As a volunteer for the Red Cross, Des Dillon has raced to disasters all across the continent: the 1992 earthquake in Los Angeles, the fall of Swissair 111 off the coast of Peggy’s Cove in 1998, hurricane Katrina in 2005. But when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the disaster came to him. Des—a social worker and father to four sons originally from St. Mary’s Bay, N.L.—recalls the week that 6,600 rerouted airplane passengers landed in Gander and how the community came together to give them a home.
Planning for disasters was part of our job. We had some sense of what would be available: schools and churches and hotels. But it was all on paper. I got the call from the Red Cross, and they asked if I would be the site manager and coordinate things. My son was on the controller, bringing the planes in. All the planes landed, but we didn’t expect they’d be staying overnight.
Our basic role was to register all the passengers. We did one plane at a time. We started at five o’clock in the evening and it was 11 o’clock the next morning by the time we were able to get through the last of the passengers. They were on the tarmac for hours and hours. We used Tim Hortons Timbit boxes to organize information cards for passengers, alphabetically by plane. When they came through the assembly line, we had food for them and personal packages with toothbrushes. None of them were allowed to take their luggage, so they had no change of clothing. We arranged to get clothing for everybody. It was amazing how smooth it went.
From the registration, they’d go to accommodations. They got on buses and went to the sites: some went to school, some went to church basements, some went to a Salvation Army camp up near the lake. The bus drivers were on strike at the time, but they all went back to work. We filled Gander first and then we started going to outside communities. Word got around fast. People took them into their homes and offered showers. The telephone company put phones out on the sidewalks so they could make free calls home. We set up international phone lines for people all over the world—and had volunteers answering phones and taking questions. One of the problems was that people were bringing in too much food. The weather was pretty hot, so we had to make sure we didn’t leave it. We used the arena as a cooler.
The passengers weren’t as tense when they saw the friendly faces of the people who were here. I enjoy helping people, and all my family is like that. Where I grew up, you didn’t do it for awards or anything like that. It’s just natural. Everything was centred around those passengers. Everyone was concerned with making those people comfortable and happy. That photo of all the volunteers standing out on the tarmac, that was the last flight out. — As told to Luc Rinaldi
(Portrait by Andrew Tolson)