Ideally, any American town should be capable of replicating what Gander, Newfoundland accomplished in September 2001.

Or, maybe the residents of that remote Canadian town possess unique, magical powers.

Most likely, they've just learned to extend generosity, acceptance and hospitality to strangers.

After all, most humans are strangers to Gander — a community on the cold island of Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province. Getting there by car requires a ferry ride. Only 11,688 people call it "home." Yet, millions more have passed through as air travelers whose flights stopped to refuel at the massive Gander International Airport, constructed as a strategic geographic location for North American military forces in the late 1930s.

Through that role as a military and commercial air hub, Gander residents grew accustomed to encountering people from almost every nation on the planet, hearing their languages and noticing their cultural traits.

Ganderites' openness became a symbol of human decency on Sept. 11, 2001. It remains that way as the 18th anniversary of that traumatic day arrives this Wednesday.

Terrorists attacked America on 9/11, crashing hijacked airliners into landmarks in New York and Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania, killing 2,996 people. The heinous acts prompted the U.S. to close its air space, an unprecedented step. That forced nearly 250 USA-bound international flights with 43,895 souls aboard to divert and land at 15 Canadian airports.

Thirty-eight of the planes landed at Gander, leaving 6,700 passengers and crew stranded in that tiny town, indefinitely. They got stuck in the right place.

Ganderites responded in their usual, welcoming fashion. They put their own lives on hold to accommodate people from dozens and dozens of countries, from various racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Businesses gave them necessities, free. Churches, clubs and schools opened their doors as shelters, and staffed the sites. Residents invited travelers into their homes for meals, card games, showers and overnight stays. This hospitality continued for nearly a week, until "the plane people," as locals called them, found ground or air transportation home. Parting was difficult, because many Ganderites developed friendships with their guests. Those bonds continue 18 years later.

The people of Gander's behavior — at a moment when global fear and paranoia peaked — boggles the mind today.

Journalist and author Jim DeFede captured the story in his 2003 book, "The Day the World Came to Town." Last spring, Wabash Valley Art Spaces adopted the book as the theme for the outdoor sculptures organization's spring luncheon. I read the book and spoke about its message at the luncheon. To prepare for the talk, I interviewed DeFede, now an investigative reporter with CBS4 in Miami.

DeFede basically moved to Gander for nearly two months after 9/11 to research the story. He met a lot of down-to-earth folks. Almost two decades later, DeFede still hears from several, such as town constable Oz Fudge.

The book and a Broadway production based on Gander's 9/11 saga, "Come From Away," gave the town's hospitable reputation a worldwide spotlight. While residents insist they did what anyone would, DeFede found a special quality in them.

"The environment there — the history, the location, the remoteness — all contributed to that" welcoming approach on 9/11, he said. "That notion of helping your neighbor is something that's been ingrained in them for hundreds of years."

Indeed, long before Gander gained a connection to the world through its airport, fishing served as its primary occupation. As the harsh winters arrived, fishermen would leave for Europe to fish there till spring. Families left behind faced winter together. "As people settled there, they realized they couldn't rely on anyone but their neighbors and themselves," DeFede said.

Hospitality meant survival. Virtues residents exhibited to stranded travelers on 9/11 were just more of the same, on a massive scale.

The resulting reputation for neighborliness "gave them a sense of purpose," DeFede said.

Both newcomers and the "Newfies," as locals are often called, learned about each other.

One poignant example in the days after 9/11 involved a group of Orthodox Jewish travelers, including a rabbi. Volunteers at the makeshift shelter in a nearby high school noticed the group hadn't eaten for nearly a day. One woman asked the rabbi if they were OK. He explained their need for kosher food. The locals scrambled to contact a Gander airport food vendor, who trucked in a bevy of kosher meals.

The grateful rabbi asked if he could meet Gander's Jewish residents. The population was 98 percent Catholic or Protestant. Only one resident, a traveling TV news correspondent, was known to be Jewish. That's when an elderly Ganderite heard about the rabbi's request.

Everyone in Gander knew the man as a salesman for more than 40 years, who attended a Catholic church with his wife. What they didn't know was that he actually was a Polish Jew, whose family paid to have him smuggled as a boy to England in 1936. Nazis later killed his family in the Holocaust. His adopted family forbid him from mentioning his roots, and any mention angered them. So, he kept it a secret, even to his wife.

The lone hint of the man's Jewish heritage was a tiny star of David he'd carved into the handle of his cane.

When locals spread the word of the rabbi's quest to meet local Jews, the man decided, "It's time."

He met the rabbi, told the story, and declared that he'd never stopped feeling Jewish. After decades of repressing that emotion, the man felt a sense of freedom.

All because Gander didn't forget to show hospitality to strangers, even as residents dealt with the same worries and suspicions as their neighbors in America.

Everywhere DeFede speaks on his book, the same question arises.

As he put it, "If there were 10,000 people stranded in Terre Haute, would the community reaction be, 'Well, government needs to do something about this,' or 'The Red Cross needs to do something about this,' or 'How can I help?'"

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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