The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland – Jim DeFede

The Day the World Came to Town


On the Cover: “For the better part of a week, nearly every man, woman, and child in Gander and the surrounding smaller towns stopped what they were doing so they could help. They placed their lives on hold for a group of strangers and asked for nothing in return. They affirmed the basic goodness of man at a time when it was easy to doubt such humanity still existed.”

When thirty-eight jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001, due to the closing of United States airspace, the citizens of this small community were called upon to come to the aid of more than six thousand displaced travelers.

The people of Gander were asked to aid and care for these distraught travelers, as well as for thousands more, and their response was truly extraordinary. Oz Fudge, the town constable, searched all over Gander for a flight-crew member so that he could give her a hug as a favor to her sister, a fellow law enforcement officer who managed to reach him by phone. Eithne Smith, an elementary-school teacher, helped the passengers staying at her school put together letters to family members all over the world, which she then faxed. Bonnie Harris, Vi Tucker, and Linda Humby, members of a local animal protection agency, crawled into the jets’ cargo holds to feed and care for all of the animals on the flights. Hundreds of people put their names on a list to take passengers into their homes and give them a chance to get cleaned up and relax.

The Day the World Came to Town is a positively heartwarming account of the citizens of Gander and its surrounding communities and the unexpected guests who were welcomed with exemplary kindness.

Published: 2003



The Review:

I was drawn to this book entirely because of it’s subject matter of 9/11. To keep this in perspective, I should share that in 2001 I was twelve years old. While I was aware things were going on, I didn’t really understand them, and certainly didn’t understand the significance of it all. I had also never considered what active roles Canada had taken that day and in the days that followed.

The novel does a great job of relaying a lot of history in a short amount of space. I didn’t know that the US actually shut down it’s entire airspace, and that planes already in the air needed to find alternative places to land. Multiple Canadian airports took planes in, including Gander. I also learned that Gander had a military background with a fully functioning airbase, which eventually was transformed into a civilian airport and on 9/11 was able to accommodate 38 jetliners, all parked end to end on the tarmac. I was fascinated by how the emergency was handled, and the many people in Gander that were mobilized to make this possible.

Gander AirportGander Airport after 9/11

Putting all that history aside, this novel really focuses on the people. I really enjoyed that DeFede was able to capture such a variety of stories of the different people trying to fly to the States, their backgrounds, and their feelings of finding themselves in Gander. There was a surprising amount of emotion in this book, from stress over the current events, to unending gratitude, and at times even bouts of laughter. There were so many little details that make these stories memorable – such as Newfoundland families donating every towel and bed sheet that they owned, or Americans participating in a good old-fashioned Newfoundland Screech-in, kissing a days-old cod. DeFede is an incredible storyteller, and many of these stories really stuck with me.

I had never considered how much risk Canada or other countries took when accepting these planes. Nor had I ever considered how much fear these people would have, landing in a tiny place that they had never heard of, not knowing when they would get home. These stories of Newfoundlanders opening their arms to strangers and doing anything it took to make their stay easier are incredibly heartwarming and moving. This novel is good for so many reasons, and I sincerely recommend reading it.

And there’s one image that I will probably never get out of my head: weary travelers coming off of planes and seeing a giant world map hanging on the wall with an arrow pointing to a tiny island off of Canada and the words, You Are Here.

Rating: 5 / 5



“O’Reilly was privately terrified that there would be an accident. It wasn’t a question of his not having confidence in the ability of his controllers. The problem in his mind was that there were too many planes and, because they all had to land as quickly as possible, too little time to see them all in safely.

Without being called, off-duty controllers started arriving at the center within a half hour of the attacks. Eventually every controller working a screen had at least one backup and a supervisor to help. There was no real plan or thought given to which planes should land where. The controllers started dividing planes up among a handful of airports that could accommodate them. St John’s and Stephenville in Newfoundland, Moncton in New Brunswick, Halifax in Nova Scotia, as well as the airports in larger cities like Montreal, Quebec, and even Toronto. The key for O’Reilly, however, was Gander.” (p 23)

“O’Donnell had one rule for the toys: nothing violent. No war toys. No guns. Not now, not with everything that had happened on September 11. Instead, O’Donnell loaded up on dolls and stuffed animals and board games and trucks and race cars. She even managed to find a few handheld computer games. She made sure that every toy that needed batteries had them. They filled up the back of a fire truck and raced home to Gander. The fire truck went from shelter to shelter, handing out toys to kids who would come running to greet them. Each day it made a loop of the shelters to make sure none of the kids was missed. Members of Gander’s volunteer fire department took turns going to the different schools, churches, and lodges so they could see the look on the kids’ faces when they pulled up. O’Donnell wasn’t sure how many toys they gave away or how much it cost. She just liked the feeling of being a Newfie Mrs. Claus.” ( p 150)

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Where I Belong – Alan Doyle

DoyleOn The Cover: Singer-songwriter and front man of the great Canadian band Great Big Sea, Alan Doyle is also a lyrical storyteller and a creative force. In Where I Belong, Alan paints a vivid, raucous and heartwarming portrait of a curious young lad born into the small coastal fishing community of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, and destined to become a renowned musician who carried the musical tradition of generations before him and brought his signature sound to the world. He tells of a childhood surrounded by larger-than-life characters who made an indelible impression on his music and work; of his first job on the wharf cutting out cod tongues for fishermen; of growing up in a family of five in a two-bedroom house with a beef-bucket as a toilet, yet lacking nothing; of learning at his father’s knee how to sing the story of a song and learning from his mother how to simply “be good”; and finally, of how everything he ever learned as a kid prepared him for that pivotal moment when he became part of Great Big Sea and sailed away on what would be the greatest musical adventure of his life.
Filled with the lore and traditions of the East Coast and told in a voice that is at once captivating and refreshingly candid, this is a narrative journey about small-town life, curiosity and creative fulfillment, and finally, about leaving everything you know behind only to learn that no matter where you go, home will always be with you.

Published: 2014

Why I Chose It: As a Great Big Sea fan I was immediately curious about Doyle’s memoir and the tales of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland.

The Review:

In the “Author’s Note” Doyle begins by saying “I am from Newfoundland. Therefore, I am a bit of a story-teller.” (p xiii) By far that is the strength of this book. The style of writing is incredibly easy to read. It seems to flow naturally off of the page, and seems almost elegant. Yet each story remains interesting and funny and entertaining. While not quite linear, the book does make its way from the childhood of Doyle to the creation of Great Big Sea. It is almost as if this book contains many short stories, yet collectively they create the young life of Alan Doyle, and it’s a really enjoyable story.

There is a really great amount of culture held within this book. As the story surrounds a Canadian, but more importantly a Newfoundlander, Doyle properly represents that heritage in his stories. There were many different aspects of life in Petty Harbour, such as working with the fishermen on the wharf, the religious culture, and of course the singing parties. There were also really great pictures capturing the heart of each story. I want to call this book quaint,  simply because I felt immersed in the culture of the coastal Newfoundland town and it was a highly enjoyable experience.

This story focuses on Doyle’s life before Great Big Sea. Doyle joined the band when he was 24, so appropriately this memoir really is about his childhood growing up in Petty Harbour. I really enjoyed the window into Doyle’s childhood, though there were perhaps a few too many stories of a young boy’s curiosity about girls and sex. While I wish there had been more stories about Doyle’s teen life or his involvement in Great Big Sea, I do like how the theme of this book stayed focused on the coastal town, and it was really great hearing about how he learned to sing and play guitar. I would be really interested if Doyle wrote more memoirs about the band or his later years. Definitely check this one out if you’re a fan of Great Big Sea or interested in the cultural life of Atlantic Canada.

Rating: 4 / 5


“We wondered what this man could possibly be doing there in one spot for so long, not lifting or hauling or building anything. He held a long paintbrush in one hand and a flat piece of board in the other, which was dotted with reds and blues and greens. His longer than local hair lifted and fell gently in the spring breeze. As we often did when a new person showed up in town, we came to an unspoken yet unanimous decision that we should throw rocks at him and run up behind the church when he chased us.” p 26

“(Note for Mainlanders: a lobster pound is an onshore holding tank for lobsters, where sea water is pumped in to keep the creatures alive and kicking until they’re sold and moved. I was shocked when my editor told me I had to explain this.)” p 29

“Every now and again, I’d see Sean or his bandmate Darrell Power lurking in the back of one of my gigs, listening to a song or two. Even then, they were pretty well known, so it was hard for them to hide. Bob tells me of how in the dying days of Rankin Street, in 1992, Sean returned to their packed house at Nautical Nellies and whispered to Bob, ‘I just saw the guy we need for our new band. He’s a Doyle from Petty Harbour.'” p 278