On Sept. 11, 2001, Shirley Brooks-Jones was on Delta Flight 15, headed from Frankfurt to Atlanta, from where she’d fly to her home in Ohio. She had no idea what was happening in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania or the real reason their plane was being diverted to Newfoundland. “We’ve got a problem with the signal indicator,” the captain, not wanting to panic the passengers, announced over the intercom.

Shirley Brook Jones wearing red blazer and medal.
Shirley Brooks-Jones became a Lion after they helped her and her fellow passengers on 9/11.

A small town, Gander in Newfoundland had once served as a refueling station for planes and had some of the world’s longest runways. Brooks-Jones, 65, an administrator at Ohio State University, watched anxiously as her plane nestled itself among a row of jumbo jets. Before long there would be 39 planes with 10,000 passengers and crew members.

U.S. airspace was closed because of the terror attacks, Brooks-Jones and other passengers finally were told. For nearly four days, the “plane people,” as they came to be called, were housed, fed, and lovingly attended to by Canadians in Gander and other nearby small towns.

The local school bus drivers were on strike. But they agreed to ferry the passengers to accommodations. Brooks-Jones was among the 100 passengers driven 40 miles to hardscrabble Lewisporte, a tiny town with one main street and no stop lights. But it had an active Lions club with a clubhouse the size of a small gym.

Brooks-Jones cried when she saw Lions greet them and fly about the clubhouse to convert it into a temporary shelter. She had grown up poor in a large family. Years ago, as a schoolgirl, Lions arranged for her eye exam and then made sure she got glasses.

“It was the first time I could see the trees on the leaves and see what was for sale in store windows,” she says of getting her first glasses. “I couldn’t believe it. Here were Lions taking care of me again.”

The passengers had not been allowed to take their luggage with them. They literally only had the clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet. Lions provided bedding, blankets, washcloths, toothpaste, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, combs, tampons and more. They cooked lavish meals. They set up a bank of phones, computers, and TV sets.

There was no charge for using the phones or anything else. “These were not wealthy people at all. These were people who had so little but had such big hearts,” says Brooks-Jones.

Two Lions stood out. There was Mayor Bill Hooper. “He was a short fellow with a cowlick and a smile and running all over,” says Brooks-Jones. His wife, Thelma, was quiet and sweet. When a young girl saw the 9/11 destruction on TV and fell to the ground in grief, Thelma put her arms around her. “You just cry as long as you want to. You’re here with friends,” she comforted her.

When the passengers finally were allowed to fly home, Brooks-Jones conferred with another passenger on the flight. A suggestion had been made to pass the hat for people in Lewisporte. Brooks-Jones wanted to do more. “They took care of us for days,” she insisted.

It was decided to start a scholarship fund for local high school students, many of whom did not go to college or technical school. The captain gave permission for Brooks-Jones to make the announcement over the intercom. “We may be down, but good eventually overtakes evil,” she told her fellow passengers. By the time the plane had landed in Atlanta, passengers had pledged US$15,000. That amount grew and grew.

In the following months, Brooks-Jones told the story of the plane people to countless civic groups including the Tri-Village Lions Club near her home in Ohio. “When I was finished, they asked me to join. How could I say no?” recalls Brooks-Jones, who later served as club president.

Meanwhile, the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund has raised more than US$1 million dollars and assisted 313 students. Brooks-Jones regularly flies back to Canada for the award ceremonies or to commemorate 9/11. She’s made 29 trips so far .

Nearly 15 years ago, in recognition of her service to youth, she became an honorary member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, the province’s highest honor. That honor eventually landed her an audience with Prince Charles, who was very interested in the plane story and the role of Lions.

That’s hardly her only claim to fame. “Come from Away” was a rousing Broadway musical in 2017 that recounted the plight of the stranded passengers. It was a hit with audiences and critics, gaining seven Tony nominations. One of the characters was based on Brooks-Jones. In the touring version of the play, her character was played by James Earl Jones II, a distant cousin of the famous actor. (The play takes poetic license with some of the identifying characteristics of the real people.)

The attention and awards are great. But Brooks-Jones is grateful to the Lions of Lewisporte who stepped up after the World Trade Center collapsed. “My life wouldn’t be a fraction of what it has been without the Lions. They made it all possible,” she says.


It’s What You Do’

Like many others, Lion Steve Tremaroli remembers precisely where he was and what he was doing on Sept. 11. “I was painting the den. Watching the Today show,” says Tremaroli, who lives near New York City in Syosset. He roused his son, a college student at home that day. “Get up,” he told him. “We’re under attack.”

The fear of another attack loomed for weeks. “We could hear the fighter jets overhead. It was really eye-opening,” he

Steve Tremolini
Steve Tremaroli was one of many Lions in New York who sprang into action on 9/11 and in the days and weeks after.

recalls. He and his wife, Marianne, also a Lion, soon decided to shop and patronize stores as a small act of solidarity. “It was about doing something to help the community. We were very nervous. We didn’t know if the other shoe would drop,” says Tremaroli, a chiropractor.

Also like so many others, particularly Lions in New York and nearby, Tremaroli sprang into action as a volunteer. His service for weeks in the city has been one of the defining moments of his long tenure as a Lion, which began in 1981. At a warehouse near Ground Zero he distributed masks, flashlights, and other essential gear as well as food and water to recovery workers.

He also volunteered with United Way for a Lions-supported effort to provide financial assistance to those affected by Sept. 11. People lost their jobs and homes in the wake of the attack, and he interviewed applicants and reviewed supporting documentation.

Tremaroli was one of thousands of Lions who helped ease the pain and suffering caused by Sept. 11. Fueled by donations from Lions worldwide to Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), Lions volunteered at the warehouse to assist recovery efforts at Ground Zero and also supported recovery efforts at the Pentagon. Lions funded mentoring programs for children and job search services and sponsored camps for families that lost loved ones.

In supplying emergency personnel and volunteers at Ground Zero Tremaroli  was privileged to witness their resolve and generosity of spirit in the grim task of locating remains. In speaking with families personally impacted by Sept. 11 he came face-to-face with the human toll of the tragedy.

“People told harrowing stories of what they experienced that day. It was heart wrenching,” says Tremaroli. “I’m pretty inquisitive, so if they wanted to talk about it they would. Sometimes it was a case of needing someone to hold their hand.”

While he was district governor in 2006, he and other Lions served at a Lions-supported camp for those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11. The families enjoyed typical camp activities such as swimming and arts and crafts but also could avail themselves of music therapy and psychological counseling. “It was very emotional. It was very gratifying to help others,” he recalls.

Tremaroli was an international director from 2013-15. That’s a rare accomplishment among Lions, but his service after 9/11, he says, was part and parcel of his membership. “It’s what you do as a Lion. It was natural,” he says.


Child of 9/11

Ojas Chitnis, 18, lives in New Jersey but close enough to New York City that his township is considered part of the metropolitan area. He was born after Sept. 11. But that day is unforgettable for many adults and thus part of his growing up, too.

Ojas Chitnis
Ojas Chitnis, now 18 and a Lion, spent his youth in Leos clubs, carrying on a legacy of helping others in times of need.

“Being so close to the city, many people have memories of that day. Some of my teachers were able to see smoke from the city from a hill in town,” he says. “We learned about 9/11 every year in grade school.”

His parents, Mahesh and Anu, are very active in the Edison Visionary Lions Club. Ojas accompanied them to international conventions and pitched in on service projects. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, his family, along with other club members, helped run a shelter and distributed water bottles and blankets.

Becoming a Lion probably was a given. Still, Ojas says Sept. 11 convinced him that being a Lion was his destiny. In 2016 at the New Jersey Lions’ state convention, marking the 15th anniversary of the attack, he heard a riveting summary of the many ways Lions responded after the tragedy.

“Lions did so much to help. It really made an impression on me,” he says.

A longtime Leo, Ojas became a Lion, joining his parents’ club, on the earliest possible date–on his 18th birthday in April. That just happened to be Worldwide Induction Day.

There is a neat symmetry to that. But it goes even deeper. His father became a Leo in India 30 years ago on that very same day.

Both his parents came to the United States in the mid-1990s. They saw this country as a land of opportunity, as a safe harbor. Thus, Ojas says, Sept. 11 has even more resonance for him besides its geographic proximity.

“They thought they had left all that stuff behind them. Their adopted country was under attack,” he says.

His Leo club has been particularly active and innovative. The New Jersey Visionary Cyber Leos held a food drive and made it into a sculpture competition as well. They also collected eyeglasses for a medical mission to the Dominican Republic.

Ojas has been a leader. He was the charter Leo club president at age 12 and then the president of the cyber Leo club. He serves as chair of the membership committee for the Leo Club Program Advisory Panel for Lions Clubs International.

Next fall he will study international business at George Washington University, where he intends to charter a campus Lions club. Meanwhile, he plans to volunteer very soon at the Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center in West Trenton. He also is glad to know his multiple district has sent oxygen concentrators for COVID-19 patients to a region in India his family happens to be from.


Grim, Necessary Service

By 2001, Gary Fellows of Maryland had been a Lion for nearly three decades. He also had another important volunteer role. A funeral director, he was co-commander of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Disaster Response Team.

Before Sept. 11, it was easy to conceive how that position might entail him to serve. “We trained for things like airplane accidents, major floods and catastrophes. The scope and breadth of 9/11 went beyond our conception of what could happen. It was overwhelming,” says Fellows, a four-time president of the Millington Lions Club and a past zone chair.

Gary Fellows
Gary Fellows had the difficult job of helping identify remains.

A grim necessity in the months after the attack was retrieving, storing, and cataloging body remnants from the World Trade Center and attaching a name to them so they could be respectfully returned to loved ones. For some victims, only a single shard of bone remained. For others, just as macabre, there were as many as 200 pieces. DNA extracted from body remnants needed to be compared to DNA lifted from victims’ personal effects or blood relatives.

The forensic work was mostly done at the medical examiner’s building, two miles from Ground Zero. DNA specialists, pathologists, forensic dentists, fingerprint analysts, and other experts diligently worked day and night.

The body fragments were kept in 16 refrigerated trailers in Memorial Park, a tented lot across the street from the building.  By June 2002, when Fellows lent his expertise, nearly 20,000 body remnants had been retrieved and stored in the trailers. His first assignment was to meet with family members and solicit personal effects such as hairbrushes, toothbrushes, and razors. The work was steeped in unimaginable sorrow and heartache.  But this was not unfamiliar territory for him.

“Every loss is a tragedy. Family members are deeply affected by the death of a loved one,” he says. “I had to bring my utmost dignity, compassion, and kindness as a funeral director to try to be of help.”

The second half of his work at Memorial Park was even more moving. Three times a day, precisely at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m., all work at the site shut down. Family members were allowed to enter the site and sit near the trailers. Clergy assigned to Memorial Park often accompanied them. Fellows walked and sat with families as well.

“They didn’t know what trailers had what remains. But they wanted to be in the environment where the remains were,” says Fellows. “Emotions ran high. There were lots of tears. It also got very quiet. It was a place of solitude and memories.”

Fellows was fully aware he stood at a unique juncture in U.S. history. His role was almost unbearably sad but also a privilege. “Other than Pearl Harbor, nothing like this has ever happened in our country. It was humbling for me to be with these families,” he says.

Mourning can be fraught with resentment. It also can lead to revelation and solidarity. Fellows says the most powerful utterance he heard during that time came from a firefighter to a woman who apparently lost her son. A contingent of firefighters were honoring a fallen colleague with a dignified procession complete with fire engines.

The woman stood on the street forlornly holding a large image of her missing son. She was distressed at the focus on the fallen firefighters and felt her son was being left out.

One of the firefighters paused and stood with her. He recognized her grief and told her that her son didn’t deserve to die. He then said that they honor their fallen firefighter brother in this way because he chose to die trying to save her son. And without women and men choosing to do that, more sons, daughters, husbands, and wives would have been lost.

That was a lesson of 9/11: loss and grief do not divide but unite. “It’s opposite what many people believe. Americans share so much common ground. We Americans come together in the worst times,” says Fellows, recently retired after nearly a half century as a funeral director.

Sept. 11 was a unifier for Fellows as well and, by extension, other Lions. That darkest of days shed a bright light on who he was, as a Lion and as a person. “The opportunity to serve others at a time like that epitomized everything that Lions is about,” he says. “Stepping up for those in need is what we do as Lions. It touched all parts of my life.”