When the news first broke on September 11, 2001, that more than 40 planes carrying thousands of passengers would be landing in Halifax, Dr. Sheila Brown immediately wondered how Mount Saint Vincent University could help.
“I quickly realized there would not be enough hotel rooms to accommodate that number of people given that many hotels already had guests staying,” she said. “We made a call and were asked if we could take a planeload of passengers, which we did. So that’s how things got started.”
As the university’s president at the time, Sheila was among the first to greet the more than 300 people who came to stay on campus. Their flight from Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom had been bound for Mexico but was redirected to Halifax because of the terror attacks in the United States that resulted in the closure of US airspace.
“I remember going aboard the buses and welcoming them, in part to explain to them where they were and who we were,” said Sheila. “Given that many of them were from the northwest in the UK, which is where I grew up, it was nice to be able to make a connection with them. We did what we could to make them feel welcome and make them feel comfortable under obviously very difficult circumstances.”
Among those working as part of the team that came together to ensure the unexpected guests were well taken care of was Rick Walkden, responsible for the university’s facilities both then and now.
“We were going to have to find a way to house 300 people the week after school started, when all our residence rooms were full,” said Rick. “We had to get some wheels in motion pretty quickly, not only for housing them but also feeding them and whatever else was going to be required. It was within a couple of hours that we were meeting people and setting them up at their home away from home.”
The passengers were put up in the multipurpose room and gym in the Rosaria Student Centre, with students readily sharing the spaces with the university’s unexpected guests. At first, the passengers slept on a mix of gym mats and furniture from around the building and, later, on cots provided by the Red Cross and the military. The university provided as many blankets as possible from its supplies, and Sheila recalls going through her closets and bringing blankets, pillows and toothbrushes from home. The university cafeteria extended its hours to enable separate mealtimes for the passengers and MSVU students living in residence. Members of the health services team ensured any necessary prescriptions were provided and many local retailers and others donated personal care items.
“Almost everybody that was working here at the time did something. And it might have been something small and it might have been something big, but it was really a community event,” said Rick, recalling how people on campus and beyond wanted to contribute anything they could.
And, recognizing how everyone went out of their way to make them feel welcome and as comfortable as possible, the passengers decided to give back to the university.
“On the last day, when I went to say goodbye because I expected they would be gone the next day, one of them stood up and said to their fellow passengers, ‘You know, we’ve been well looked after here, and people have really put themselves out for us. Let’s pass the hat and give what we can,’” said Sheila. “Because they were coming from the UK, hadn’t expected to be in Canada, and were going to Mexico, what ended up in the bucket was a real mixture of currencies, adding up to about $3,000.”
Soon after, Sheila says, she heard from a representative of the airline the passengers were flying with. When he expressed how grateful the company was for what MSVU had done and asked what he could do to thank the university, she told him about the generous donation made by the passengers.
“Maybe you’d like to match that,” she recalls saying. “And I remember his words, he said, ‘Oh, I think we can do better than that.’ A cheque came in the mail for a much more substantial sum, and that’s how we were able to establish the award.”
Even now, 20 years after September 11, 2001, the First Choice Airways Endowed Scholarship continues to serve as a reminder of the relationship that developed between the passengers and MSVU’s staff, students and faculty. It’s given annually to a student who demonstrates a commitment to volunteerism.
According to Sheila, the award is a fitting reminder of how everyone at the university stepped up to help at an important time, and why it was such a natural thing for the MSVU community to do.
“When I first went to talk to the students about hosting the passengers on campus, they had the TV on and it was showing the twin towers. I explained to them what the Mount had offered to do and they very much embraced the opportunity to help people,” said Sheila. “To me, that speaks to the ethos of the university that has characterized it throughout its history and I would suggest still does today – a sense of charity, of volunteering, and of helping.”