Lost and Found in Newfoundland

On September 11, 2001, we were flying on Lufthansa from Madrid to Washington via Frankfurt. The flight from Madrid to Frankfurt had been perfect. But as we were about to leave Frankfurt, the flight attendant asked us for a second identification. We did not understand why, and were really offended to hear that they were doing this only to Italian and Spanish passengers. Complaining, we showed them our Spanish ID and visa. Then, about an hour from Washington, the pilot announced that there had been a terrorist attack in New York, and that the air space was closed and we had to land in Newfoundland, Canada. We thought it was a joke, but to our total consternation saw that the plane was emptying fuel in the middle of the sea. An island in the North Atlantic! How were we going to get off without fuel?

The next question was, of course, what had happened in New York? The plane landed in Gander, and we were not the only ones: another 47 rerouted aircraft crammed the small airport, which now looked like a mall parking lot. At 12:00 local time, we were allowed to leave the plane. We were among the first to get off and run to a phone to call home. Back in Madrid, they had seen what had happened on television, and they'd hoped we were safe.

We were shuttled to Gander Academy, a preparatory school. The activity there was frantic. We were assigned a room to sleep in—a classroom, that is. The local people were incredible: they had brought blankets, pillows, towels, and everything you can think of for 12,000 people in a town of 10,000! It was a long night and we could not sleep at all. People from all over the world gathered around the TV to watch the news as if it were the outbreak of World War III. It felt as though we were war refugees and would never be able to go back home. There was not much we could do but wait. And so we did.

And we waited, and waited, and in the meantime met some very interesting people, including two German curators who were traveling to Washington with a Monet and a Cézanne for an Impressionist exhibition. Both canvases were in a baggage compartment together with cats, dogs, and even two gorillas! We also met Valérie, a very nice woman from Monaco. She was traveling to Washington to celebrate her 40th birthday. She told us the story of a man who, when informed that he had to sleep in a classroom on the floor, had said, “I want a room of my own and a bed.” “Sorry, sir, but this is all we can offer you,” replied the poor volunteer at Gander Academy. “You don’t understand, I am a bishop and I want a bed and a room of my own!” Very exemplary. On the third day, another man came and told the flight attendant that he couldn’t possibly fly on a Saturday because it was the Sabbath and he was Jewish. I looked at him incredulously. The poor woman didn’t know what to say. "Religion…" I thought.

One day, the pilot and the crew called together all the passengers from our Lufthansa flight. They said that planes were slowly starting to take off and that we were tenth in line. He wanted us to be together, so that in case we were called to the airport, we would get there as soon as possible. So off we went again.

But strangely, they started driving us away from Gander into the woods. Newfoundland is beautiful, but we were not really in the mood for a vacation. After about 30 km we arrived at a Salvation Army camp site. They took us into a huge cabin and a member of the crew told us over a microphone the real reason we were there: there was a passenger with an infectious disease and the Canadian government had put us in quarantine. We looked at each other in shock.

Then a German doctor explained that the infectious disease was salmonella, and it seemed odd that 300 people had been isolated because of a case of salmonella. We began to suspect that we were there for another reason: there was a terror suspect in our midst. The flight included passengers from America, Europe, and the Middle East. Many of us began looking at the Arabs as if there were a terrorist among them. And we hated it, because we were being forced to become racist without wanting to. A sense of anguish and fear along with a strange solidarity started to arise in groups: the Americans held their hands on their hearts every time the TV played their national anthem, the Europeans felt a skepticism brought on by centuries of wars, and the Arabs watched us watch them.

We spent a day and a half in the camp, but there was a problem with the running water and we could not use the toilets. The solution was to take us back to Gander to another school. And suddenly the infectious disease excuse disappeared, and we never heard of it again.

Finally, we headed for the airport. Ours was the only plane left in Gander. We were the last ones to go. When we landed in Frankfurt the flight attendant was crying with the rest of us; even though Frankfurt wasn't home, it felt like it. When we arrived in the Madrid airport, we looked at other air travelers who were obviously vacationing, and we couldn't quite grasp it. Where were they all going? Didn’t they know the whole world was crumbling? Nobody really understood how we felt, but we had come back from the end of the world and survived.


Cristina Garrigós was born in Seville, Spain, in 1966. She got her BA and her PhD in English from the University of Seville and her MA in Comparative Literature from UNC at Chapel Hill. Currently, she is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M International University.

Categories: Airports, Security

Latest Stories
Checking In/Checking Out

Filter by Category

Everyone has a story to tell...

Submit Yours Here

Points of Departure: