October 24, 2001
Alison Walsh thought it was a little strange that the pilot would announce an unscheduled landing due to a medical emergency without first asking if there was a doctor was on board, but she took the news in stride.
As alumni affairs travel coordinator, Walsh (N 55), returning from an eight-day trip to Northern Italy with a group of Tulane alumni and friends, had grown accustomed to unexpected delays. When the plane touched down in St. Johns, Newfoundland, however, Walsh knew immediately something was wrong.
Lining the gates at the tiny airport in the city of 125,000 were more than 20 jumbo jets. The date was Sept. 11, and the grounded planes were among the U.S.-bound international flights diverted to Canada in the wake of the mornings terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. For Walsh and the 26 Tulane travelers, it was to be the beginning of a six-day residency in St. Johns as they awaited the reopening of America's airports and the resumption of flights.
The worst part of the experience came early. As Canadian officials grappled with the question of what to do with 5,000 stranded travelers, the passengers were required to remain on the plane. Cell phones provided a tenuous link to family and friends back home, and a passenger's short wave radio supplied breaking news on the rescue and investigation.
At 4 a.m. Wednesday morning, more than 12 hours after arriving in St. Johns, officials took the Tulane passengers from the plane and transported them to a local sports arena to be processed and assigned quarters. "You read about hostages being on planes for three and four days, and you think how can they do it," says Mary Lynn Hyde (N 66), one of the alumni travelers on the flight. "And yet we must have done 18 hours, if you count the flight."
From the sports arena, passengers on the flight were taken to the St. Johns convention center. There, they bivouacked with about 2,000 fellow travelers. "They said 'sorry, we have no place for you to sleep except on the floor,'" recalls Joe Gordon, a former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who was also on the trip. "All we had was the clothes on our back. They wouldn't let us bring anything else off the airplane. No toothbrushes, no toilet articles, no nothing except what we were wearing. So we made the best of it. Despite the spartan conditions, a positive tone prevailed among passengers."
Gordon, Hyde and Walsh give much of the credit for that to the efforts of local volunteers, whose kindness and compassion went above and beyond the call of duty. A nearby hotel provided an abundance of sandwiches and coffee. The Red Cross and Salvation Army brought in blankets, pillows, toothbrushes, socks, underwear, books and playing cards and organized trips to Wal-Mart for travelers to buy other essentials.
"We lacked for nothing," says Hyde. "The people were incredible. Now I know where your money goes when you give to the Red Cross." Local residents also pitched in to help make the difficult situation bearable.
"The citizenry would come up to you and ask if there was anything they could do," says Gordon. "One man said 'I've got a nice, roomy Cadillac here and I can take three or four of you for a tour of the island.' We accepted and got a wonderful view of St. Johns. It was that kind of gesture that I found most appealing. I told him I would hope that my local community back in New Orleans would be as wonderful to a group of strangers marooned there as you have been to us. It was the most generous hospitality you could ever, ever imagine," Walsh says.
"The people were so special. And they were so glad to help us. It was real. They made us feel that this was home for that short, very anxious time. I had people come up to me on the street and say, 'Oh, you must be off the planes. Can I help you find something?'" Hyde says. "I'd chat with them and they'd say, 'Well, have you been up to the lighthouse? Have you been to Battery Hill? Hop in the car and I'll take you out.'"
On Sunday afternoon, the Tulane travelers boarded a Delta flight for Atlanta and a connecting flight back to New Orleans. At a time that left many pondering the worst that humans were capable of, the travelers stranded in St. Johns were left with a reassuring message.
"We came back with a much more positive feel about this disaster," Hyde says. "We know the good side of human nature. We've seen the good and the good far outweighs the evil."
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org