Published February 11th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
At a time when the world faced the very worst of humanity, Pat McKinzie and her daughter Kathy Waddle found themselves embraced by the very best.
The two Kansas City-area women were caught in a hinge in history – the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They were on one of 38 civilian flights diverted that day to Gander, Newfoundland, where they spent the next five days.
The experiences of thousands of passengers and crew members given safe harbor in Gander, a remote Canadian town of about 10,000, are the basis of “Come From Away,” a musical being staged tonight through Sunday at the Music Hall.
At its very core, it is a story about the kindness of strangers.
“We’ve always had everything we needed,” Waddle recalls. “There, we didn’t have anything. You had to depend on other people for your food, medicine and where you were going to sleep. And they were so kind about it.”
McKinzie of Leawood and Waddle of Pleasant Hill boarded American Airlines Flight 49 in Paris bound for Dallas. Their captain was Beverley Bass, the name of a lead character in “Come From Away,” although presented in the show as a composite from several pilots’ experiences.
McKinzie says the first indication that something was wrong was when Bass, over the public address system, told passengers there was a crisis in the United States and all air space was closed.
Initially, McKinzie thought it was a nuclear bomb.
Everyone on board remained calm, although McKinzie began to understand how grave the situation was when she noticed hushed conversations between the crew and a nearby passenger. That passenger was U.S. Army Major General Barbara Fast, who at the time was the director of intelligence for the U.S. military command.
“I remember her saying, ‘I lost a lot of friends today,’ ” McKinzie recalls.
Flight 49 was ordered to land in Gander, once an important refueling station for transatlantic flights.
“When we landed, I remember looking out the window and seeing people with cameras and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s going on,’ ” Waddle says. “We landed and then another plane landed right after us. I thought they must have made a mistake because they never land a plane that fast after you.”
Flight 49 was one of the last to land in Gander, which meant there were still hours before anyone could get off the plane. It took two to three hours to process each jetliner that landed.
While on board, passengers could freely walk around the plane and were offered unlimited snacks and movies, but many people watched what was happening outside.
“You could see the school busses come and you’d think, ok, they are coming for us,” McKinzie says. “But then they would go another way.”
Finally, about 28 hours after getting on board in Paris the passengers of Flight 49 got off the plane in Gander.
It was only then they began to realize the full scope of what the rest of the world had seen on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We got bits and pieces, but we really didn’t realize the full magnitude of everything until we got off the plane,” Waddle says. “Someone on the bus had a newspaper and they began reading it to us.”
As soon as they walked into the airport, even before processing began, people were offering them trays of sandwiches.
“And they had bags for each of us with a toothbrush, toothpaste and toiletries,” McKinzie says. “I thought that was amazing.”
It was only the beginning.
Passengers from the 38 grounded planes were sheltered in schools, churches and community centers throughout Gander. Flight 49 passengers were taken to the Knights of Columbus hall.
“A lot of people offered to take us to their homes, but we thought, we’re healthy, no problem for us,” McKinzie says. “By the time we got to the hall they had set up a TV and folding chairs around it so we could see what other people had been seeing for a long time.”
Everyone got a sleeping bag and a place to lie down on the hall’s linoleum floor.
Later, they brought in some cots.
“You would think that would be a big improvement,” McKinzie says. “But there were 250 of us on cots so every time someone turned over – squish, squish, squish.”
Outside were tables with telephones.
“People would huddle around the person who got ahold of their loved ones and pass notes that said call this person to tell people we’re OK,” McKinzie says.
Every day, passengers and crew convened for any updates. Passengers had to let someone at the hall know where they were going so they could be notified of a departure.
Gander residents did everything they could to make the passengers welcomed, especially since the passengers were only allowed to take their carry-on luggage off the plane. Everything that was checked stayed on the planes.
Showers at the city’s hockey rink were open with barrels of clean towels and clothing.
When Waddle tried to pay for washing her clothes at a laundromat, a resident stepped in and put the coins in the machine.
McKinzie had a blouse dry-cleaned for free, and a prescription refilled at no charge.
When Waddle asked if it would be possible to get a pack of cigarettes, a woman told her: “I don’t feel good about this. But I will do it for you.”
“You couldn’t pay for anything,” Waddle says.
Knights of Columbus members gave sightseeing trips to historic spots. McKinzie and Waddle got to return to the airport for an up-close look at all the parked jetliners thanks to a Knights of Columbus member who was a pilot with a special pass.
There was a church service and musical performances by residents, and even a birthday celebration with cake and singing for one Flight 49 passenger.
“I don’t remember ever being bored,” Waddle says.
And then there were the trips to Walmart.
“There were thousands of people there trying to get underwear,” McKinzie says. “It was so funny because someone whom you didn’t know would hold up some underwear and you’d hear someone yell, ‘No, I like mine a little higher cut’.”
Of course, friendships developed.
“When your air mattress touches another person’s air mattress, you become really good friends,” Waddle says.
And there were some very fortunate people who became friends with McKinzie and Waddle.
“We had some superb wine,” McKinzie says. “You know how you keep stuff in your carry-on in case you missed a flight? Where I might have had a change of underwear or something, I had wine.”
She mentioned the wine to a couple camped out next to them at the Knights of Columbus hall.
“He pops up right up in his boxer shorts and goes downstairs and gets a corkscrew, and we served it to everyone around us,” McKinzie says.
The kindness of Gander also came through simple reassuring conversations, like the one Waddle had with Gander’s air traffic controller who volunteered at the Knights of Columbus hall.
“After he brought all the planes down he came to the shelter and took care of us,” Waddle says. “I was sitting on the steps one day with him and he asked: ‘You OK? You’ll get home soon.’ ”
After five days in Gander, the time to go home came for McKinzie and Waddle – first in a very jarring way.
“At 2 a.m. they flipped on the lights. We all got dressed,” McKinzie says.
But the wind direction changed and they went back to bed. Not long after, another opportunity came and they were on their way to Dallas.
“When you were getting on the plane, you were kind of sad,” Waddle says. “You didn’t want to leave the people. They were so kind to you.
“If I had a choice of going to Paris or Gander, I would go to Gander. I would choose that because, well, it’s hard to explain, but people don’t always do that…I hope we would do the same if strangers came to our town.”
McKinzie thinks she was fortunate to land in a small community like Gander.
“In smaller communities, they have to be there helping each other, it’s a way of life,” she says. “I wish it wouldn’t take something like that to bring out the best in people. But it shows we all have it in us.”
Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.