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Steve's Story - part 2

I remember the sun setting and then rising over the horizon as we went from September 11th to September 12th. As I looked out my window at the other planes next to us, I thought about the thousands of people in our same predicament. I wondered about the mood back home. I very much wished we could see the television images the rest of the world was witnessing. I also tried to think of the innocent victims on each of the four hijacked planes as I looked about our own plane, wondering how it actually occurred and why this had to happen. Although the numbers were not in, it was obvious that thousands had died.

Surprisingly, not one person on flight 929 overreacted or became visibly upset. That was truly a blessing. There were a few tears here and there but everyone pretty much kept themselves together. If there was a jerk on our flight, we really didn’t know who it was. The many children on board were so well behaved during our time on the plane that I was extremely impressed. I tried to remember the days when we used to travel with small kids and how tough that would be to keep them happy and quiet in this situation.

The next day we were finally allowed off the plane. As I stepped onto the ground I smelled the fresh air of Newfoundland. Canadian Customs and the RCMP officers processed us through four checkpoints. They checked baggage and searched us one at a time. I felt very bad for the officials who processed us. Their eyes were red and eyelids drooping as we went from checkpoint to checkpoint. They were tired, understaffed and overwhelmed but very efficient.

From there we were transported on school busses to a small village called Gambo. Beautiful downtown Gambo! The bus drivers on the island had been on strike but put their picket signs down to transport all visitors for 24 hours straight. This generosity was a sign of things to come.

The 200 people of United flight 929 spent the next five days together in a Salvation Army church. Sleeping on the floor and wearing the same clothes and underwear. Whether you were first class or low class, you slept on the floor. To complicate matters, no one was permitted to get their checked bags under the plane before we left for Gambo. Those bags were processed and inventoried by Customs and left in Gander all week. This situation made us appreciate the everyday luxuries in life that we previously took for granted.

In the days that followed we all bonded together, passengers and crew. And, we met THE kindest people in the world. The people of Gambo. We could not have been more fortunate to be "stuck" in this little town. Very few people come to Gambo to visit, so it was an amazing thing to behold. The people of #929 were from all over the world. We were American, British, Irish, Dutch, Indian, German, French...and several Arabs of different nationalities. It was like we had descended from Mars.

The first hour in Gambo I took a short walk down to the waterfront and I saw a kid on a bike selling newspapers. I gave the kid a dollar tip and he stared at me, looking me up and down and finally asking me if it was for another paper. I told him it was a tip. He continued to stare at me, as if waiting for me to say, “take me to your leader”.

They had one pub in the town and it was practically transformed into a “Studio 54 North” thanks to the all the new faces. While we were there the first night I decided to buy some of the locals a few rounds of beer…they were puzzled. Apparently that does not happen much in Gambo. Money seems secondary there. They live the greatest life and we were privileged to witness it.

There were four planeloads of people sent to Gambo, two Delta, one Continental and our United flight. This town of 2000 residents came together with very short notice and managed to take care of about 1000 strangers. This was repeated in several towns throughout the island for almost 7000 passengers. Impressive beyond words.

The folks from the Salvation Army worked so hard for us that I felt guilty. However, this was indeed their shining moment and they seemed to love it. Their work was almost 24/7 and they were so well organized. Especially considering how much notice they received.

The passengers of UA929 also stepped up. Within a day, there were special cleaning details organized amongst passengers and we had a pretty good operation going. A Dutch gentleman named Monty became the self-appointed mayor of Flight 929 and did an outstanding job of organizing. Others became his deputies and augmented the SA staff.

The week passed by quickly. A lot of folks read books and a lot of folks watched the on-going news coverage of the tragedy. That made the mood very somber at times. I remember being upset only once during my five days there. It was just after we saw the TV footage of the planes crashing into the WTC for the first time. Everybody in the room gasped when they saw it. I walked out of the church and down the street for a long walk. I did not want to show my anger.

The food was plentiful, but the sleep was not. We slept on a hard floor, a church pew or an army cot that made very strange sounds when you lay down on it. Several passengers wound up sleeping at various houses in the town after residents would show up at the church and offer their extra beds to anybody who would take them up on the offer. Most accepted.

Many passengers made it to the pub every night. This was a meeting hall of sorts. I heard that the bar owner ran out of beer and he had to drive several hours across the island to get more. There was only one taxicab in the town. No matter where you went, the cab fare was a flat rate $4 Canadian. We joked that we were going to hire the cab to take us back to the States. One of the local traditions is for visitors to be sworn-in (or “Screeched in”) as honorary Newfoundlanders, or “Newfies”. To do this, one must get on their knees in front of dozens of people, recite some “Newfie” slogans and…kiss a cod fish on the lips. A local dressed in yellow fisherman apparel presents the cod fish to you. The candidate must then drink a shot of the native rum called “Screech”. From there they are considered “Screeched-in”. We watched this ceremony at the Society of United Fishermen Lodge up the road many times and it made for very good entertainment.

It was so interesting meeting passengers from other airplanes and sharing stories. They were in the same boat as those of us on UA929 and we had that common bond. Although most everyone mingled with anyone and everyone, my new circle consisted of about two Brits, two Irish and four Americans. Very funny people. We laughed about our bizarre situation every day.

During the week, our 17-person United Airlines flight crew showed up at the church several times and met with us. They were staying in Gander so they could be near the aircraft and meet with officials from the airport. I met Captain Mike Ballard after he briefed the passengers. He stood there in his Hawaiian shirt, very affable yet very professional. Mike had an extremely big job ahead of him. Although they were out of their uniforms, the crew was not really of duty the entire week. They had to get us all home and they wanted to get home as well.

What was amazing is that most passengers had the same clothes on their back for the entire week. Not your average experience. At one point the SA staff arrived with a load of brand new underwear and socks for the passengers. You would have thought that they were handing out nuggets of gold. I remember everybody pretty much wearing the same thing every week.

Many people were absolutely ripe until they could find a resident to offer them a shower. Several of us standing in front of the church were offered a shower at a house on day number two. It was like heaven. I found it so bizarre as I waited my turn in the kitchen of this residence. I thought to myself, “OK…I’m supposed to be back at work in Seattle today, yet here I am…having a conversation with some guy named Sanjay from India…in a kitchen...in Newfoundland…both of us waiting our turn for a much-needed shower”. Who’dathunkit! Later on that week, a very nice lady named Rhonda did our laundry for us…and offered us bottled moose meat.

Much of the time was spent chatting with fellow passengers. This was a fascinating exchange, as there were so many different careers and origins for every one of us. One minute you'd hear a man talk about his company and the next minute another person would mention his or her vacation plans. Several couples were on their honeymoon or taking an anniversary trip. It appeared obvious that there were several romances kindled amongst the single passengers. In addition, I learned that at least one couple’s relationship broke up during a trip to Europe, only to be forced to live with each other for another week in Gambo! Wow. I felt for them. By the end of the week, we pretty much knew who was who in this small community of UA929.

The one person I talked with the most was Pete, a heart surgeon from Springfield, Illinois. Great guy. He loved to converse. He’d ask me a question such as how cops track fleeing suspects with K9 dogs…and then I’d ask him how one performs triple-bypass heart surgery! We both had a great time. Another passenger was Sinead from Ireland, who was rushed to the Gander hospital after developing a blood clot in her leg from the inactivity on the plane. She recovered in time to consider bottled moose meat and Screech later in the week. There were so many personalities from so many parts of the world. And it appeared that everyone got along.

One night we met a resident of Gambo named Lester Green. Lester was nice enough to give myself, Pete and Sinead a ride down the road. Also in the car was Lester’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Amanda. When we learned that Amanda had written a children’s book, which she showed us, we insisted that she have “an American style book-signing” at the church the next morning. That is exactly what she did. With Pete as her agent/”MC”, Amanda sold dozens of books to the passengers and she signed them all. Lester invited us to their house on the last day we were there and we met the entire family. All three of us later agreed it was one of the most touching moments of our stay in Gambo. They were some of the most pleasant and sincere people I have ever met. I bought one of the books for my own daughters.

The primary topic amongst the passengers revolved around when we all thought we were going to leave. The Gander airport sent us a list of departed flights for the day and we looked for the status of UA929 on a regular basis. We all soon realized that there was no real democratic order of departure. The list was posted several times a day on the bulletin board in the church lobby. However, by the fifth night we all had a feeling our turn was soon approaching.

Continued on the next page...

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