The strangers who fell in love when 9/11 diverted their flight
Francesca Street, CNN
(CNN) — Twenty years ago, Nick Marson and Diane Kirschke were strangers on board Continental Airlines flight 5 traveling from London Gatwick to Houston, Texas.
Four hours or so into the flight, the pilot came over the intercom and announced the airplane would be diverting to Newfoundland, Canada.
“There are problems in US airspace,” the captain said, giving no further details.
Nick was a British businessman in his 50s who worked in the oil industry. He was heading to Texas for work, and had no idea where Newfoundland was.
“I looked out the window because I thought he might not be telling us the truth, and maybe an engine was on fire,” Nick tells CNN Travel today.
At the other end of the aircraft, Diane took in the news. An American divorcee who’d just turned 60, she was returning from visiting her son, who was in the US Air Force and stationed in England.
“I thought, ‘Canada, I’ve never been to Canada. That sounds like an adventure,” Diane recalls today.
It was September 11, 2001. Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the US airspace closed and, under an effort dubbed Operation Yellow Ribbon, more than two hundred commercial aircraft heading to the US diverted to Canada.
Nick and Diane’s flight rerouted to Gander — a rural town with a population of just 10,000, home to an airport whose history as a refueling spot for pre-jet engine aircraft left it with runways to rival far bigger cities.
As Continental 5 approached Newfoundland, Nick saw dozens of planes lined up in rows. He abandoned his suspicion that there was a technical issue.
“We were the 36th plane out of 38 to land — so clearly not everybody had a problem with their plane,” says Nick.
When Continental 5 landed, the captain told passengers there had been terrorist activity in the US and airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“Even though that sounded horrific, nobody realized how devastating it was until sometime later,” says Nick.
In 2001, no one could read the news on their cell phone. No one had Internet on their cell phones. No one had international coverage. Many people didn’t have cell phones at all.
Diane recalls being extremely worried about her family in the United States, and fretting that she couldn’t reassure them of her own safety.
This state of uncertainty continued for more than 24 hours.
While the airplanes were stuck on the runways, volunteers across Gander and its neighboring towns delivered food and supplies to the jets, and prepared makeshift shelters in schools, colleges and community centers around the region.
Some 7,000 people were about to descend on their community, almost doubling Gander’s population.
When the displaced travelers were finally permitted to deplane it was September 12. One aircraft at a time, no luggage allowed, the passengers disembarked.
When they got through security, they were greeted with smiles and reassurance.
“They were so friendly and open,” says Diane of the Gander volunteers. “They just welcomed us. They didn’t care who you were, where you came from, how much money was in your wallet, what kind of job you did — we just needed help, and they were going to take care of us.”
Nick was taken to a small shelter in Gambo, about 30 miles outside of Gander. The Society of United Fisherman was the biggest structure in the town, usually reserved for weddings, bingo or town meetings.
Several hours later — after a detour to a Gander shelter that was full — Diane ended up there too.
It was at the shelters that the “plane people” — as the Newfoundlanders called the incomers — finally saw the horrifying TV footage that had reverberated around the world, and learned the true extent of what had occurred on September 11.
Volunteers had set up phones, and Diane contacted her family to let them know she was safe, and also learned they were all OK.
The “plane people” lined up to collect blankets and supplies. As Diane was handed hers, she commented to herself that it smelled of mothballs.
“Camphor,” said a voice behind her.
It was Nick. The two started chatting, first finding humor in the distinctly scented blankets, and then realizing they’d been on the same airplane heading to Texas.
In this unknown — albeit very friendly — place, this coincidence seemed like something to hold on to.
“I asked Diane if I could take the cot next to hers. and she said, ‘Sure, why not,'” recalls Nick.
The next morning, Nick and Diane went out for some fresh air. They needed a break from constantly watching the news.
“It was just too much to sit there and watch those horrible scenes over and over,” says Diane.
They were joined at first by another couple, who then fell back. Soon it was just Nick and Diane.
“We’re chatting away, and trying to pass the time, enjoying each other’s company,” recalls Nick.
En route, they stopped at a convenience store to pick up some sodas and trail mix. Nick tried to pay, but Diane beat him to it.
“Well, I had an ulterior motive,” says Diane, laughing. She was enjoying Nick’s company — and she figured her paying for their morsels would ensure Nick stuck around.
She thought he was interesting, she recalls, and a real gentleman.
As for Nick, he thought Diane was good-looking and was really enjoying chatting with her.
They had lots to talk about — both divorced, with adult children, and close to their families. There were cultural differences, but they had shared values.
When they returned to the shelter, they found the cots had been temporarily cleared away and evening entertainment was underway.
The Newfoundland volunteers were initiating the “plane people” into a local tradition known as a Screech-In — a way of designating visitors “honorary Newfoundlanders.”
There are several steps to the process, including drinking a shot of screech and kissing a cod fish.
Screech, explains Nick, tastes like “bad Jamaican rum.”
Nick bought Diane a beer and they embraced the ceremony — kissing the cod and all.
When it was Diane’s turn, the master of ceremonies asked her where she was from. She explained she lived in Texas.
The MC then moved on to Nick.
“What part of Texas you from, buddy?” he asked.
“Oh no, I’m from England,” explained Nick.
“Well, how does it work?” asked the MC.
Nick was confused.
“How does your marriage work?” clarified the MC, gesturing to Diane.
Nick and Diane explained they weren’t married — it turned out everyone else had figured they were.
The MC, amused, said he was a justice of the peace. “Do you want to be married?” he asked Nick and Diane.
Diane laughed. “Why not?” she said, slightly giddy from the alcohol.
Reflecting on this moment today, Diane says she felt a freedom in being in a place where no one knew her.
“You didn’t have to play your usual role,” she says. “I wasn’t my kid’s mom or my grandchildren’s grandmother. I wasn’t the lady next door. Nobody there knew me. I could be silly if I wanted to.”
And for the rest of the evening, Diane’s answer kept running through Nick’s mind.
Where continents collide
The next day, some of the locals took the now-honorary-Newfoundlanders on an outing to a spectacular local lookout, the Dover Fault.
“It’s a beautiful outlook, about 200 foot above where the river and the ocean come together,” says Diane.
The site was formed when two continents collided millions of years ago, and later separated.
Nick had an early digital camera with him. He’d already snapped a photo of the moment the Continental 5 passengers had disembarked, as well as shots of the shelter with its makeshift beds.
But there was only one picture he really wanted from his detour to Newfoundland — a photo of Diane.
“I needed a picture to remind me that I hadn’t dreamed all this up, these magical days, they actually really happened,” he says now.
His camera didn’t have a zoom function, so he had to get pretty close to get her in the shot.
“I offered to get out of the way, because I thought he wanted a picture of this beautiful scenic spot,” recalls Diane.
“I had no interest in the scenic view,” says Nick.
He told her not to move, and that the view he had was perfect.
“I knew then that it was he was interested in me and not the scenery,” says Diane. “So that sort of changed the dynamics a little bit.”
As they stood admiring the vista, both Diane and Nick considered the unlikeliness of their meeting.
“I had a very settled life,” says Diane. “I had a nice little apartment. I had a job that I enjoyed and co-workers and friends.”
“Neither one of us got on that plane looking for a romantic encounter,” says Nick.
Five days after the planes had landed in Gander, the call came that aircraft were permitted to leave.
Buses rounded up the passengers who’d been scattered across the local towns. One by one, the planes departed.
“We boarded the school bus, and it was raining,” recalls Diane. “I was a bit upset because we were leaving these wonderful people — and I’d gotten to know them and their children, and they’d been so sweet to us — and I knew I’d never see them again. And I probably wasn’t ever going to see Nick again either. So I was very teary.”
Nick, sat next to Diane, realized she was welling up. He put his arm around her, and went to kiss on her forehead as a comforting gesture.
“I thought this is my chance,” recalls Diane. “So I just grabbed him and gave him a nice big kiss.”
On their flight to Texas, Nick and Diane sat next to one another. Nick says they were “canoodling” the whole journey.
Midway through the flight, a flight attendant walked down the aisle, offering hot towels to passengers. When she approached Nick and Diane, she raised an eyebrow.
“Cold towel?” she asked.
Nick stayed in Houston for a few days, checking in with work there. In the evenings, Diane took him out for meals at her favorite restaurants, and before Nick left they exchanged email addresses and telephone numbers.
Then he had to leave.
“It was very difficult flying back to England on my own. That was a real emotional low,” says Nick.
Back in their respective home countries, Nick and Diane struggled to come to terms with the fact that they’d fallen for someone in the context of such devastating events.
They kept in regular contact, writing long emails about how they were feeling, and about their lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
In October 2001, Nick convinced his office that he had to return to Houston to check on a work project.
“I needed to make sure that Diane was really the person that I remembered, and I hadn’t kind of embroidered her a little bit in my mind,” he says.
She was — and the visit clarified in both their minds that they wanted to be together.
A month later, in early November 2001, Nick called Diane from his car.
“I told her I was on my knee,” he says.
Overjoyed, Diane said yes.
“We felt that this was destined to be,” she says today. “Who could go against fate?”
The two started planning their future together. Diane sold her one bedroom apartment and bought a larger house, and that December, Nick persuaded the company he worked for in England to transfer him to Houston.
In March 2002, Diane introduced Nick to her family for the first time. Diane says they quickly fell for him too — they say all their loved ones were surprised, but supportive.
After several months of navigating the red tape involved in marrying someone from another country, in September 2002 — almost exactly a year after they’d met — Nick and Diane were married at their home in Houston. She took his name, and they became Nick and Diane Marson.
When it came to planning their honeymoon, there was no question about it — the Marsons were returning to Newfoundland.
The couple were excited to see beautiful sites like the Dover Fault again, but Nick and Diane also wanted to host a small get together to thank the Newfoundlanders for their hospitality the year before. They’d stayed in touch with many of the people they’d met, and felt they owed them so much.
“They could have left us on the plane. They could have even left us in the hangar,” says Nick.
“They took us to their hearts and homes,” says Diane.
But Nick and Diane underestimated — once again — the extent of the Newfoundlanders hospitality.
“We turn up and there’s a full blown wedding reception,” recalls Nick.
“Complete with a multi-layer wedding cake, gifts, candlelight, the head table had champagne…” adds Diane.
The Mayor of Gambo had even written the two a song. He performed it there and then, singing about how Nick and Diane had met in Newfoundland, fell in love and got married.
Sharing their story
During their return trip to Newfoundland in 2002, word spread that two of the “plane people” had fallen in love.
A few media outlets reached out to Nick and Diane, but the couple had no wish to share their story at that stage.
“We were suffering from what’s called survivor’s guilt,” says Nick. “We didn’t feel comfortable with what we’d found in the wake of so many disasters.”
“Three thousand families had lost someone,” says Diane. “And here we’d found happiness.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that they shared their story, as part of Canadian newscaster Tom Brokaw’s documentary about Operation Yellow Ribbon.
A couple years later, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Nick and Diane were visiting Gander, and were approached by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, composer-lyricists who explained they’d received a grant from the Canadian government to produce a show about what happened in Newfoundland in the wake of September 11.
That’s how Nick and Diane’s story became one of several tales woven into the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical “Come From Away,” in which a cast of 12 play several roles, from the Gander residents to the “plane people.”
The first time the couple saw the show in Canada in 2013, it was an emotional experience. They couldn’t believe how accurately the musical told their story, and how well it evoked the atmosphere in Newfoundland that week.
“It’s just a testimony to the generosity, the friendship and the openness of the Newfoundland people,” says Diane. “It’s a 9/12 story. It’s the aftermath of what happened on 9/11. But on 9/12, love reigned.”
Since its premier, “Come From Away” has been heralded around the world and now a filmed version of the award-winning show is set to premiere internationally on Apple TV+ on September 10, 2021.
“We’ve seen the show 118 times,” says Nick. “Diane will say it’s like we’re renewing our vows every time we see it.”
“Make the most of every day”
As the world reflects on the 20 years since 9/11, it’s also two decades since Nick and Diane first met, and 19 years since their wedding day.
Over the past two decades — in between watching their love story resonate in theaters across the globe — the couple have navigated the humorous situations that sometimes arise from their cultural differences, and supported one another through the highs and lows of life.
“Even though we had differences of culture and friends, and everything else, there was a kernel of love there — we knew that we were each looking out for each other,” says Diane of their years together so far. “There was a lot of trust between us.”
During their five days stranded in Newfoundland, Nick and Diane were forced to live for the day — it was that mindset led them together and it’s a mantra they’ve stuck with in the years since.
“Make the most of every day, make the most of it,” says Diane. “Because who knows how many days anyone has.”