Twenty years ago, Nick Marson and Diane Kirschke were strangers on board Continental Airlines flight 5 traveling from London Gatwick to Houston, Texas.
Four hours or so into the flight, the pilot came over the intercom and announced the airplane would be diverting to Newfoundland, Canada. “There are problems in US airspace,” the captain said, giving no further details. Nick was a British businessman in his 50s who worked in the oil industry. He was heading to Texas for work, and had no idea where Newfoundland was. “I looked out the window because I thought he might not be telling us the truth, and maybe an engine was on fire,” Nick tells CNN Travel today. At the other end of the aircraft, Diane took in the news. An American divorcee who’d just turned 60, she was returning from visiting her son, who was in the US Air Force and stationed in England.
“I thought, ‘Canada, I’ve never been to Canada. That sounds like an adventure,” Diane recalls today. It was September 11, 2001. Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the US airspace closed and, under an effort dubbed Operation Yellow Ribbon, more than two hundred commercial aircraft heading to the US diverted to Canada. Nick and Diane’s flight rerouted to Gander — a rural town with a population of just 10,000, home to an airport whose history as a refueling spot for pre-jet engine aircraft left it with runways to rival far bigger cities. As Continental 5 approached Newfoundland, Nick saw dozens of planes lined up in rows. He abandoned his suspicion that there was a technical issue.
“We were the 36th plane out of 38 to land — so clearly not everybody had a problem with their plane,” says Nick. When Continental 5 landed, the captain told passengers there had been terrorist activity in the US and airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “Even though that sounded horrific, nobody realized how devastating it was until sometime later,” says Nick. In 2001, no one could read the news on their cell phone. No one had Internet on their cell phones. No one had international coverage. Many people didn’t have cell phones at all. Diane recalls being extremely worried about her family in the United States, and fretting that she couldn’t reassure them of her own safety. This state of uncertainty continued for more than 24 hours.