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Steve's Story - part 3

Just hours before we were to leave we experienced something very funny. We were having a toast with a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch about a block from the church (for obvious reasons, not IN the church). As eight of us stood there under a streetlight, many in the group had teary eyes reflecting on how nice the townspeople had been. We felt so fortunate. Just then we saw a rather intoxicated local townsfolk staggering down the road towards us. When he got near he asked for a cigarette and was told we had no more. The man then stopped in the middle of the road, glared at us for a moment and then screamed, "f**k you, you bastards!” We all just about fell on the ground, laughing so hard that it hurt. We "high-fived" each other repeatedly. "Finally!...We found ONE person from this town who was a legitimate asshole". It was a magic moment, especially given that we had been talking about how nice all the locals were.

"Five Days in Gambo" would make a very good movie title. You could not make up what we experienced or witnessed.

As I said, locals would come up to us and offer to take us to their houses for a shower or a meal. We accepted. Each time we got to one of the houses the hosts would tell us their life story and show us their yard or hobbies. These Newfies are very polite and basic in their manner. Yet thanks to satellite TV they are very well versed in what goes on in the outside world. It’s a long way down to the States, and they seem content to stay put.

The Newfie accent was unique and very strong. To me, it was almost a cross between Irish and French-Canadian, although English is the language. And instead of the standard Canadian “eh” thrown in at the end of the sentence, the Newfies would finish each sentence with “right?” After several days, some of the 929 passengers seemed to acquire a form of the Newfoundland accent while speaking with the locals. It was contagious.

I decided to take a poll the second day I was there. I asked one question of almost every Gambo resident I met: "Have you ever left the island?" The answer I got 95 percent of the time was, "No.....why would I ever want to do that? I've never left the island and I never will...especially now". The events in NYC and DC are exactly why they do not want to leave their little part of the planet. To me, the people of Gambo seemed happy. Very happy. And Very kind. Words can't describe them.

Their kindness to us was a lesson indeed. Kindness shown to us during such a tragic moment down in the United States touched all 200 on our plane. I'll always remember several elderly Canadian ladies another local church as we watched the WTC/Pentagon memorial service on TV. These ladies joined in and sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic and other American songs as if they were their own. Several of the women were crying as they sang. I was embarrassed to think that I did not even know the second line of "Oh Canada". I was so impressed by their sincere compassion for our nation.

On Saturday night we all gathered at the Salvation Army church for hours waiting for word to pull out. Each of the 38 planes had to be handled one at a time during the week we were there. We then got the notice that we were next up! The school busses had arrived and those who were asleep were woken up. “It’s time to go”. As we pulled out of Gambo on there was an empty feeling among many of us.

I knew the townspeople would never experience the same amount of visitors ever again in their lives. I also thought about the different people I met in the town. I then thought about how lonely it would be in Gambo after all these strangers disappeared in the middle of the night. It had been so busy…and when they woke up on Sunday morning, we’d all be gone. I wished them the best as we rolled down the main road at 2:30AM.

After seven hours in the Gander airport terminal and a very long security check, we walked up the stairs to our huge 777 aircraft and met with the flight crew. There they were, back at attention in their uniforms once again. Captain Ballard remembered me from our conversations at the church and I had given him my business card. Unbeknownst to me, he had United Airlines headquarters verify my employment with Bellevue PD several days earlier.

Mike pulled me aside and asked if I could assist with a small security plan for the plane. He said that although the Canadian authorities had checked out every passenger on our flight, there was one problem. One of his crewmembers found that someone had removed a vent panel along the inside of the fuselage near a seat. They were afraid someone had dropped a weapon there before they got off upon arrival on the 11th, even though they could not see anything down inside because it went down so far. They blocked access to that row and a flight attendant sat there the entire trip. The flight attendants were visibly worried. That concerned me a bit but we were up next on the tarmac and we were ready to get out of there.

I was then introduced to an off-duty United pilot and they placed us in the first row of first class, seat 1A and 1B. My new friend, Dr. Pete, was placed in the first row of business class near the medical supplies in case they needed his services. I summoned another passenger to help us out with the plan…a very simple plan. With first class metal dinner knives in our possession, we agreed that no one was going to get into that cockpit without a fight to the finish.

I felt bad for some of the Arab passengers because of the Middle Eastern connection to the terrorists. However, I cannot deny that some of them from various nations were on my mind. That was a sad fact. While there was no evidence that they were going to be anything but civil, it felt to me like a wartime atmosphere. I could not shake the image of those planes hitting the WTC and the fact we were headed to Chicago. There was a different air about this flight and any suspicions, whether real or imagined, were alive and well in lovely Newfoundland before we left the ground. Our plane was officially a target because of that little American flag on its tail.

Five of our UA929 passengers were taken to a private room and interrogated by Canadian officials before they were allowed back on the plane. One of those passengers was sitting exactly where the vent panel had been removed on September 11th. They let him back on the plane but had him sit in a different seat. The mood was tense and somewhat disturbing. Most passengers did not know about this concern. But frankly, we did not want to be the infamous "plane number five" on our return to Chicago. We sensed that things had drastically changed in our world and there were no chances taken.

The problem for me was that although I was fully willing to help with the security of the plane, I was very tired and had not slept while waiting for the plane. We had been up for over 24 hours. I did not recline that fancy first class seat the entire way for fear that I would fall asleep.

As we lifted off from Gander, everyone could listen to the Canadian air traffic controller speak to the pilot on one channel of our headsets. He then said over the radio, “Nice havin’ ya here…C’mon back and see us sometime, right?”. I looked off to the control tower and noticed that they were flying the American flag at half-staff. It was an incredible tribute as no other flag was flying, not even their own. It was my final image of Newfoundland and very fitting given their kindness.

During the trip home our resident entertainer and friend, Julian Dawson, sang us his newly composed song about our stay in Gambo over the aircraft PA system. It is titled, “The UA929 Anthem - Waitin’ for a Plane”. Julian is an accomplished singer in the United Kingdom and has several CDs listed on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble as I later found out. He was a very pleasant man to talk to and had a great sense of humor. His songs kept us happy and festive all week long. (www.juliandawson.com)

When we landed at O’Hare, five days late, the passengers erupted in applause. Then, everybody on board was absolutely stunned by what we saw outside on each side of then plane. As we approached the gate, dozens of United ground crew employees made a corridor for us on the tarmac with their vehicles and greeted us as we pulled up, waving American flags and clapping. There was not a dry eye on the plane…passengers, crew and pilots.

We were the last of the stranded United Airlines planes to make it back to the States and the ground crew was waiting for us. Our flight crew was especially affected, as I suspected they knew some of the employees on the two United flights that had crashed just days before. That greeting was a very powerful scene and the crew hugged each of the 200 passengers as they left the plane. Not your average airplane ride to say the least. Captain Ballard then called every one of the crew into the first class section for a private meeting. This was their moment and I figured it was time for me to leave. I was the last passenger off the plane.

When I got into the terminal I could hear the subtle patriotic music over the PA system. It was almost as if I'd been gone for five years and I was returning to a different country. United Airlines put us up in various hotels and when I reached my room I turned on CNN. It was very strange to watch the coverage alone and finally take it all in. I then realized that just about the same number of people died in the terrorist attacks as there were passengers on all of the airliners diverted to Newfoundland at that same moment. The number was hard to comprehend. We were treated with incredible kindness IN a foreign land while another group of human beings of the same size met a terrible and violent death at the hands of fanatics FROM a foreign land. On Sunday night I joined several UA929 passengers in downtown Chicago. When we got downtown I looked up at the massive Sears Tower and had one terrible thought. No need to describe what kind of a thought. I also noticed we were the only people near the thing.

We then went to Rush Street for steak and Merlot at Gibson's restaurant. It was so nice to sit down and enjoy ourselves. Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams of the NY Yankees sat at the table next to us. What a contrast from where we had just come. Bizarre. We sat there at the table exhausted, wondering if our detour to Newfoundland had all been a dream. But we just felt fortunate to be back in the US. And as a bonus, we gained friends we will never forget. Here we had such a positive life experience as a direct result of a huge national tragedy that brought us together. We talked about how strange life is and joked about the funny moments we had in Gambo.

Gambo was a sight to behold and very good for the soul. But the United States of America is our home, for better or for worse.

When I returned to Seattle our United 929 First Officer “Terrance” (based in Seattle) stopped by the police station with a card and a model of a Boeing 777…with United Airlines markings, of course. Captain Ballard, who is based in Chicago, subsequently sent a very nice letter to the Chief of Police, thanking me for assisting them on the return flight. The folks who flew this plane were very classy and nothing short of true professionals. This includes the flight attendants.

One of Mike's comments in the letter to my Chief mentioned the cold reality that we were "on an airplane loaded with 80,000 pounds of fuel, headed for a city known for its skyscrapers". That summed up the feelings and fears of the crew and their gratitude that we had a defense plan in route to Chicago. No one on our flight had any evil intentions that we knew of, but it is a shame we even have to consider that now. Times have changed.

But the bottom line is that it would be a gross understatement to say that I met some very nice human beings on my unscheduled detour. United Flight 929 now has a website, marking our week in Gambo. (www.UA929.org) There are many photos of the experience and comments from passengers and residents.

So… next time you pass through Gambo try the moose meat. I learned that Moose is consumed four times more often than beef. I ate moose several times (In stew… I didn’t know it at the time). Try the Screech also, but remember to kiss the cod fish on the lips.

And please never pass by that red pot outside the department stores at Christmas time without throwing in a dollar or two and giving a nice smile to the person with the little bell. The Salvation Army kept us alive and well for five days. They do very good things for their fellow human being in time of need. I cannot imagine what those five days would have been like without the assistance of the people in the community of Gambo.

And that is what I did on September 11th. I will forever think of some other airline passengers, office workers and public servants who were not so lucky that day.


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