UPDATE: MSNBC will broadcast the program, titled "Operation Yellow Ribbon," this Saturday, March 13, at noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time and again on Sunday, March 14, from 1-2 p.m. Eastern time.
To donate online to the Flight 15 scholarship fund, go to the Columbus Foundation's Web site, http://columbusfoundation.org/, and click on "Give to a Fund." Put "Flight 15" in the Fund Name field. Read more about the scholarship fund at http://www.columbusfoundation.org/connect/current/index.aspx.
Editor: The photos are from Shirley Brooks-Jones. "Lewisporte.jpg" is an early-summer shot of Brooks-Jones adopted home. "Wheel.jpg" shows Brooks-Jones testing her prowess at the wheel of a ferry, with Lewisporte friends Bill and Thelma Hooper to the right (the ferry captain is in the back). Bill Hooper was mayor of Lewisporte until December 2009.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This month, NBC's Olympic coverage will include one Canada-based story that has nothing to do with sports, but that has everything to do with the basic Olympian value of building a better world. Incongruously, it's a story that began on Sept. 11, 2001.
On that day, Shirley Brooks-Jones, a Dublin resident who retired in 1989 as assistant to the vice president of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, happened to be on a flight back to the United States after attending a People to People International board meeting in Denmark. Along with more than 250 other flights, her plane was diverted to Canada when U.S. airspace was closed because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The tragedy of that day has led Brooks-Jones on "the most extraordinary, the most beautiful experience I've ever had in my life." And the beneficiaries are the students in the area of tiny Lewisporte, a town of less than 4,000 that took in nearly 800 of the stranded passengers during the days following 9/11, opening their homes and hearts to these strangers.
NBC plans to air the story of this experience during its broadcast of the Closing Ceremony of the 21st Winter Olympic Games, which begin at 7 p.m. Eastern time on Feb. 28. The NBC crew did some filming with Brooks-Jones in Columbus this fall, but in September, Brooks-Jones spent 10 days with NBC in Newfoundland, being interviewed by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and helping identify key players in the story, which began at the Gander International Airport.
The airport had been major stopover for commercial transatlantic flights until the 1980s, when air carriers could fly the Atlantic without refueling. Since then, the huge airfield has mainly catered to smaller private jets and fully-loaded cargo carriers. But it had plenty of room for 38 of the U.S.-bound planes on Sept. 11, 2001, that needed to land their 6,000 passengers quickly -- in a region with barely 10,000 residents.
As soon as they realized what was happening, community leaders in the Gander area, including the town of Lewisporte (about a half-hour from Gander), sprang into action. Once they were permitted off the planes, the passengers would need food, shelter and comfort, for an undetermined period of time. Volunteers of all ages began making preparations for what they knew were extraordinary circumstances.
At the time, Brooks-Jones and her fellow passengers on Delta Flight 15 didn't fully understand what was happening.
"The pilot initially told us that there was a minor problem with the plane, and that as we approached land, he would have to dump fuel and land at the airport in Newfoundland," she said. "But once we approached the runway, something clicked -- the planes on the ground were parked wingtip to wingtip, not like you would normally see them lined up at an airport. And it looked like there was a U.S. Air Force cargo plane across the runway," blocking any flight from taking off.
Soon after they landed, the pilot apologized for his ruse and explained what was happening in the United States -- that due to attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. airspace was closed and it was unclear when they could continue their flight to Atlanta. The passengers and flight crew would have to stay on the plane until they received further instructions from the ground crew. After 24 hours on the ground, those on Delta Flight 15 were finally permitted to exit the plane with just their carry-on baggage, and joined passengers from three other flights onto school buses that took them to nearby Lewisporte.
"About 100 of us were assigned to the Lewisporte Lion's Club Center -- others went to churches, schools, other service clubs, and a few -- I remember one woman who was eight and a half months pregnant, stayed in people's homes," Brooks-Jones said. "But no matter where we were, we had everything we needed. People brought towels and blankets from their homes, they brought home-made food, we slept on cots or mats from the local school's gym, and there boxes and boxes of deodorant, shampoo, razors -- anything we needed, they provided. At night, the ladies of the town would pick up used towels, take them home to wash them, and bring them back fresh the next day. It was incredible."
The unexpected visit lasted three days, during which Brooks-Jones fell in love with the people of Lewisporte, an area especially affected by a poor economy. "Those people had so little, but they have such big hearts."
Neither the townspeople nor local businesses expected, nor accepted, anything for their goodwill and generosity, Brooks-Jones said. "They just said, 'You would do the same for us.'"
On Friday, Sept. 14, the passengers on Delta Flight 15 were gathered back to the airport for the remaining portion of their flight to Atlanta. On the plane, Brooks-Jones and another passenger began discussing how they could repay the people of Lewisporte for their generosity. "I wanted to do something that wouldn't offend their dignity," she said. Another passenger suggested helping one of the area's students with college expenses. "He said that would make a big difference, since there wasn't much work available in the area."
The idea struck a chord with Brooks-Jones, who worked at Ohio State for her entire career but didn't earn her bachelor's degree (in English) until after her retirement.
"But I said, we can't stop at one student. How about if we start an endowed scholarship?" Several other passengers overheard the conversation and asked what they could do to help.
Brooks-Jones was in a position to know exactly what was needed. After her retirement, she was asked to help lead Ohio State's Campus Campaign, an internal fund-raising venture. And she herself had started two endowed scholarships -- one for first-year students in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and another for students participating in international programs.
"'We need pledge forms,'" she told her fellow passengers, "and I started tearing pages out of my notebook and asked them to make up pledge sheets. And then we decided we needed a few sentences on paper to explain what we were doing. But that was taking a long time -- I began to worry that we would be landing in Atlanta before we had a chance to let everyone on the plane know what we were doing."
To help, Brooks-Jones approached a flight attendant to ask her to make an announcement about the scholarship fund. "I gave her the paragraph we wrote to explain everything, and her chin started to quiver and it looked like tears filled her eyes. She said it was a beautiful idea, but she would need to ask permission from the pilot. When she returned from the cockpit, she said the captain thought it was a great idea, and that, in fact, he would be the first to make a pledge. But instead of the flight attendant making the announcement, they said it would have to be a passenger.
"I went back to my group and asked for a volunteer, but no one felt comfortable doing that. So, there I was. I was nervous, but the flight attendant showed me how to use the microphone. I started with, 'Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention. Ã¢â¬Â¦' Then I read what we had written about collecting pledges for a scholarship, and I really wasn't sure what to expect. But as I walked down the aisle back to my seat, people on the plane stood up and applauded. The pledge sheets went flying around the plane, and we collected something over $15,000 in pledges that day."
When she arrived back in Columbus, Brooks-Jones made a few contacts and was able to set up the endowment through the Columbus Foundation. She continued to spread the word about the people of Lewisporte and the scholarship fund, which now has grown to nearly $1 million. She has been back to Lewisporte 17 times on visits ("Each time, it's like visiting home," she said) and to present the scholarships, which so far number 111. One of the first recipients of the scholarship, given in 2002, is now in her second year of medical school.
Because of her efforts, in 2007 Brooks-Jones was inducted into the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, the highest honor in the province. In November 2009, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrodor asked Brooks-Jones to make a quick visit back to meet with some special guests -- Prince Charles and Lady Camilla Parker Bowles. And now, she is looking forward to seeing the story told to an international audience during the Olympic games.
"All of my background, all of my life experiences, seemed to come together to make this work," Brooks-Jones said. And she's grateful for the chance to honor the people who gave so generously of themselves: "We don't want them to ever forget how grateful we were for helping us in our hour of need."
Contributions to the endowed scholarship can be sent to the Columbus Foundation, 1234 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH, 43205. Checks should be made out to the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund.