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Dec23WedWhen airline passengers were stranded at Deer Lake, N.L., The Salvation Army pitched in to help. December 23, 2020 by Diane Stark
"We apologize for the inconvenience, but the flight to St. John’s has been delayed for another hour,” the voice on the intercom at Toronto’s Pearson airport said.
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Diversion to Deer Lake
Passengers groaned. It was Christmas Eve, and the WestJet flight had been scheduled to take off at 8 p.m. But storms in St. John’s, N.L., had caused repeated delays.
At midnight, the plane finally took off. It was a three-hour flight full of turbulence. At 3 a.m., the pilot tried to land in St. John’s, but high winds made it impossible. After a few failed attempts, the crew diverted the plane to Deer Lake, N.L., finally landing at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning.
Karen Casey was one of the passengers.
“I just wanted to get home to see my mom, my sister and her kids,” she says, “but as soon as they said we were landing in Deer Lake, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.”
Paulette Karges and her husband, Jeff, were on the flight as well. “My mom has lung cancer and she wasn’t doing well,” she says. “We really wanted to be with her on Christmas.”
Due to its small size, the airline doesn’t operate out of the Deer Lake location in the winter and, because it was Christmas, there were no restaurants or stores open. The 80 or so passengers were stranded and made their way to a local hotel.
“I was still shaken by the rough flight and failed landing attempts,” Karen says. “When I got to the hotel, I just collapsed into bed.”
It was lunchtime when she woke up. “I was hungry, so I bought a microwave dinner from the vending machine and went back to my room,” she says. “It was depressing to eat a frozen dinner all by myself on Christmas Day.”
Above and Beyond
At 3:30 that afternoon, Brian Snow, the family services director at The Salvation Army’s Deer Lake Citadel church, was just finishing his Christmas dinner.
“I received a text message from the church secretary,” he recalls. “A friend of one of the passengers had contacted her to tell us about their situation and to ask whether the Army could help.”
Brian made some calls and went on Facebook to share what was happening. Less than an hour later, volunteers from The Salvation Army and the community started arriving at the hotel.
At that moment, Paulette was staring out the window in her hotel room. “I noticed cars in the parking lot and people entering the hotel carrying trays of food.”
Paulette and Jeff went down to the lobby. “When we got there, there were all these people and they invited us to eat the food they’d brought. It was so amazing, I actually got choked up.”
“I was in my room and one of the other passengers knocked on the door,” Karen says. “They told me that there was food downstairs. I headed down, and when I saw it, I started to cry. I couldn’t believe that people gave up Christmas with their families to come and help us. I was overwhelmed by their kindness.”
“There were turkey sandwiches, hot crab dip, cookies and cake,” Brian says. “One man even brought a batch of rabbit stew.”
“The food was wonderful, but it was more than that,” Karen says. “They really cared about us. I know that people of Newfoundland and Labrador are generous people, but this went above and beyond.”
The passengers were fed, but there was still another problem. They needed to get back to the airport to catch a 9 p.m. flight to St. John’s, but there were only four taxis running. At that rate, not everyone would make it on time.
Another social-media request was sent out. “We asked for volunteers to drive the passengers to the airport,” Brian says. “More than 30 cars showed up, ready to help.”
All of the passengers got rides to the airport and their flight took off on time. They finally arrived in St. John’s at 10 p.m. on Christmas night, nearly 24 hours after their journey began.
“It wasn’t the Christmas we thought we’d have, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Paulette says.
“I will always remember that day and what they did for me,” Karen says. “It was one of the best Christmases I ever had.”
The incident reminded Brian of another experience when the people of Newfoundland and Labrador helped strangers. In the week following the attacks on September 11, 2001, 7,000 stranded travellers were fed and housed by the small town of Gander after their flights were grounded, inspiring the hit musical Come From Away.
“There were so many similarities that we called this ‘Come From Away on Christmas Day,’ ” Brian says. “It was on a smaller scale, but it was a blessing to be able to help where needed.”
“We want people to know that whenever and wherever they need us, we’re here,” Captain Jeff Howard, the co-pastor at Deer Lake Citadel, states. And “Come From Away on Christmas Day” was the perfect opportunity for the Salvation Army members of Deer Lake to demonstrate that message