I remember staring at the television screen in disbelief and horror. I was 23 and working as a youth pastor at a church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001. Someone came into my office and said to come to the television. The other pastors, the janitor, the church secretary, and the guy who shredded our paper stood around the TV in the church nursery as the towers fell. I remember saying out loud as I watched people jumping to save their lives: “Those are real people.”
It was later that we heard that the planes were landing at our local airport, not very far from where we were sitting. It was later that we found out that 150 people were coming to spend the night in our church gym, and we would need to get ready. It was later that the day started to change in my memory.
Of course, I remember the devastation and the heartbreak. I will never forget.
But, because I was living in a city in the most easterly part of Canada, where planes diverted from the U.S. air space were forced to land, and because I was working in a large church, and because our church had a gym big enough to hold a lot of people, I remember a lot more about 9-11 and the days that followed, than the horror. I remember how people came together and created something beautiful, when it seemed like there could only ever be room for ugly ever again.
I remember the generosity.
I remember when we had to start asking people to stop bringing sleeping bags to the church that first night. Our church was listed as a temporary shelter on the news, and within an hour, we couldn’t handle anymore blankets or pillows. People just kept showing up with more, and more, and more. Everyone wanted to help. Within a couple of hours of being told we would have 150 people staying with us, we had set up 150 beds, each with air mattress, pillow, sleeping gear – all donated.
I remember walking through Sobey’s at 1 in the morning, the only grocery store in town open that late, buying breakfast for 150 people. I remember that the next day, we had so much food donated that we didn’t even need what we’d purchased.
I remember walking into the church every day for the next five days that the plane people ended up staying to tables overflowing with donations of food and clothes. I remember when a small town on the other side of the island donated a gourmet fish buffet hosted by a local restaurant for everyone staying at our church. I remember when the most expensive restaurant in town came and hosted a prime rib dinner, with their top chef carving the beef for 150 guests.
I remember when a few people couldn’t sleep one night because of snoring. I went to a Shoppers and asked if we could get some ear plugs for our church because we were hosting plane people. They handed me over a box of 200 packs, no more questions asked.
I remember moments of joy.
I remember taking people around the city in a borrowed van. I remember watching their amazement when they got to the top of Signal Hill and said “we didn’t even know this place existed in the world!” I remember walking into stores and tourist spots and being told everything was free because we had “plane people” with us.
I remember staying up late with the stragglers and singing karaoke. I remember how much our English friends ended up loving Tim Horton’s, especially Tim Bits. I remember when one guy decided to dress up as Santa for the children.
I remember laughing until our sides hurt when a woman came to a group of us saying she couldn’t find her “nickers” – her underwear – which had been sent out for dry cleaning. When she explained where the dry cleaning rack was, one woman realized she had taken them thinking they were a donation. “I’m wearing your nickers!!” she declared, to her shock and shame. And we all cried we laughed so hard.
I remember friends.
I remember forming a group with six people that became our pose. I remember one of the guys showing me the engagement ring he was carrying his pocket, ready to propose at just the right moment when they finally got to Los Angeles. I remember bringing one woman to my house so she could have a bath. In our bathroom there was a little wooden sign that said, “Baths’ -5 cents.” I remember a few days later discovering a nickel left on top of the sign.
Yes, I remember the hard stuff too.
I remember the stares of people who didn’t turn away from the TV news. I remember the never ending lines for the phones, those desperate to get home, the couple that missed their son’s wedding and the woman who sobbed on my shoulder because she was so tired and overwhelmed. I remember how scared everyone was to get back on a plane. I remember crying together, often.
But I also remember…love.
Yes, it sounds cheesy, but I can’t think of a better word. It was a surreal time – we had just witnessed the worst act of hate most of us had ever seen in our lifetimes, and I was living in a corner of the world where love was everywhere. It was like we were surrounded by an anthem everyday: “Hate will not win.”
Terror had happened, it was true, but we were still able to eat together, laugh together, cry together – and accidentally share each other’s underwear.
It is one of the times in my life that I have felt the very closest to God. God was everywhere it seemed to me, reminding us in our little corner that what seemed like the end wasn’t going to be. Hate would not win.
So forgive me if it seems a bit callous to say, but it is true that on September 11, even as I feel very sad, I can’t help but smile a little, too. I smile because – I remember.
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This is such a beautiful story, I cried and laughed also.
Beautiful Leanne, a wonderful description of your amazing experience. Life at its rawest made into love for your neighbors. The modern day Samaritan story brought to life. Thank you to all those who changed lives in those days following 9/11. Bless your ministry.
I loved this Leanne. We watched as well in our workplaces and homes but had no idea what was happening in our country as well. I have to say I got tears reading this. Tears for those who died and tears of pride for being part of this wonderful loving, supportive and friendly country we call our home.
Thank you Leanne. Beautiful stuff.
Natalie’s high school buddy is part of the original cast of “Come From Away” which makes for a cool connection. I can’t believe I never asked you about what role you may have played in it. Thanks again for writing this.
Please tell her that they got that musical JUST RIGHT. Seriously. They totally nailed everything we felt. The only line in the whole musical that is off is when it talks about having to “dust off” the salvation army uniforms. We didn’t have to dust them off. We wore them all the time. 🙂
Leanne.. I’m writing a book about the untold stories and unsung heroes of 9/11 in NL. I loved your story… One of several hundred that I hope to work into the book. I was involved in the Gander volunteer response. Can you please contact me at email@example.com so I can ask a couple of questions? Mac Moss
Leanne, So many times I’ve heard people in Gander recount their stories. Yours is the first one I’ve heard from St. John’s. We were due to fly back out west that morning and got turned around at the airport with no explanations other than there were no flights out today. It didn’t take long to find out why. Back at Kevin’s apartment across the road from the church, I sat all that first and into the second day watching TV in horror and disbelief until I couldn’t watch it anymore. I ended up at the church offering to do something–anything! Tom or Major (they were both in Majors office) passed me keys to a van and asked me to drive people wherever they wanted to go. I remember how one lady had not heard from her daughter who worked at one of the towers and how upset she was, I also remember dropping some at Walmart where they picked up personal items and clothes.Not only were they amazed that Walmart wouldn’t accept any money for their items but when I took them on a tour around the city, they were so grateful. I remember bringing them back to the church and how some rushed to the bulletin board to see if there were any messages for them. Yes, there was sadness and tears but like you in the midst of it all, there was also good. It was definitely a time of realizing how truly blessed we were. Love definitely prevailed over hatred in these days. You did a great job capturing the atmosphere there at that time. May God Bless you!
I remember too, Leanne. I have pictures that I look at every now and then, in an envelope simply labeled “the plane people”. Now, as I remember the heartache of that day, I thank God that in some small way I was able to help.
I understand this is from your perspective but it does feel a little callous as you say, to talk about smiling at the memory of this event given not only the lives lost on that day but the thousands who lost their lives to war as a direct result in the years after. And I understand you felt love and God’s presence due to the kindness shown by your community but to say love won or whatever is just so naive at best. Particularly for Muslim people facing hate crimes and all the people who died and are still suffering in Iraq, and Afghanistan.
I certainly mean no disrespect to the many lives lost and the suffering of that day and the years to come. The images and memories of those things still bring tears to my eyes as well. I DO believe that in the midst of terrible things when people choose to respond by helping others instead of turning on each other in fear, that it is small glimpse of love winning. Thanks for sharing this important reminder.