First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
It was gloomy when we left Zurich early on that Tuesday morning. My husband, Rick, and I were returning to the United States after spending two weeks in Switzerland. Rushing to our gate, we encountered the usual hustle and bustle of international travellers.
Once airborne, we settled in for the transatlantic flight to Philadelphia. The food was mediocre and the movie forgettable. The pilot talked of the “perfect flying conditions.”
Two hours from our arrival time, our pilot came on the intercom. “Folks, seems we encountered strong headwinds. We can’t enter Philly’s airspace with the fuel we have, so we are going to land in Moncton, N.B., Canada, and refuel.”
My husband and I were more charmed than alarmed. Rick and I were familiar with Moncton. On a driving trip years earlier, the city was a quick stop on our way to somewhere else. After the pilot’s announcement, the flight attendants prepared us for landing.
Taxiing after landing, I looked out the window. I could see jets all lined up in a row. We knew that Moncton wasn’t a large city, so it seemed unusual. Once the engines were off, the pilot came back on the intercom and said, with a quiver in his voice, “Folks, there’s been a terrorist attack on the United States.” There was an audible and collective gasp all around us. “Planes flew into the World Trade Center in a terrorist attack. American airspace is closed.” What did “terrorist attack” mean? Who attacked? What had happened?
Cellphones were not common in 2001. I was one of few passengers who had one. My dad wasn’t home, so I called my boss. As he described the events, I repeated what he said to the other passengers around us. When he said, “The towers collapsed,” I couldn’t grasp it. “What do you mean the towers collapsed?” Other passengers who were listening around me became wide-eyed. “The World Trade Center is gone. There were two planes. Both towers fell to the ground. No one knows if there are more planes,” he added. That explained why we were in Canada. The world had changed as we crossed the Atlantic.
After hours of waiting, we were allowed off the plane. At the bottom of the ramps, volunteers stood with bushels of fresh apples they handed out along with an information sheet explaining where we were and what would happen next. As the sun set, we joined passengers from the other planes and crossed the tarmac to a hangar set up with chairs and a large-screen TV – and our first look at the attacks. We were stunned by the images, and the casualties: over and over the buildings collapsed. Everything felt surreal.
Volunteers arrived with food donated by the local McDonald’s – a bit of welcome normalcy. Tables were set up with diapers and formula, and with free phones for passengers to call loved ones. A play area was arranged well away from the television coverage for the children. I was touched by the Red Cross worker handing out teddy bears to the kids and tenderly touching their shoulders in comfort. But, despite the food and teddy bears, there was the stress of not knowing what was going to happen next.
As evening became night, we were bused to the Moncton Coliseum to be processed. Our interviewer asked if we wanted to sleep on a cot in the large hall or stay with a local family. We opted for a family. Like so many others, Bob and his wife Diane volunteered to open their home after hearing a call go out to the city’s residents. Bob wore a canary yellow T-shirt and we followed him through the mass of people like ducklings following a mother duck. We had no clothes other than what we were wearing – all luggage stayed on the plane to be checked for explosives – but at Bob and Diane’s we were able to shower and try to sleep. All night, we laid on the sofa bed in the basement and watched in numbed silence as the horrors of the day were repeated over and over on TV.
After breakfast, we reported back to the Coliseum for a briefing and then, we hoped, our journey home. Bob hinted that after talking with his RCMP colleagues, U.S. airspace would remain closed. He gave us his home phone number and told us to call him later.
All day, an endless stream of volunteers circulated with newspapers, food and water. A local restaurant chef prepared his “famous beef stew”; a woman made pots of soup in her tiny home kitchen and kept returning with more soup; a local drugstore donated toiletries – toothpaste, toothbrushes and more diapers. A department store even donated ladies’ underwear. Local teenagers organized soccer games to keep the kids occupied. Free phone banks and computers were set up so people could contact family. It seemed the entire community had mobilized.
U.S. airspace remained closed. On our way back to Bob’s, he stopped at a department store so we could buy clean clothes. The salespeople asked if we were the “travellers” and were especially kind and helpful.
Thursday was a waiting game. To relieve the anxiety, Bob took us on a tour of the area and we saw that many homes were flying American flags. It was difficult holding back my tears seeing those symbols flying in a show of unity.
Late in the afternoon, we finally got the news that U.S. airspace was opening, and our flight was scheduled for an 11 p.m. departure. We had a final, bittersweet dinner with our hosts. Knowing all bags would be checked for anything that could be used as a weapon, we left behind our beloved Swiss Army knives that we had travelled with for decades then Bob drove us to the airport, which was filled with tearful goodbyes between hosts and travellers who had only met 48 hours before.
We arrived home in Vermont on Friday evening – happy to be home but forever changed by our experience. And by Christmas, our Swiss Army knives arrived in the mail.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, my memory of the warmth and kindnesses extended to us by the people of Moncton remains vivid. Against the backdrop of unimaginable horror and brutality, the generosity and comfort we experienced helped mitigate the shock of the attacks. More than just sheltering and feeding us, our Canadian neighbours reminded us that most people are decent and kind. Our 9/11 story taught us that borders on a map do not define us, but our humanity does.
Cristine Hammer lives in Essex Junction, Vt.
Sign up for the weekly Parenting & Relationships newsletter for news and advice to help you be a better parent, partner, friend, family member or colleague.