Last week, I was having a chat with my sister when the conversation moved onto September 11 2001. I was on my way to the States to visit her; sitting beside me was my 5 year old niece, her daughter. It was a holiday to celebrate my successful viva. I hadn’t even bothered to do the few corrections I’d been asked to do after the 3rd September interview, I just wanted to enjoy myself first. I hadn’t been to Washington DC since 1990-91, when I spent Christmas and new year with my uncle. Excitement was in the air.
Then, right in the middle of the flight, the announcement that we wouldn’t be arriving in the States, but an emergency landing in Canada! What was that all about?
I’ve blogged about this before. We talked of how we’d all grown since then; my niece is now preparing for university, wow! She was only 5 then. She asked about the people I’d met in Canada. And then, I went to my laptop and saw an email waiting for me. It was from Jacqueline, the lady who’d been so good, a volunteer from social services who had been in charge of ensuring we were all comfortable in her hometown; we, total strangers trapped by an event we hadn’t even understood because we were flying when it occurred.
It was such a pleasure to read from Jacqueline; we hadn’t been in touch in several years. But more was to come. Only two days after that, I received another email. This one was from one of our fellow passengers who had his son with him. He wanted to get in touch with Jacqueline and wondered if I knew how to. I was really surprised, I’d been in touch with him even less frequently than with Jacqueline.
It turns out that Martin too hadn’t forgotten the experience. About 4 years ago, he’d set up The CornerBrook School outside Nairobi Kenya. It was named after the Newfoundland town that had hosted us so warmly with Jacqueline in charge. He wanted to show us the pictures.
Two contacts with Cornerbrook in one week, that’s set me thinking. I’ve written about being in contact 2with Jacqueline, and about the 10th anniversary of 9 11. But how about those who were just going about their daily duties when they found themselves welcoming strangers. Everyone was caught up in something dreadful, something new. We were, we thought we were going to DC, but we landed in Canada. Nobody was prepared for this.
We stayed hours in the aircraft, waiting for Canadian officials to set everything up. By the time we got out, we were met by security, then driven in buses to our destination. We got Cornerbrook and Jacqueline.
Here’s how I knew it was all voluntary. Jacqueline said she worked with social services, so I might have imagined she was just doing her duty, but that’s not really true; her dad took us shopping, her boyfriend was with her, it was a family affair, and if they too were employed by social services, then … And their work didn’t start at 9 and end at 5, or whatever time Cornerbrook folks work. It started before we arrived on the scene, I can’t remember who was on the bus with us, perhaps Jacqueline, perhaps the Red Cross people who gave us something to eat and took me to the phone at the airfield to ring my sister.
When we got into the hotel, there wasn’t enough room for the 5 star treatment. I shared a room with my niece, Martin and his boy. But we got everything free, food, telephone calls, and the willing assistance of volunteers who took us places.
Nobody knew how long we’d be there, so Jacqueline and her dad took my niece and I shopping; our luggage was on board. This was on September 12. I know they stayed with us through supper and till we were all ready to go to bed. And the next morning, they were back. It was voluntary and it was wholehearted. I like to know about the places I visit and Jacqueline and her dad told me about themselves and their community. They gave me an idea of the location of Newfoundland in relation to Canada, told me all the interesting things I wanted to know. Everyone we met was so friendly. Everyone was shocked too, but that feeling was universal. The difference was that Newfoundland folk were called upon to do something, and they did. It was like an invasion, one day, things were peaceful, and then … all these strangers whose only claim to the place was that they couldn’t get to where they needed to go. Plane loads of us too.
On the morning of the 13th, we returned to London. They gave us food parcels because the return trip wasn’t covered in BA’s plans. You won’t believe it, but I preferred being in Cornerbrook to returning to London. The London hotel I stayed in wouldn’t at first allow me a free call to tell my sister I’d arrived safely, not until I told them I hadn’t sufficient British money to pay hotel phone charges, didn’t know where the nearest cash machine was located, had just been given the run of the telephones in a country that didn’t know me, her daughter was in my care and I only needed a minute to give her my number and make her call me back.
I think they acted like they were doing me a favour, which they probably were; but I’d just been on this trip and didn’t really know what was happening, and I needed to tell everyone I was fine and … you know, well maybe you don’t. The Comfort Inn Cornerbrook didn’t even want to know, they just told me how to get the outside line from my room and left me to it. By 15 September, we were again on our way to DC, and this time, we got there.
Jacqueline and her dad were the people I most clearly remembered, but the hotel staff were wonderful too. And wherever we met, when folks realised who we were, they were so good, so friendly and so caring of how we were coping. That’s probably why Martin set up a school and named it after the town. Maybe something in their values will rub off on those young boys.