being diverted and there were going to be a number here. We didn't know how many. The city had an emergency response plan and they initiated it."

Listen to the full interview with On The Go:

Gushue said the information desk came first. White said that changed quickly as volunteers shifted to what she describes as being counselors, therapists, tour guides, coordinators and beggars. Both were plugging 15- to 17-hour days.

"We'd be phoning all the local groups and companies and saying 'we need more underwear, we need more toothpaste,'" she said.

"We had to be the calm voice in a very angry sea. Individuals were coming in and immediately they were traumatized by what was happening in their world."

Food was supplied by the Delta Hotel, which sits just diagonally from the downtown convention centre on New Gower Street. Cots were provided by the Canadian Red Cross. Everything else was donated by the public and local businesses, such as children's toys and blankets, said White.

Accomplishing the goal

Gushue said consistency was key in keeping the stranded passengers comfortable. He said he and White were the ones who became trusted by those who were grounded in St. John's, along with the late former mayor Andy Wells who would deliver daily updates over a microphone inside the convention hall.

The scale of the operation was much larger than anybody could have anticipated, Gushue said, remembering city staff were thrown into the situation before they realized what it would evidently turn out to be. He said it felt like treading water, but he, White, eight city staff and a team of volunteers just tried to do the best they could each day to help alleviate the stress.

Today, living through a pandemic, Gushue nods to Dr. Janice Fitzgerald's signature quote, "we're all in this together," as a reminder of what Sept. 11 felt like to him.

Gary Locke/CBC
Gary Locke/CBC

"Everybody who worked at city hall ... and all of the people in St. John's seemed to come together for this reason ... nobody knew what was going on, nobody knew what was going to happen, but we're all in this together now and we have to get through this," he said.

"And we did. That feeling of just accomplishing the goal that we had of helping everybody out as best we could, we knew that was successful based on feedback we got for years later. That's what I remember most."

As the week ended, airspace reopened and stranded passengers were finally able to continue their journey, White said it was a sombre moment. Gushue said it was an emotional time when it all ended, and the ordeal was a life-changing experience.

"I cried. They cried. They had made friends," said White. "People were filing out and they hugged every single one of us."

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