As the towers fell, my plane was grounded in a tiny Canadian town
Mo Chapman's 9/11 story, as told to Marcie Sillman.
It was a nice, sunny day. I had a flight out of Ireland that morning, a Boeing 757.
Then the pilot came over the speaker and said, “We’ve been diverted because two planes have hit the World Trade Center.”
I thought to myself, what knucklehead hits the World Trade Center? Puhleaze. Then the flight attendant came by and said they were jumbo jets.
We diverted to Gander, a tiny island town in Newfoundland. Gander used to be the midway fueling point for small planes going to Europe from the States. It was also an alternate landing point for space shuttles should other places not work. It was tiny, but the runway was huge.
We were grounded at 10 a.m., an hour after the planes hit the towers. They fed us lunch after touching down and played the movie "Shrek." To this day, I have a hard time watching "Shrek" because it reminds me of being stuck on a plane in Gander.
The woman next to me had a son who lived in Battery Park City, a neighborhood at the southern tip of Manhattan, near the towers. A flight attendant came by and the woman, Francesca, asked, “My son is there, do you know anything?” The flight attendant knelt down, took Francesca’s hand and said, “There are no more World Trade towers.”
I couldn’t fathom that. What do you mean? How could that be? I was wrapping my head around this – why would they do this? Terrorist attacks — isn’t that a little extreme?
A fellow in front of me seemed to be in discomfort, saying something about his appendix. They would have taken him off the plane if it had been a medical emergency, but he seemed to be doing okay.
There was also a woman who ran out of diapers, and they were able to get diapers for her. Another person, a smoker, snuck into the bathroom, lit up and set off the smoke detector. The captain came up and said, “You really can’t smoke. Just because we’ve landed doesn’t mean you can smoke.”
Somebody was able to get a nicotine patch for that passenger.
Throughout the day we got peanuts – they still gave you peanuts back then – and water. They ran out of water, brought us another round of peanuts, and then ran out of those too.
At 1 a.m., fifteen hours after landing in Gander, we got off the plane. There were tons of Subway sandwiches waiting for us.
They put us on a bus and we went to Glenwood, a little suburb outside of Gander, to a Salvation Army church. They didn’t have beds or cots, but they cleared out chairs and laid out sleeping bags and blankets.
The mayor of Gander reached out to mayors of other towns. That was another reason to keep people on the planes – they had to figure out logistics, where to put people. Knowing that, I think they did a remarkable job.
Consider that 7,000 of us landed in Gander on 9/11. The town had about 10,000 people. We were half again as many people in their town.
Everything was structured. There was a cafeteria area in the church. They would come in and have breakfast ready, lunch made up, dinner set. It was really great the first day, but on the second day, I wanted to help. I had to beg them to let me.
I finally got to make toast, which was a welcome relief. I felt like I was doing something. I got to make toast.
They let us walk around town. There was a library, maybe a quarter mile away. I became great friends with the two librarians. There’s a moment in the play where they talk about being screeched – drinking Newfoundland’s godawful alcohol. They say that makes you a Newfoundlander. They did that ceremony for me. To this day, I remember how awful it was. It’s not something to order.
When it came time to leave, we noticed that the young man who had complained about his appendix was not on board. I thought, he looked Middle Eastern; did he not get on board because he didn’t want to be ridiculed? Did they hold him? Was it his appendix? I don’t know.
He was missing, but his luggage stayed on the plane. They wanted to take his bag off the plane, but they couldn’t open the cargo hold.
The pilot came up, trying to find the right tool. After about 10 minutes, it was obvious they couldn’t do it. People sitting in the back row started pulling up the carpet to get to the cargo hold that way.
A flight attendant notified the captain, and the captain came on the speaker.
“We’re not able to get this suitcase off,” he said. “We’re going to take off, but if anybody feels uncomfortable, because of this bag, please let us know, and you can get off and take another plane.”
I think two people exited. After we took off, the girl behind me became anxious. I asked if she was okay, and she said she was worried about the suitcase, and that she should have gotten off.
The play, "Come From Away," based on this experience, won several Tonys:
Flying back into New York, we saw two holes smoldering where the towers had been — just rubble.
Over the next year, I felt behind the times, because I didn’t experience 9/11 the way everyone else did.
On the first anniversary, I happened to be working in New York. I decided to go to the site of the towers. It was really windy, and I walked by a chain-link fence with origami birds. It felt good to see people, to go by the site. I faced it, and I was really glad I was in New York on that one-year anniversary. That made all the difference to me.
This transcript was edited for length and clarity.
Mo Chapman is the production logistics coordinator at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. She started as a kid wrangle for "Oliver" and has gone on national tours with "Cats," "Chicago" and "Movin’ Out."