Alex Tumilty was in the fifth grade when her family in Gander, Newfoundland, helped U.S. airline passengers rerouted to Canada after the Sept. 11 attacks. At one point they came across a very upset little girl who just wanted to go home. All Tumilty could offer was her sleeping bag, but that worked for the time being.
“It was my favorite sleeping bag, but she liked it, so it was worth it,” Tumilty said.
Thanks to a unique turn of events, Tumilty is now in Bethpage, receiving some of the same hospitality she offered nearly a decade ago.
She is part of a girls team from assorted Newfoundland high schools participating in a holiday basketball tournament at Bethpage High School. Their trek was put in motion by Bethpage gym teacher Michael Fenster, who watched a report during NBC’s Vancouver Winter Olympics coverage chronicling how Gander residents came through for displaced Americans.
Fenster, who had a family of close friends on the plane that hit the Pentagon, said he was so moved by the feature he felt compelled to contact Oswald Fudge, one of the subjects of the NBC report, who is one of Gander’s two constables.
“I had originally planned just to have Oz come down, stay with me and take him into the city so that he could see Ground Zero,” Fenster said. But that changed when he found out Fudge was also a fundraiser and assistant coach for Gander’s high school girls basketball team.
Fudge said he reached out to several schools across Central Newfoundland for players because towns other than Gander helped on Sept. 11. The girls practiced together from November until their arrival Wednesday morning. (Ironically, their arrival was delayed when their plane was stranded in Toronto by the snowstorm.)
An emotional welcome ceremony in the school gym featured a couple touched both by the kindness of Gander’s citizens as well as the horror of Sept. 11. Dennis and Hannah O’Rourke, recently of Lawrence and formerly of Valley Stream, were returning from a vacation in Ireland when they were grounded in Gander. Hannah O’Rourke choked back tears as she expressed gratitude for the hospitality of Gander residents.
Being stranded was especially hard on them because their son, Kevin, was a New York City firefighter and they hadn’t heard from him. The O’Rourkes were home for 10 days before they got a call that their son’s body had been found.
“I hope I never have to go through it again,” she said.
With a smile, she added that she was happy to be at the tournament, and that it was the perfect time leading up to the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
In light of Gander’s hospitality, the Golden Eagles aren’t letting the Canadians’ trip be just about basketball. Wednesday night the two teams dined together at Borelli’s Italian Restaurant in East Meadow and then headed down the street to Nassau Coliseum to watch the Islanders play the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Thursday the basketball teams faced off in a friendship game, where Bethpage defeated Newfoundland 52-33. After the game they headed to a fire house in Brooklyn to meet some of the Sept. 11 responders and then were off to Ground Zero, where Fudge presented a flag and wreath.
The Golden Eagles hope to reprise the visit next December by going up to Newfoundland. Bethpage coach Tom Gargiulo said the trip could be much more lighthearted than this year’s considering Newfoundland’s Christmas traditions.
“They do, like, a Halloween during Christmas,” Gargiulo said. “They wear a mask, go house to house and have drinks and something to eat. Apparently, they’re big fisherman up there because they have to kiss a fish.”