Recalling the Flight for Freedom

 

Last updated 9/5/2023 at 9:47am

Photo provided

Sally Ruth Bourrie will share the extraordinary experience of the post-9/11 Oregon Flight for Freedom at Paulina Springs Books on Monday, September 11, at 6:30 p.m.

In 2001, I saw Oregonians make a difference in hundreds of lives. Their courage and compassion made history, but sadly, it's history that even Oregonians don't know about these days. It was called the Flight for Freedom and it's who we are at our best, when we come together across all the things that are supposed to divide us and we let our hearts take the lead.

Prepare to be inspired.

The Flight for Freedom took place just three weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when four commercial aircraft were hijacked by members of the radical Islamist terror organization al Qaida and used as missiles to bomb the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a target that remains unknown because courageous passengers attempted to stop the hijackers and the plane went down in Pennsylvania.

With nearly 3,000 people killed on that day, it's the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Many are still suffering and dying from its toxic aftermath.

Not only did these attacks shock the United States and the world, they paralyzed people with fear. In many ways, it seemed that the country had shut down.

Understandably, people were afraid to fly. Commercial airliners had just been used as missiles. New York City was a place to avoid – could it happen again?

In Oregon, just eight days after the attacks, a woman had an idea: Let's show people they don't have to live in fear. In 24 hours, Loen Dozono and her husband, Sho, who led the Portland Chamber of Commerce and owned a series of travel agencies, pulled together a group of leaders from across Portland and the state - many had never met - and they put together a trip - on airplanes! - to New York City.

Sisters is home to many people who have important and heroic connections to September 11. One of them is Jack McGowan, who was one of the key organizers of the Flight for Freedom and often the face of the effort in both Portland and New York City. Jack's expert ability to communicate - he is a veteran of broadcast journalism - his enormous heart, his passion for the project, and his commitment to the project's selflessness made him a powerful spokesperson.

"We have sent blood, we have sent money. Now we have to send ourselves," he would tell the media.

It was an all-volunteer effort and nobody made any money from the trip. It cost $379 for round-trip airfare from Oregon and two nights at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. It wasn't a tour; it was a way for people who cared to do something.

Organizers announced the trip on September 26 and hoped they'd find 150 brave people who would go on October 6. They had to close reservations after 1,000 people called, faxed, and walked into the travel agency saying they wanted to go. Oregonians took 62 flights through 12 airports, giving work to people who were wondering what they were going to do to pay the bills.

One in every 3,000 people in Oregon was a Freedom Flier. Many had never been to New York City and some had never been on a plane.

The Oregonians held a memorial service at Union Square, appeared on "Good Morning America," spoke at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine's Blessing of the Animals, and sponsored dinner for 700 in Chinatown, which was struggling because it's downtown, not far from the World Trade Center. The day after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan and New York City's security tightened up even more, the Oregonians were undaunted; they opened the New York Stock Exchange and marched in the Columbus Day Parade.

In addition to showing that the world need not live in fear, Freedom Fliers expected to bring a boost to New York's economy. What they discovered was a city more in need of comfort. Easy to spot in "OregonY New York" T-shirts and buttons, Oregonians were routinely stopped, hugged, and thanked. New Yorkers often volunteered their traumatic 9/11 experiences and the Freedom Fliers, who never expected that, stepped into their grief and were present for them. This happened over and over.

Every person who went on that trip knows that they made a difference.

I covered the Flight for Freedom for The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune and it changed my life - so much that I wanted to make sure that this history, this courage and caring by everyday people from all walks of life, was documented. I wrote a book based on interviews with Freedom Fliers and contemporary news sources called "Oregon Loves New York: A Story of American Unity After 9/11," which has been chosen by the Library of Congress for its collection. This history will live on.

On Monday, September 11 at 6:30 p.m., I will present a program about the Flight for Freedom at Paulina Springs Books, showing photos the Freedom Fliers shared with me, previously seen only by friends and family. They are photos of joy and love, of New Yorkers reaching out to them in the parade; of visits to the fire stations that had lost so many firefighters; inside Ground Zero recovery efforts; and much more.

We are very fortunate that Jack McGowan will be there as well to share his memories.

I hope you can be there as proud Oregonians for a night of joy and inspiration.

 

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