The world is blessed and often amazed with the kindness of strangers.
Marilyn and Geoffrey Posner, an ophthalmologist with Marietta Eye Clinic, were on Delta Flight 129 from Ireland on Sept. 11, 2001, when the pilot calmly announced that the plane would be diverted to Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport, which has been used for refueling and emergencies since World War II.
After landing, the passengers were told about the terrorist attacks in the United States. They therefore were grounded in Canada.
Four days in sleeping bags without access to luggage led to interaction with the townspeople, who stepped up to host the stranded strangers. An offshoot of this humanitarian phenomenon is the current Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
Read what the Posners experienced in the town of Lewisporte (population 3,300) as we mark the 16th anniversary of 9/11 and the deaths of 3,000 Americans.
Jaffe: So you were vacationing in Ireland, returning to Atlanta on a nonstop Delta flight.
Geoffrey: There were about 350 passengers (Americans and Irish) on our flight. Halfway across the Atlantic, our pilot announced that we would be landing in Canada, assured us there was nothing wrong with the plane itself and that we would receive updates. As a physician, my initial reaction was that there was a sick passenger aboard.
When we landed in Gander, we saw other planes lining up. Our pilot told us that the Pentagon and Twin Towers were attacked with 30,000 dead. Everyone was in shock.
Jaffe: How did the logistics work? Where were you housed and fed?
Marilyn: Since there were 37 planes, we all went to various towns (taken by school bus). We were taken to a large building at the Kinsmen Club of Notre Dame in Lewisporte. We had three meals a day prepared by the townspeople in the facility’s large kitchen.
They have raised over a million dollars for their charitable efforts; and many of us contributed after returning home.
The crew stayed in motels to be well rested when we got the OK to fly. On the positive side, the teenagers had a good time socializing with the Lewisporte teens.
Jaffe: You’re matter-of-fact about this now. What was your level of tension at the time?
Geoffrey: Everything was minute to minute. We were grounded initially overnight on the plane with mostly peanuts. People who had family in Manhattan were crying and praying when we were told that an estimated 30,000 people were killed. Of course, that figure was later revised.
Jaffe: How were the communications and security handled? Were there regular announcements or a daily written communiqué?
Marilyn: We were told to stay close to headquarters but were able to walk into the town. There was a huge TV screen with updates. Few people had cellphones; but we were provided with access to free phone lines all day. Some people went into town to the general store or to get their hair done. We had an Irish storyteller on board to entertain us. We were touched by a family who invited us into their home for dinner and sleepover the very last night. At 6 a.m. the following Saturday (Sept. 15), we got the call to board the plane.
Geoffrey: Coincidentally, this was our pilot’s last flight after a long career, and his celebration was obviously delayed. Poor guy: When we got clearance to leave Gander, our plane would not start. Since everyone’s nerves were on edge, he warned us that he would jump-start the plane, which resulted in a tremendous jerking motion.
There was loud applause upon liftoff. When we landed in Atlanta, Hartsfield Airport was like a ghost town. A huge sign inside read “Welcome Home!”
Jaffe: Were there any special concerns or arrangements for Jewish passengers?
Geoffrey: Interestingly, the mayor of Gander is Jewish. The first day, they inquired if there were any special meal requests. Kosher and other dietary accommodations were made. They also got everyone’s medical and drug requests taken care of.
Jaffe: Did you see the new Broadway hit “Come From Away”?
Marilyn: Yes, this past April. We chatted with other stranded passengers (also in the audience) and spent 90 minutes onstage after the play, chatting with the actors about our experiences. Note that the book, play’s script and musical creators are a Jewish couple from Toronto, David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
Jaffe: Last word. What message should we take away from your experience?
Marilyn: The world changed after 9/11. There is natural goodness in humanity. In a crisis like this, people came forward. The townspeople wept when we were leaving. They were preparing a fish fry that afternoon.