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Author Jim DeFede says Canadian response in aftermath to 9/11 shows that ‘best of us can shine through’

Jim DeFede believes Canada does not get enough credit for what the country did during 9/11.

The federal government had shut down U.S. airspace while giving unprecedented orders for any and all planes within that space to land immediately. The move left Canadian officials with a choice, DeFede said: To allow inbound, potentially compromised planes once headed for the U.S. into their borders, or not.

Canada’s decision to accept rerouted planes led to 38 landing in the Newfoundland town of Gander. The hospitality then shown by those in Gander to the “plane people,” as the passengers were called, served as the catalyst for DeFede’s book, “The Day the World Came to Town.”

“It’s an aspect of the story that I don’t think has ever been fully appreciated, but deserves that acknowledgment that what Canada did was truly remarkable,” said DeFede, whose book earned him a Christopher Award in 2003. “They were willing to risk themselves to get those folks down.”

DeFede, an Emmy-winning television journalist for CBS4 Miami who got his start as an intern at The Spokesman-Review, was back in Spokane on Monday for the latest edition of the Northwest Passages event series at the Bing Crosby Theater.

In a discussion moderated by friend and former Spokesman-Review colleague Anne Walter, DeFede talked about career hijinks, notable stories during his time in Spokane and his book, which has greater relevance this week with the Best of Broadway production of “Come From Away” debuting Tuesday for a six-day run at the First Interstate Center for the Arts.

“Come From Away” is the musical rendition of the events in Gander. While the playbill doesn’t credit his book, DeFede estimated that around 70%-75% of the characters in the show come from “The Day the World Came to Town.”

“What I really am happy about is the fact that the story of Gander is being told and it pumped new life into it. I think that’s wonderful and I’m very, very happy for it,” he said.

He then joked, “Would my mother have liked it if there was a little acknowledgment?”

DeFede recalled how a publisher in New York City told him what happened might make a good book, so he made the trip from low-90s Miami to subzero Gander in February 2002 to investigate.

Having spent two months talking to the people there, DeFede said the work is markedly different from the stories he usually covers in Miami.

“I only do awful stories about awful people,” he said. “I have to warn people: This is nice. I really did write it.”

DeFede said he’s kept in touch with some of the people he spoke to in Gander, whom he described as “amazed” that people hold what they did in such high regard.

He said many of those stories stick with him, such as the one in his book about the parents of New York City firefighter Kevin O’Rourke. At the time the plane from Ireland carrying O’Rourke’s parents was rerouted from Long Island and landed in Gander, O’Rourke was missing.

Recognizing that, the people of Gander bonded with O’Rourke’s parents, whether by talking with them for hours or telling them corny jokes to keep their spirits up, DeFede said.

While O’Rourke’s body was later recovered from the wreckage of one of the towers, DeFede said, the family’s memories of Gander did offer some small comfort.

“There’s little bits of humanity that came through for them, and that’s when I understood the power of the story of Gander was seeing the reaction from the people in Gander to the plane people, to the stranded passengers, and what they were able to imbibe and imbue in them when everything was so chaotic in the world,” DeFede said.

“I think about that today and how scared so many of us are and I am. I don’t know where we’re headed and I don’t know how dark things are going to get,” he continued, “but the fact that every once in a while the best of us can shine through, that’s what I loved most about writing this book and telling that story.”

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