I was sitting in math class. It was the first period after lunch and I had just started Grade 11 at the only high school in Gander, N.L.
The principal made an announcement. We would need to gather up our belongings, anything we would need for the foreseeable future, because we were being sent home early.
We didn’t know it then, but our school would be closed for a week.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Gander Collegiate, home of the Concordes, also became home to 357 stranded passengers from Lufthansa flight LH 400.
Thanks to the Broadway musical Come From Away, Gander’s 9/11 story is well known. Thirty-eight planes were forced to land at the town’s airport when the U.S. airspace closed that day. Nearly 7,000 passengers from around the world were forced to take up residence “somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” as they say in the show. Beautiful and lasting friendships were created in the process.
But what happened to the teens that attended the schools transformed into temporary shelters? This is their story.
Trent Skanes, 37, & Jennifer Skanes, 34
Trent and Jennifer Skanes remember being in the lobby of Gander Collegiate on Sept. 11, 2001. People had started to gather to watch the terrible images now etched into the minds of people around the world on televisions mounted shelves on the walls.
Things started happening pretty quickly.
“Our teachers were like, ‘OK, we’re clearing things out, we have people coming.’ and everybody was just like, ‘OK, what can I do to help?'” said Jennifer.
Like so many of their classmates, Trent and Jennifer, then in grades 12 and 10 respectively, spent hours volunteering at the school, stuffing bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste and shampoo, sorting sheets and towels and then going around collecting dirty laundry from the school’s guests.
Trent’s family hosted six stranded passengers from Mexico and Pakistan at their home. They cooked together and learned about different types of food, as well as how to communicate with people who didn’t speak the same language as them.
It was an intense cultural exchange for a teenager.
“[Gander] was a tight knit community and we all treated each other well, but it was a little bit of a silo culturally, so that experience I think really just exposed us to things we wouldn’t have seen,” he said.
It inspired Trent and Jennifer to travel.
“I remember finding the globe and trying to look for places the passengers had said they were, and just kind of piecing it all together,” said Jennifer. “It kind of made you want to explore the world.”
But their 9/11 experience is one that transcends the hatred that day entailed. It’s a love story like no other, or as Trent says, “the weirdest first date you could possibly dream up.”
He admits that for him, at least at the beginning, helping Gander’s visitors was really about trying to find a way to spend time with Jennifer.
“On that day, it was more like, ‘Where am I going to volunteer? I wonder where Jen’s going to volunteer?” he laughed.
The two had connected only days before 9/11 on ICQ, an instant messenger program. They say it was their volunteer experience that really brought them together.
“With that kind of emotional boiling pot, that intensity, it’s like a movie, right? It can bring you closer a lot faster than other circumstances and I think that’s what happened to us. We got very close, very quickly,” said Trent.
They’ve now been married for 11 years and have two kids. He’s a lawyer, she’s a teacher, and they say the subject of how they met has come up often over the years. They’ve never lost sight of the terrible tragedy that created the circumstances to bring them together, and they’re grateful they were able to contribute to something good.
“You quickly turn from being scared yourself, from people coming in and not knowing, to just wanting to care for them,” said Jennifer. “You just open your heart.”
Dr. Chris Downton, 36
Dr. Chris Downton, now 36, was in Grade 12 at Gander Collegiate. He volunteered at the high school organizing donations and driving people to and from the grocery store and pharmacy in the days after 9/11.
He says it was “just what needed to be done in the moment.” Looking back, however, he realizes it influenced his career path. He wanted to go to medical school but says he didn’t necessarily know why.
Growing up in such a small town, he says he was “sheltered” until September 2001 when he became curious about life outside of Newfoundland.
“I had never been exposed to that level of diversity, and I had never been able to sit and talk and support someone and see that impact, to see them feel a bit comforted even in times of tremendous grief and stress and fear,” he said during a recent Zoom interview from Fort Smith, N.W.T., where he spends time working each year.
“I think that changed my motivations a bit.”
Downton has a family practice in Vancouver, but makes under served communities a priority, with a focus on global and refugee health.
“That drive to connect to people of different backgrounds and to learn more about how our world functions and how I could potentially make it better is something that’s still a strong desire of mine,” he said.
“And I think can be brought back to some of those first exposures to diversity and international events that took place in 2001.”
For Downton, and for so many other students who could have been home in bed or at the beach, Gander’s response to 9/11 was a lesson in humanity that also taught him the value of community and connection.
“I never would have thought that that was unusual, except that people continued to tell me that that was unusual,” he laughed during a break from ER duty.
Twenty years later, he says his town’s effort continues to influence him. He’s returning to university next month to do a fellowship in global health.
It also gives Downton hope.
“I think that remembering that in times of trauma and catastrophe humans can come together and achieve something despite differences, despite disagreements, it gives me hope that we can do the same to solve some other problems.”
Jane March, 37, & Maranda Ford, 37
Jane March and Maranda Ford became the best of friends early in their high school years. They were in a unique media class at Gander Collegiate the day the twin towers were hit.
Their teacher wrote a media program and successfully petitioned the federal government for the funding to create a functioning TV studio in the high school.
He wanted his students to get real journalism experience.
And did they ever.
That teacher was Brian Mosher, one half of the reporter character Janice Mosher in Come From Away.
March and Ford have similar memories of the directions Mosher gave them that day.
“He was like, ‘Take some cameras and go to the airport and get some footage because this is going to be big for our community,'” said Ford.
So off they went, in awe as the planes kept coming, gathering incredible real-life experience without even knowing it.
For the next five days, March says, she barely slept.
It wasn’t long before she was back at Gander Collegiate, volunteering, where she would stay, except when she was working at the local grocery store.
“It was very stressful for me. I was very quiet in high school,” she said in an interview, admitting she worried about having to exchange international currency in her role as a cashier.
But a lot of growing up happened for Gander teens that week.
“I kind of stopped and thought about it, ‘And I’m like I’m worried about whether I’m giving them the right change and they’re worried about whether their families know they’re alive,” March said.
She has now come full circle. She’s a teacher at Gander Academy alongside Ford, who’s the school’s guidance counsellor. They’re still best friends and together they’re passionate about teaching young children, grades kindergarten to three, about kindness and compassion.
They encourage children to tell them small acts of kindness they’ve done and praise even the smallest examples.
“I really think that that particular life event and seeing our community come together really made me realize that it doesn’t have to be a big thing. It’s just the small things that matter, and you just see the impact that it has now, world renowned,” said Ford.
Although the events took place long before the children were born, it isn’t all lost on them. Many of them know, at the very least, that a lot of planes came to town.
“We want our children now at this age, ages four to eight, if something like this were ever to happen again to naturally do what our community did 20 years ago.” said Ford.
There are reminders of their community’s history displayed at their school. A massive painting that shows a woman giving a child clothing, planes on the runway, and two men embracing, is prominently displayed at the school’s entrance.
“It’s a lovely reminder for me of that time,” said March. “Pretty well every time I look at it, I have a moment of pause for what actually took place.”