A tribute to friendship
By craig - Date: 2001-09-25 14:51:44

Thank you to all the Gambo volunteers who worked around the clock and opened your hearts to our UA929 family.

Reproduced without permission from The Charlotte Observer September 25, 2001

Terrorism turns 200 strangers into friends

When tragedy hit on Sept. 11, a Charlotte woman witnessed how a crisis can create camaraderie

By KEN GARFIELD - Religion Editor

What began as 200 strangers sharing a harrowing experience ended with 200 comrades simply sharing.

Jonna Hunt Orwig of Charlotte knows that what happened to her barely registers a blip in the bigger picture of these past two weeks. But in a world desperate for some hope, her story shows what can happen when a crisis throws people together who didn't know each other, and frankly didn't care about each other, until terror touched their lives.

Back home, after five days in a Salvation Army church in a small town in Newfoundland, Canada, Orwig knows what can happen.

You become a family.

United Airlines Flight No. 929 from London to Chicago was flying near Canada when the towers of the World Trade Center went down. Suddenly, Orwig, 40, returning from her first trip to Europe, was no longer headed to O'Hare and then home to Charlotte and her two daughters.

Now, she and her travel companion, Donald Zeger of Miami, were flying to Newfoundland on orders for the plane to land and land now. The pilot told the passengers that a situation had arisen (he didn't mention the terrorist attack) and that plans were changing. As the plane dumped fuel and dropped in altitude, some passengers feared they were going to crash.

Instead, about an hour later, they landed at Gander International Airport, one of more than 30 planes forced there by the crisis. The passengers sat in the Boeing 777 listening to the news on headsets and wondering what would happen next. Cramped and on edge, they sat there for 26 hours before being taken by a school bus to Gambo, an old logging and fishing town of 2,340 residents in the eastern part of the Canadian island. They could take only what they had carried on board.

The passengers looked at the Salvation Army church and winced. This would be their home for who knew how long. They were stuck among strangers far from home with no change of clothing in the midst of the worst crisis in many of our lifetimes.

But before the first whine could surface, something unexpected happened. The 200 strangers began to divvy up duties, settle onto their green Army cots or church pews, and turn chaos into order.

"We were able to, within ourselves, build a structure," said Orwig, who runs a business development company. "It was amazing to see our natural talents come together."

Monty - Orwig didn't get all the last names - became the leader. A born list-maker, he would bang a silver mixing bowl with a wooden spoon to announce what needed doing.

Eileen coordinated the medicine list for trips to the local pharmacy.

Two [actually just one.. -Craig] Web designers created a Web page: UA929 The Gambo Strandees ( It's still a meeting point for the group. Orwig can't wait to post this story.

There were laundry lists and shower lists. Orwig remembers the widow who opened her home to strangers in need of a shower, then pulled out her family photos. Then there was the Friday the church was needed for a Gambo resident's funeral. The group whipped around cleaning up its mess, then attended the service.

The people of Gambo gave them socks, underwear and three meals a day. Orwig remembers spaghetti and fish sticks. She also remembers the kindness of the Salvation Army volunteers.

There was also - between phone calls home and long hours of CNN on a TV placed on the church altar - plenty of fun.

Folks fawned over Amy Park and Dorival Simoes, who were flying home to Chicago to get married. "They were all congratulating us and telling us it'll be a great day," said Park.

Bob Smith even sent the couple a digital picture of them at Lookout Point in front of a Canadian flag at half-staff. The couple were to be married Saturday.It was amazing, Orwig said. Without appointments to rush to and Palm Pilots to check, the passengers suddenly had time to enjoy one another's company. To give to one another some solace.

Singer Julian from London entertained with 110 songs. His play list - including "America" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," both by Simon & Garfunkel and both especially appropriate - is posted on the Web site.

They hiked through the postcard-perfect countryside.

Those passengers who had one Canadian Molson beer too many at the local pub stumbled through the church pews at 3 a.m.

Then there was the day a local in a pickup hauled a dead moose to the front door of the church after it was hit by a car. "`Hey look at the dead moose!'" Orwig said at the time. Recalling all the tumult, she added, "What else did we have to do?'"

Orwig, who attends Mecklenburg Community Church in north Charlotte, spent a lot of time reading her Bible, praying and embracing the children of missionaries stranded on their flight. "I need a hug," she'd keep telling them.

And while the smell of Canadian toast at 6 a.m. will be a golden memory, Orwig did make it home with one unanswered question:

"Why is everyone getting up at 6 o'clock? We have nothing to do."

From strangers to family

Five days later, the Sunday after the Tuesday, the group completed its journey to Chicago. The next day, Orwig caught a flight home to Charlotte and her girls, Lea, 11, and Whitney, 10.

She still carries around everyone's e-mail addresses and business cards, checks the Web site and tells her friends about the dead moose.

Most of all, she tells them what can happen when people of different nations, colors, religions and classes are pushed together by crisis.

Charlotte psychologist John Simpson is heartened by what happened in Newfoundland, but not surprised. When you turn off the TV and computer - either by choice or through adversity - and look to your neighbor, he said, you see how much like you he or she really is.

"It happens anytime a group of people suddenly are thrown together," said Simpson, "and have to find ways to get along."

But that's an academic talking.

Over five days in a small town in Newfoundland, Orwig learned the hard way - or maybe not the hard way - about getting along.

Ken Garfield: (704) 358-5094 or

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