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It is Their Legacy

Story ID:8282
Written by:Michael Timothy Smith (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:Gander NFLD Canada
Year:2001
Person:Citizens of Gander
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September 11, 2001, Shirley Brooks-Jones, a retired staff member at Ohio State
university and two hundred and seventeen fellow passengers sat on Delta flight 15 from
Germany to Atlanta, Georgia. They sat in comfort, while unbeknownst to them, terrorists
attacked The United States of America. Hijacked passenger jets, filled with hundreds of
passengers were flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New
York and into the Pentagon in Washington, DC.

The United States made the unprecedented move to shut the airspace over the United
States to all but military aircraft. International flights to the USA were diverted to Canada.

The small town of Gander, Newfoundland was overwhelmed by thirty-eight planes,
carrying almost seven thousand passengers. In a matter of hours, the “plane people”, as they
became known, nearly doubled the population of the town.

A plea went out to the residents, “Please do what you can for these people. Come out;
lend a hand; anything you can do will be accepted.”

Gander residents opened their homes, their stores, their schools and their hearts.

On Delta flight 15, Shirley Brooks-Jones, her fellow passengers, plus the crew, sat
on the runway, unable to disembark. Captain Michael Sweeney kept things under control. The
air conditioning and bathrooms continued to work and food was provided. After more than
twenty-eight hours, they were allowed to leave the plane and to meet an amazing population of
people. They were greeted with open arms.

I had the opportunity to speak to Shirley Brooks-Jones recently. She told a wonderful
story of caring and love.

“Michael, you wouldn’t believe it. The residents of Gander took people into their homes.
Even in the stores, they wouldn’t accept our money. People needed clothes, Walmart gave it to
them. Many people had prescription drugs on their checked baggage, which they couldn’t take
off the plane; doctors examined them and wrote new prescriptions for free. The prescriptions
were then filled at local drug stores at no cost.

“One man said he was at the store getting supplies and the cashier offered her home
to them, so they could shower.

“It was amazing, Michael. I remember
being on the bus to Lewisporte from Gander,
where we would be housed after we were allowed off the plane. I looked at the scenery. It
reminded me of southeast Ohio, where I grew up at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. I
felt at home.

“The US airspace reopened on September 13th, but we didn’t leave until the 15th. We
spent four wonderful days with our now extended family.”

On the flight to Atlanta, Shirley looked down at the small town of Gander and nearby
Lewisporte, thought about her wonderful experience there and knew she had to do something.

She asked to speak to captain Michael Sweeney. “Captain Sweeney, I would like to make an
announcement over the intercom. I want to ask for pledges to start a scholarship fund for the
students of Lewisporte.

“These people can’t afford to send many of the kids to university. I want to give back
what they gave us.”

Captain Sweeney, against rules, agreed to Shirley’s request.

Several people helped Shirley create pledge sheets, which they handed out to the
passengers. At the end of the flight, they counted pledges totaling more than fifteen thousand
dollars. An anonymous donor matched the total.

The fund, called Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund and managed by The
Columbus Foundation has since raised more than one million dollars and continues to grow.

A committee in Lewisporte, made up by the principle, counselor and teachers distribute
the funds based on the guidelines agreed on by Shirley and the Columbus Foundation.

The scholarships are given to children, as long as they maintain an average of 85%,
to receive help for further education. They need to be active in the community and write an
essay as to why they want to receive the scholarship. Some of the students have gone into
the ministry, medical fields, etc.

Since that dreadful day in 2001, Shirley has returned to Gander and Lewisporte
twenty-two times. She returns for memorial services each year on 9/11 and again in the
spring to hand out scholarships.

When there, she walks through the streets and is greeted, “Hey, Shirley! You’re back.
It’s great to see you again.”

She’s part of their family – forever.

In 2007, Shirley received a call from a protocol office to announce she was nominated
to receive “The Order of Newfoundland and Labrador.” and asked if she would be willing to
travel to Newfoundland to attend the ceremonies.

Shirley said, “Michael, my knees weakened. I almost fell to the floor.”

The date for the ceremony was Dec 7 (The day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor).

Nine people received the award that day. After the presentations, the lieutenant Governor
held a luncheon. During the luncheon, a lady walked up to Shirley and thanked her for all she
had done for their community. She then added, “You may not know this. When you received
your award, the clock chimed eleven and you were the ninth person to receive the award.”

Shirley has been interviewed many times since that tragic day. She was once asked
to describe how poor the communities of Gander and Lewisporte were.

Shirley refused. “How can you ask me how poor they were? They are not poor. They
are richer than all of us. They are rich with family, life, caring and heart.

The love and appreciation the people of Gander/Lewiesporte showed to those stranded
will never be forgotten.

It is their legacy.

Michael T. Smith