(September 20, 2001, Gazette)

Open arms

Like many parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Memorial opened its arms to stranded travellers last week in the wake of devastating terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. When news came that terrorists had used commercial jetliners as missiles, the United States shut down the skies over the country. That forced dozens of jetliners to make unscheduled landings across Canada, including at St. John’s, Gander, Stephenville and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

The move also forced provincial emergency response officials to house and care for the estimated 13,000 unexpected travellers from around the world. As part of the effort to house the thousands of flyers whose planes landed at St. John’s airport, Memorial offered room in the Thomson Centre and Aquarena as a temporary home for about 500 people.

They were provided a bed or a cot, meals, access to washroom facilities and showers and communications with their family and friends who were unaware of where they had landed after the disaster.

Students from Paton College residences assisted university officials and Emergency Measures Organization volunteers in setting up the temporary accommodations. For the next several days, these and many other students were available to provide help and assistance to the visitors. Faculty served as translators for the passengers while others were conspicuous in their efforts to provide a break from the waiting with concerts, special lectures and films.

A spur-of-the-moment concert organized by the School of Music was a huge hit among the stranded travellers.

President Axel Meisen said the Memorial University community – students, staff and faculty – came together in a tremendous effort to make the unexpected visitors welcome and comfortable.

“All volunteers and employees can be justifiably proud,” said Dr. Meisen in an open letter to the university. “Your service and kindness were an impressive display of Memorial’s ability to respond in a time of great need. But more than that, it was an illustration of the great spirit that is central to Memorial University.”

Dr. Meisen praised the volunteer staff from all sectors of the university who came forward to staff the 24-hour emergency housing operation.

“They ensured that the travelers were provided with the necessities of the moment: from telephones to mattresses and bedding, from food to clean clothes and clean facilities, from a pleasant chat to a comforting smile,” he said. “Many of you also kept your part of the university’s operations going while you were volunteering or while many of your colleagues were away volunteering. Some of you volunteered but were not called in; I wish to thank you as well because your offer of help meant we could handle the situation with the confidence that we had back up, if needed.”

The travellers were finally able to leave Newfoundland by Saturday, Sept. 15, but many claimed they would not soon forget the people of the province and the university. Some passengers made donations to the university as a way of expressing their thanks. In response to this, Memorial will establish the Sept. 11, 2001, International Travel Bursary Fund and direct the donations to this bursary fund which will assist students from other countries to travel to Memorial University for studies. This bursary will be a perpetual memorial to those who died in the tragic events of that day, while it also fosters international relations. The university’s Office of Alumni Affairs and Development will oversee the creation of this bursary.

For more views of our unexpected guests, click here.

The full text of Dr. Meisen’s letter can be seen at www.mun.ca/univrel/passengers/