I didn't know Gander before 9/11

By editor Lambert Teuwissen from NOS (Dutch State Television), translated.

"At a given moment, we were flying around in circles, and everybody was wondering what happened. Then the captain announced that America was under attack and the U.S. airspace closed, that was the only statement."

The Dutch artist Clemens Briels was on September 11, 2001, en route to the opening of an exhibition in New York. Over the Atlantic, the KLM flight had been told that U.S. airspace was closed and was rerouted to the nearest airport in Canada: Gander.

"'The pilot reported that we would arrive at Gander. I had never heard of it before that." No fewer than 38 aircraft arrived that day in Gander, the first Canadian airport after the Atlantic crossing.

The sleepy town of some 10,000 inhabitants suddenly needed to take care of nearly 7000 stranded travelers. Briels, despite the horror of 9/11, forever connected with the humanity he encountered in Gander. "It's a paradox. A phenomenon in itself."

Torture Gander really committed itself to the care of the plane people. Schools, community centers, summer camps, even the fire department garage, they all provided beds. The hotels in the surrounding area were cleared for the crews, so that at least they didn't need to sleep on cots.

Logistics was a nightmare. The planes were on the second runway, now a parking place for aircraft. Because passengers had to be taken from the ship per flight, some flights had been waiting hours; Briels sat 17 hours solid.

"It was torture. School buses arrived regularly. In the dark, you could see the lights driving by and you'ld think: Now it's our turn, but then they moved on. But everybody remained calm. No one rebelled. "

At the arrival gates, all effort was made to allow passengers to leave as soon as possible. The TVs, on which the American drama was repeated over and over again, were turned off. The phones were blocked with signs saying "Out of Order." Instead, there hung an attentive large world map with an arrow and the text "Gander, YOU ARE HERE." It was the middle of nowhere. As flat as a dime and you only saw some bushes."

Four kinds of rice Briels was moved to Lakewood Academy, a high school gym where room was made in the classes. He felt like a war refugee, because his luggage was still stuck in the plane. "We all only had some hand luggage. So there were boxes of briefs: large, medium and small. Tooth pastes and bottles were also provided."

The whole town helped. People spontaneously brought food for the unexpected guests. "There was a man with a barbecue of 8 meters. There was so much rice that we could choose from four different kinds. At one point, a sign was placed that no more food was needed. All these women were cooking, providing incredibly good food. "

The people of Gander opened their homes for those who wanted a shower. They arranged truckloads of toys for stranded children. The local pharmacist provided replacement drugs, even if it meant countless international phone calls to get the recipe right.

Signs For four days U.S. airspace was closed, and the passengers remained in Gander. Briels was hit with boredom. "The weather was nice, so I mostly remained outside. I had a couple of walks, and sometimes came into a bar where you could throw horseshoes. That was the manner in which I spent the days."

And he drew. "One time out, I started a drawing on a blackboard. With the text: Thank you for your hospitality. The school later framed it and hung it on a wall. It is still there."

Eventually, the message came that the journey could be continued. Not to New York, to Detroit. "I rented a car to take me to New York. On the road, I always saw the same people, hired cars filled with seedy types of the Russian mafia, priests on their world tours, the most diverse types of people. Along at gas stations and restaurants, I noticed all those people you normally ignore. I was reminded of that movie "Rat Race"."

Spasm Briels reached a totally changed New York. "On the plane, the stupid thought crossed my head that I would come too late for the opening," he laughs. "But the gallery in SoHo was closed. The whole area was protected. New York was a disaster area. It was an atmosphere like you normally only see in war movies."

Every year around September 11 he speaks to someone he met that day in Gander, a Dutchman who was living in Connecticut. "We made a tradition out of it. Every year we call and we informally meet again."

About 9 / 11 isn't spoken during these encounters, says Briels. But sometimes, like now with the 10-year anniversary, there again is that lump in the throat."It's like a spasm, like the contraction of a muscle over which you have no control."