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Twenty years later, Canadians reflect on their efforts after the 9/11 attacks

Calgary firefighter Mark Turik recalls standing at Ground Zero in January 2002, watching a group of police officers as they surrounded a body pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Calgary firefighter Mark Turik recalls standing at Ground Zero in January 2002, watching a group of police officers as they surrounded a body pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center. 

He was told the remains likely belonged to another police officer, based on the duty belt or gun. 

Sifting through dozens of photos taken that month nearly two decades ago, Turik shared memories from his time in New York City four months after the September 11 terrorist attack, when firefighters were still searching for the remains of fallen colleagues and civilians unable to escape the wreckage.

Nearby sat a box filled with newspapers, magazines and video tapes.

"I hadn't opened up that box of stuff in over 15 years. There's little pieces that you carry with you that you don't think about," said Turik, who is now deputy chief with the Calgary Fire Department. 

Turik is one of many Canadians reflecting on the tragedy -- and the work he did to try to help in its aftermath -- as the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack approaches.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist strikes played out on American soil -- with two hijacked aircrafts flown into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon in Virginia and another that failed to hit its target.

Nearly 3,000 people died, and 25,000 more were injured. 

Turik was one of hundreds of Canadian firefighters who went south following the tragedy. Local firefighters were adamant about recovering the bodies from the wreckage themselves, so many firefighters from abroad went on what Turik called a "mission of support."

"All of them were obviously devastated by it. Every one of them knew somebody (who died), so you would just go down and talk to them and bring well wishes," said Turik.

He and five others from Calgary's heavy rescue team spent about a week trying to come to grips with what happened while comforting their American colleagues as best they could.

For 20 years, 9/11 has served as a sober reminder for Turik. There is no such thing as being too prepared. You never know what might happen.

One photo taken by his team showed a sign in a New York fire station that read: "Let no man's ghost come back to say 'my training let me down.'"

The horror of 9/11 lingers on the minds of many as they reflect on the sober anniversary, but for the mayor of a small Atlantic Canadian town, it also conjures memories of "love overcoming hatred." 

When the United States shut down its airspace, the Town of Gander in Newfoundland and Labrador opened its runway. Thirty-eight airplanes carrying more than 6,500 people landed in the municipality with a population of just 9,000. 

It was a logistical nightmare, remembers MayorPercy Farwell, who served as deputy mayor at the time. 

Stranded passengers needed food, shelter, translators, clothing and medicine, having only the clothes on their back and whatever filled their carry-on bags. 

Farwell said people arrived from 95 different countries. Many had no idea why they had been rerouted, or where Gander was located on a map.

As the reality of the calamity set in – with some passengers praying for the safety of their loved ones in New York – the people of Gander and surrounding communities stepped up to help. 

"Everybody volunteered their time, spare sheets, pillows, clothes and made food --- whatever was required," said Farwell. "They needed reassurance, compassion and love."

The story of Gander inspired people from across the world and has since been adapted into the musical "Come From Away" and retold in several books. 

Farwell said he continues to receive messages from young students in the U.S. who are learning about that day.

Gander was one of multiple Canadian cities that welcomed diverted flights to their runways as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. Upwards of 240 aircraft were rerouted to 17 airports across the country. 

Farwell said he hopes others are able to take some comfort in those efforts, too.

"Darkness is overcome by light and we've been an example used for that," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2021.

Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press