Westmont Magazine The Kindness of Strangers
On Sept. 11, Peggy Gilbert ’64 and her husband, Leonard Kirschner, were five hours into their trip on Delta flight 11 when the captain made an announcement. He repeated his title and name twice, and Peggy and Len knew it was bad news. He said, “Due to terrorist activity in the United States all airspace there is closed, and we are being diverted to St. John’s, Newfoundland.”
Peggy and Len had left London that morning after a vacation in the United Kingdom and were headed to Atlanta en route to their home in Arizona.
Their flight landed safely in St. John’s, the third of 27 planes directed to the city of 100,000. Then the waiting began. Used to handling only four international flights a week, St. John’s had to cope with an influx of aircraft, some too large for airport equipment. Delta flight 11, a Boeing 777, was among the last to unload due to its size and its number, the same as one of the planes hijacked by terrorists.
“We sat on the plane for nine hours,” Peggy says. “We were hot, tired and frustrated.”
Thanks to passengers with cell phones, the couple learned the details of the attacks. When they were finally allowed to leave, they couldn’t take anything except Peggy’s purse, so they stuffed their pockets full.
“We felt like refugees with no place to go and no belongings,” Peggy recalls.
The people on their flight were directed to a particular section of the local ice hockey arena. From there they were sent to stay at schools, churches and organizations in St. John’s. Individual families also opened their homes.
“There was a lot of food waiting for us: pizzas, sandwiches, fruit and drinks,” Peggy says gratefully. “The Canadians made sure we had enough to eat. They were so welcoming and so hospitable.”
“They were great,” Len adds. “The Newfies are friendly people — I can’t imagine anyone being friendlier.”
Peggy and Len were sent to The Hub, a facility for the disabled. For the first time they were able to watch television. Expecting to spend the night sleeping on the floor with the others, they were gratified when Cavell and Ashton Stanley invited them to stay at their home.
“The Stanleys acted like we were long-lost relatives,” Peggy says. “They were like angels from heaven — so warm and kind.”
Nearly 24 hours after getting up in England, they felt tired and dirty. Peggy appreciated the chance to bathe, put on a borrowed nightgown and sleep. Len stayed up talking with CNN running in the background.
On Wednesday, the Stanleys took the day off from work and gave them a tour of St. John’s. “It’s a very historic town with a beautiful port,” Len says. “Everyone was interested in us — we were the ‘plane people.’”
As they took in the neat, pastel-colored buildings, Peggy and Len noticed that all the flags were flying at half-mast.
Since planes weren’t leaving, the Stanleys invited Peggy and Len to stay a second night. On Thursday, their hosts went back to work and Peggy and Len returned to The Hub. When they went for a walk, two elderly women living in subsidized housing invited them in for tea.
“As we were were dealing emotionally with the horrors in America, we were experiencing the best in mankind,” Peggy says.
Early Friday morning, they were bused back to the hockey arena and then to the airport where they waited hours to find their baggage and go through customs. Security was tight, and Len lost the Swiss army knife he had carried forever. Finally, at 11 a.m., they boarded the plane. When the flight took off, the passengers cheered and exchanged stories about St. John’s.
Torn between the horror of the attacks and the kindness of strangers, Peggy and Len were unprepared for their reception when they landed in Atlanta.
“As we taxied to the gate, hundreds of maintenance people were lined up, waving flags and signs,” Peggy says. “More employees waited for us in the terminal, but the largest crowd was outside of customs, cheering for us. It felt so good to be in America again.”
Len worked for hours to find a flight going to Phoenix; few planes had enough crew to fly. They finally got home Friday night, 80 hours late.
Undaunted, Len boarded a plane on Monday to speak at a conference in Arkansas. A physician, he served in the Air Force and then ran Arizona’s Medicaid program. He has also developed business opportunities for state health systems and done consulting work. Although he has retired, he serves on numerous boards and commissions and speaks frequently on health issues. Peggy is a retired educator.
The couple plans to leave the bulk of their estate to Westmont. A Williams alumnus, Len says that Westmont has a greater need for support. “Both are small liberal arts colleges with wonderful traditions and values,” Len says. “But we know our gift will make a bigger difference at Westmont.”