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Canada: Unsung Heroes of 9/11

Royal Canadian Air Force Capt. Dave Gosselin, 176th Air Defense Squadron senior director, tracks aircraft in Alaska air space ensuring air sovereignty in the Alaskan NORAD Region Regional Air Operations Center. U.S. and Canadian servicemembers utilize 15  radar stations to monitor Santa as he traverses the airspace around the northern latitudes of North America, a mission ANR has successfully accomplished for 50 years. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. John Gordinier)

Canadian military members monitor American airspace alongside U.S. service members. The Canadian military have conducted surveillance operations as part of NORAD since 1958. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John Gordinier/Released)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, FLA. -- On September 11, 2001, the United States shut down its airspace in reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Because U.S. airspace was shutdown, hundreds of international flights crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans now had no place to land.  Many of the planes were too far along and didn't have enough fuel to turn back.

Often referred to as "Operation Yellow Ribbon," it was the aid that came from Canada to take the inbound international flights that remains a largely untold story.

In order to defend the United States from further attacks, Transport Canada worked with its U.S. counterpart, the Federal Aviation Administration, to accept U.S.-bound international flights and provide refuge to travelers on that chaotic day.  The agencies worked together to land the planes in isolated and protected areas such as towns like Gander, Newfoundland. 

According to reports, Gander had a population of just 10,000 and yet it was to play host to the passengers of 38 jumbo jets, nearly 7,000 people in all.

Though the exact number of passengers varies from each source, Transport Canada has estimated that over 33,000 passengers on 224 flights arrived in Canada  that day. After the initial task of diverting the flights was over, thousands of passengers had to be cared for and given food and shelter.  Many towns like Gander did not have the hotel space to support the new population of stranded passengers. As a result, many of the passengers took shelter in gyms and schools -- and even in the homes of the town's residents. Many of the Canadian airports even took care of the stranded passenger's communication needs as well. Vancouver International Airport reported fielding hundreds of calls to family members to help ease the minds of loved ones.

The impression Canadian hospitality made on the stranded passengers was so great that many of them returned to Gander and other towns in later years to reconnect with "old friends." The quick response time Canada displayed on 9/11 is often credited to the experience of Canadian military personnel working with the U.S. in the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

Established in 1958, the bi-national command has been the "eyes and ears" of North America defending against external airborne threats.  Since 9/11 the Canadian-American command has made great strides in improving  readiness against all airborne threats regardless of origin.  These improvements include greater visibility of domestic airspace, improved communications and exercises that test our mutual defenses.

In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President Barack Obama wrote that the bond between the United States and Canada has proved to be a strong reminder the U.S. has allies that are willing to put their lives on the line for us. In the letter Obama thanked Canada for hosting thousands of stranded Americans and for the "solidarity you continue to show in our shared fight against terrorism."