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'We've got a good neighbor'

A U.S. woman stranded in Canada after her flight was diverted Sept. 11 leads a group of Americans intent on repaying their hosts in kind.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2002


Before September, Shirley Brooks-Jones was like many other Americans: She didn't know much about Canada except that "they're good neighbors and it must be very cold up there."

Just how good, and how warm the relations, would become obvious over four remarkable days.

Brooks-Jones, a part-time Florida resident, was among thousands of U.S. passengers stranded in Canada when all commercial flights were ordered to land Sept. 11 at the nearest airport. It could have been an agonizing experience; instead it led to enduring friendships that are celebrated in a new book, a documentary and a scholarship fund that Brooks-Jones and other passengers on Delta Flight 15 established as a step toward repaying Canadians' kindness.

"In a way, (Sept. 11) really was a very helpful thing -- it made Americans much more aware of Canada and the goodness of the people," says Brooks-Jones, 65, a retired Ohio State University administrator who spends part of the winter in West Palm Beach.

That day, she and a friend were returning from Germany and a conference sponsored by the humanitarian organization People to People, for which they both volunteer. The pilot announced they were landing in Gander, Newfoundland, because of a mechanical problem; only when they were on the ground did he reveal the true reason.

Brooks-Jones and others remained on the plane for the next 27 hours while Canadian authorities struggled to process the 6,000 unexpected arrivals. Then passengers from Delta 15 and several other flights were bused 45 miles to the town of Lewisporte, which immediately saw its population jump from 4,000 to more than 5,000.

"My first thought was, we have to get them something to eat and a place to sleep," recalls Mayor William Hooper, owner of a local printing company. "I thought it would be for one day and one night. It continued on for four days."

The townspeople quickly rallied to help. They set up cots at the Lions Club and a Methodist church. They brought copious amounts of food and arranged to get prescription drugs for passengers who had left their medication in checked luggage. They even installed cable TV and banks of phones, where the visitors could call home at no charge.

"They thought of everything we could possibly need," Brooks-Jones says. "The first time I went into the women's restroom at the Lions Club they had all sorts of things females would need -- they didn't come just from the grocery store, but were in plastic baggies, zip things that women had actually brought from their homes. I was amazed at the sheer amount of thought that had been put into it."

Brooks-Jones' friend has serious health problems, so Mayor Hooper invited the two women to stay at his home where they'd be more comfortable. The Hoopers also invited an African-American woman whose daughter, with the U.S. military in Germany, had just given birth to a baby with a heart condition.

"She was having a really tough time," Brooks-Jones says. "She was feeling uncomfortable, she had never flown before, she had no money. The people took her under their wing."

When it came time to go Sept. 14, the gorgeous weather gave way to a downpour that reflected the mood among the newfound friends -- "It was gloomy, it made us all that much sadder to be leaving," Brooks-Jones says. On the flight to Cincinnati, passengers discussed how to repay their Canadian hosts. They hit on the idea of a scholarship, and Brooks-Jones found herself the unofficial organizer.

To date, the Gander Flight 15 Scholarship Fund has raised about $40,000 in cash and pledges. Brooks-Jones plans to return to Lewisporte in June, when the first scholarships will be awarded to high school seniors chosen on the basis of grades, need and community service.

In the meantime, she and the Hoopers e-mail frequently and talk by phone at least once a week. Their relationship is chronicled in A Diary Between Friends, a lavishly illustrated book commissioned by the Canadian government to show how Canadians helped Americans after the terrorist attacks.

Among the stories: Two children in Ontario raised $59.06 selling pears, and a travel agent in British Columbia drove 12 elderly U.S. cruise ship passengers 2,000 miles home to Iowa after their flight was canceled.

The Hoopers and Brooks-Jones are also featured in an hourlong documentary that has been shown on Canadian TV and will be broadcast on PBS in the United States on Sept. 11.

But the good will hasn't ended with the scholarship fund.

A few days ago, two representatives of Delta Air Lines arrived in Lewisporte with a $5,000 check for a foundation that helps the mentally handicapped. The foundation had sheltered a passenger in September.

Mayor Hooper still marvels at how much good could come out of so much horror.

"The friendships we have made were unreal. We were with those people night and day for four days, and we became very close to them and some of them became very close to us."

Brooks-Jones agrees.

"A number of people said to me, "We're really glad we're neighbors with the U.S. We know that if we get into trouble we've got a good neighbor.' That makes you feel awfully good."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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