An Oasis of Kindness
Not long ago, I was privileged to see the Broadway musical “Come From Away.” Set in the week following the September 11 attacks, “Come From Away” tells the story of what happened when 38 planes carrying some 7,000 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada – a town with a population of 9600. As I watched the story unfold I could only think that in the wake of something horrible, something amazingly human happened.
I am privileged, with permission, to share this firsthand account from my Brother RW Mac Moss, a member of Airways Lodge #26 under the Grand Lodge of Newfoundland & Labrador. ~MW Jim Mendoza
Gander Freemasons Hall is the meeting hall and club rooms for the Masonic Fraternity in Gander and the surrounding area. The building was erected in 1956 and has seen several expansions and modernizations to keep it up to date. The top floor, or Blue Room, is the meeting space for:
- Gander Lodge #16
- Airways Lodge #26
- Unity Lodge #32
- Arklie Chapter #3 Royal Arch Masons
- Central Council, Royal & Select Masters
- Crossroads Preceptory and
- the Gander Shrine Club
The downstairs space is called The Square & Compass Club. It has a small private bar, a functional commercial kitchen, and table seating for approximately 120 dinner guests. All of the named organizations begin their meetings in September following a two month summer break.
For many years, a small group of Masons would meet at the Hall around 4 p.m. and have a (sometimes) quiet game of cards. On September 11, 2001 the usual group was beginning to gather, but the main topic today wasn’t cards or the weather. Everyone was aware of the NYC 9/11 incident and everyone was aware that Gander International Airport was receiving a lot of planes.
Shortly after 4 p.m. the phone at the Clubrooms rang. It was the Gander Emergency Operations Centre inquiring if the Club would accept up to 100 passengers from TWA Flight 819. Don Leyte was the Building Manager for the Gander Masonic Hall but he had to get clearance from the President of the Gander Masonic Hall Company and the Masters of both Gander and Airways Lodges (Brothers Fred Moffitt* & Terry Hollett). This clearance was quickly obtained and Don called the EOC and told them they were beginning to prepare the building for passenger occupancy.
Calls quickly went out to Lodge Members and their friends to bring in blankets, bedding and food. The Square & Compass Club has a standing credit account at Gander Co-op Store and several members including Gander Masonic Hall President, Hayward Clarke, were delegated to go to the Co-op and get enough food to get them through the next 24 hours. The volunteers worked through the evening and early morning, cleaning and clearing the meeting room and club room, making sure they would be ready for their guests.
The “Blue Room” where Masonic Meetings were held, has a beautiful blue wool carpet adorned with Square & Compass symbols. Don was told that they would be receiving cots for the Passengers, so it was decided to cover the carpet with plastic to keep it from getting dirty. However the cots didn’t arrive until the afternoon of September 12 — so the 100 guests slept in relative comfort their first night on that magnificent carpet.
The Square & Compass Club was uniquely qualified to feed the passengers from the TWA Flight. Regular Masonic social functions are held at the clubrooms for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or at installation banquets where Lodge volunteers cook regularly prepare and serve food for up to 120 Masons & their ladies.
Around 3 a.m. on September 12, the first busses arrived bringing the travel-weary and emotionally distraught passengers from TWA Flight 819. As with all host locations, the Passengers crowded around the single television, and tried to absorb the images of destruction that led them to this tiny town in Newfoundland & Labrador. Hayward Clarke recalls periods of deathly quiet followed by exclamations of profound grief and shock as the passengers saw the planes impact the Twin Towers. The Masons and their ladies wept with the passengers as they jointly felt the loss inflicted on America.
Eventually the guests were led upstairs to the Blue Room where Brethren of both Lodges issued them their blankets and pillows and urged them to settle down as best they could and try to get some rest. The only cautions issued to the guests were, “No food or drink in the sleeping area,” (to protect the carpet), and “Please keep talking to a whisper.”
The carpeted area was approximately 50ft X 30 ft. Each guest had 15 square feet, a space about 2.5 ft. X 6.5 ft. to lay out their bedding. The expression sleeping ‘head & toe’ took on a whole new meaning.
Breakfast the next morning was as good as you would get at a quality hotel. A variety of cereals, fruits & juices, eggs any way you liked them, a choice of bacon, ham or bologna and white or whole wheat toast, washed down with brewed coffee and orange pekoe tea. The passengers loved it!
The lunch meal came from soups, sandwiches, and casseroles donated by members and friends of the Masonic community. Later that afternoon, the S&C Club was informed that food was now available at the Community Centre Ice Arena and the coordination of food acquisition, storage, and delivery was being done by the Salvation Army.
As was the case with many host sites, some of the more elderly passengers were taken into homes of Lodge members, to give them a more comfortable bed. Over the course of the four days, all of the passengers were taken home by volunteers for showers.
The building had only one telephone which created some stress among the passengers as it was difficult to restrict the length of calls once a passenger had made connection to a loved one. The phone was in use all night and well into the next day at no charge to the guests.
Herb Morgan, a Mason and a volunteer at the S & C Club, was returning to the Lodge following a noon food run when he noticed a young couple sitting on the grass outside the building. The young lady was crying her eyes out and the young man could not console her. Herb went over to the couple to see if he could help in any way. The young lady was distraught because she had not been able to contact her family and knew they must be very worried about her. As Herb was driving back to the Lodge, he had noticed that NewTel (the phone company), had set up banks of telephones on tables on their property only 300 metres from the Lodge building. These phones were available to passengers for free! As it was a beautiful day, Herb offered to walk the couple over to the telephones, making sure they could find their way back to the Lodge.
Every evening someone would show up with a guitar and entertain the passengers.
Some of the volunteers at the Freemasons Hall were:
- Don Leyte
- Cyril Edison
- Jack Granville
- Wayne Wareham
- Fred Moffitt*
- Gerry Mercer*
- Aubrey Cooper
- Mark LeGrow*
- Gerry Kean
- Don Milley*
- Herb Morgan
- Wilson Hoffe
- Joe Dunphy and
- Gander Masonic Hall President, Hayward Clarke
At the time there was a Masonic Ladies Auxiliary, and they provided great service to the passengers as well.
Note: Many of the Masons were involved with serving passengers at other host locations in Gander. If the Mason was a teacher, he was most likely involved in serving passenger needs at his school. All Gander Churches had passengers, so many of the Masons were involved in serving the needs of passengers through their church.
Personally, I was a member of Airways Lodge #26 but also the Principal of the Gander Campus of the College of the North Atlantic, a post-secondary training college. We had 442 passengers from Air France Flight 004 (we had the two Kevins from the “Come From Away” musical) and 172 passengers from Lufthansa Flight 416 (Mac Moss).
On September 11, 2001 Gander received 38 aircraft. Two of them were US military aircraft, the crews and passengers of which were cared for by the 9 Wing Royal Canadian Air Force Base in Gander. The remaining 36 aircraft were all wide body jumbo jets with passenger loads of 85 to 360 passengers. In all of these aircraft there were approximately 6700 passengers and flight crew. The flight crews were given hotel rooms as they were required to have mandatory rest and would be fresh to fly when the planes were called to depart.
All the passengers were sheltered by Lodges, churches, Lions Clubs, Kinsmen Clubs, Elks Clubs, fire halls, Canadian Legion Clubs and schools. Their bedding was as rough as a single sheet on a tile floor, to a wooden pew in a church, to a canvas cot, to luxurious, English wool, Masonic carpet, to a comfortable bed in a private citizens home. All of the food and accommodations were provided free to the passengers.
“Stranded in Gander, TWA flight 819, was given a gift, a lesson in humanity, kindness, and hospitality during our short stay. With all the madness in the world, to fall into a community of such care. The world could take a lesson from you folks!! Thanks Gander, Masonic lodge, Jerry, Mona, Ness, Uncle Bob, we are all your family now. We will take this spirit you showed us and move it on to others whenever we get the chance. This will be our way to show our appreciation for your kindness. Keep that spirit moving!” – Denis & Shirley Spanek
“To the people of Gander and especially the wonderful men and women at the Masonic Lodge: Words can never express our gratitude for your caring giving and tireless effort you gave the passengers of TWA flight 819. Though difficult, you gave us faith in mankind and comforted us. We never heard a complaint. Instead it was ‘what can we do?’ And Gander made so many people that had never met before, a family. Thanks to all, and God bless you.” – Dan and Stephanie Williams
“Best regards to the caring people of Newfoundland who dropped everything to take care of the stranded passengers. If only the rest of the world were so good-hearted, we would not be experiencing such unspeakable tragedies. Special thanks to Ness Skinner and all those associated with the Masonic Lodge. I would also like to acknowledge Jack and Karen Bechard and the many co-passengers and crew on TWA flight #819 who took special care of my 10 year-old daughter and her grandfather (my father). Largely because of the way you doted over her, my daughter enjoyed her stay in Gander as much as her week in Paris. (Her mother and I are wondering how we are going to compete with the fact that she walked off the plane with an industrial-size trash bag full of toys.) You will all, forever, be in our thoughts and prayers.” – Alex’s dad
“Our heartfelt thanks to all the wonderful people of Gander, for going ‘above and beyond’ caring, love, and hospitality! TWA Flight #819 from Paris to St. Louis were taken in and housed at the Gander/Airways Masonic Lodge for three days. The volunteers there cooked, arranged for showers and laundry, and made us feel like family. When we left on September 14th, we were family! Thank you cannot begin to express our feelings of gratitude. You will never be forgotten, but fondly remembered as ‘family and friends’!” – Jerry & Mieka Gerard: Tampa, Florida
“To all of the wonderful people of Gander, you turned a disaster into a triumph. My husband and I were coming back from a two week trip to Paris. The experiences we had in Gander, particularly at the Masonic Lodge gave us hope for the future of our troubled world. I am infused with ‘Gander Generosity and Goodness’ and have tried to treat everyone I encounter with the same spirit that you all showed to us. On a funny note, we shared with everyone at home about what happened in your wonderful town. Thank you again for opening your homes and hearts to us. And hello to everyone on TWA Flight #819.” – Paul and Julie Bishop