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September 11. Going Home

Nina Bonner, a partner in Midnight Sun Adventure Travel, was supposed to drive 12 American senior citizens from Victoria to Vancouver Airport on September 11. By the end of the day, she was rolling along the Trans Canada Highway. Sixty two hours and 3,000 kilometers later, they arrived home in Iowa.

This story and others is featured in a coffee table book called A Diary Between Friends, chronicling the Canadian response to September 11. At a Parliament Hill ceremony on December 17, 2001, Prime Minister Jean Chretien presented a copy to US Ambassador Paul Cellucci, asking that he give it to President George Bush. Nina Bonner and her husband Scott attended this ceremony as guests of the Canadian government.

Initiated by Heritage Canada, this book was published in collaboration with McClelland & Stewart and Alliance Atlantis Communications. The 142 page book features photographs of Canadian responding to the September 11 tragedy. The book will be available for sale in bookstores in Canada and the United States by February 2002. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to Care Canada to help the orphans in Afghanistan.

Excerpt from A Diary Between Friends

"They were all quite distraught when they found out they couldn't fly home. Everyone was crying, trying to get on the phone to call their family. The urge to go home at a time like that was just so overwhelming. And I completely understood that. I told them not to worry, that we'd see this through together.

During the ferry crossing from Victoria to Vancouver, we found out all the airports were closed. A man was walking around the boat, spreading the news. At first we thought he was crazy, but a few of the women called home and heard the same thing.

Then I called my husband at the office. We were trying to figure it all out when he looked out the window and said, 'Well, we've got the old camper van in the driveway.' I put the phone to my chest and turned to the group - I just wanted to give them some hope. I said, 'You know, it'll all be fine. This is the worst case scenario: I could drive you home in my Dodge camper van.'"

- Nina Bonner, 39, Victoria, British Columbia

"Nina looked at me and said, 'Connie, really, I'll drive you home.' I said, 'Nina, do you know how far Iowa is?' She said it didn't matter. She'd driven across Canada before. We said, 'Sold!' She went home and picked up her van. It was a big white van that she takes on camping trips up to the Yukon. It was exactly a 12-seater. She put all our bags on a rack on top. All I asked of her before we left was that we could stop somewhere to buy pillows and blankets for our trip. She said, 'Don't worry about it, I've got all that packed under the seats.'

Just as we were leaving Vancouver, my daughter in Texas called my cell phone. She said, 'Mom! Stay in Canada! That's your safest bet.' I knew she was probably right. We had heard the border was closed. But I said to Nina, 'Let's not worry about that now. Let's just head east.'"

- Connie Overbergen, 65, Oskaloosa, Iowa

Friendship comes from tragedy

By: RD Keep, Oskaloosa Herald Reporter - January 7, 2002

Travel agent goes the extra mile

Where were you on Sept. 11? Most of us know exactly where we were when the news of terror and tragedy filtered in and changed our lives forever.

It was a day 11 Oskaloosa residents never will forget. Eight were off the Pacific Ocean coast, one a mile from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and two in Western Europe. What follows is their story. A story of their thoughts, then and now, and how one woman from Canada became an "angel" in the eyes of her new-found American friends.

Mary Ann Heslinga and Sid Smith, Ted and Connie Overbergen, David and Betty Steele, and Jim and Betty Harsh, all of Oskaloosa, Don Johnston of Pocahontas and Heslinga's sisters, Jean Chapman of Forest Lake, Minn., Joe Fageon of Burlington and Beth Hamilton of Minneapolis, were part of a tour group in Vancouver, British Columbia, and were preparing to come home that fateful day.

Rob Taylor was preparing for a meeting near the Pentagon, and Mary Lou Sedrel and Frances Knoot were touring in Europe. Their stories will follow in parts two and three of this series.

According to Heslinga, the group was on a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia, crossing to Vancouver, when news of the plane crashes was received.

"We had been on a cruise to Alaska from Sept. 3 until Monday (Sept. 10)," Heslinga said. "We were on the ferry crossing over to Vancouver when we heard the news of the attacks and found out we couldn't fly home."

That is where their saga began - a trip that would cover more than 2,000 miles and would last four days before they arrived back in Oskaloosa.

The "angel" in question and the heroine of the story is Nina Hopper of Midnight Sun Travel. Hopper would drive the Oskaloosa group to Albert Lea, Minn., then drive herself back home to Victoria.

"She is our little angel," said Smith. "She did more than she had to. We just love her.

"There were 130 planes on the ground at the Vancouver airport, having been diverted from the West Coast. No rental vehicles or hotel rooms were to be had. Fortunately,Nina came to our rescue and wound up bringing us across Canada."

Hopper, who handled the shuttling of the group while on their tour, said she was simply doing her job. Seeing that they got home seemed the natural part of her job.

"It was kind of an immediate reaction," said Hopper in a telephone interview last week. "Connie (Overbergen) had done all she could. The airports were shut down. They were trying to make alternative arrangements, but there weren't too many options."

Hopper took over the arrangements and dropped her passengers at a hotel in Vancouver and crossed the Strait of Georgia to secure another vehicle for the trip home. It is a 90-minute trip across the water by ferry, and Hopper barely made the trip because of the large number of vehicles heading to Victoria Island.

Hopper was in the vehicle hold working on some bookwork when the group came to her and informed her what happened.

"This was so unbelievable," Hopper said. "I was stunned. I'm still shocked today. I have become a news addict hoping they get that guy (Osama bin Laden)."

Overbergen, who is an owner of Mar-Co Travel in Oskaloosa, was on the phone to her office shortly after they heard the news as they were crossing to the mainland from Victoria Island.

"I saw a bank of phones and called the office to have them find us a couple rental vans in Vancouver," said Overbergen. "She didn't have to do this. Nina said, 'I'll drive you home.'

I said, 'Do you know how far it is from Vancouver to Iowa?'

She said, 'I think so.'"

Hopper would begin a trek that would cover more than 6,400 kilometers, approximately 4,000 miles behind the wheel. She was the sole driver for the group until they reached Albert Lea, Minn., when Clay Carriker picked up the group in his motor home and brought them back to Oskaloosa.

All members of the group praised Hopper's effort and the willingness of all the Canadians they came in contact with to help them. Their exploits, along with those of other Canadians and their American friends are chronicled in a new book, "A Diary Between Friends," which was presented to American Ambassador Paul Cellucci on Dec. 17 by Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chr?ien. (See related story on Page 1.)

Hopper attended the presentation in Ottawa along with others who are mentioned in the book.

Hopper returned to Victoria Island, picked up the camper van, reloaded the luggage and made the return trip across the Strait of Georgia. Meanwhile, the Oskaloosa group was gathered in the lobby of a hotel by the airport and waited for close to seven hours.

"We were still in shock with what was happening," Overbergen said. "We were watching the news on CNN and a local Canadian TV station."

"We were unbelieving and didn't have many options," said Smith.

Hopper and her group reunited and embarked on their journey about 5 p.m. British Columbia time on Tuesday, Sept. 11. Hopper had made contact with some friends who operated a small motel in Radium Springs in eastern British Columbia, and the group stopped there at 5 a.m.

"It was a chance for us to sleep a bit and rest," said Overbergen. "The motel was a mom-and-pop motel run by some friends of Nina's, and she arranged for us to stay there. Nina had told them we would be there about 2, but because our luggage was on top we were top-heavy, and going through the mountains it took longer than she thought it would."

Overbergen said this was the first time she had dealt with Hopper and Midnight Sun Travel.

"It is surprising that she would go to these lengths to help us," Overbergen said. "She was helpful when I talked with her on the phone when we were making the arrangements for the trip."

Needless to say, she will work with Hopper and her travel company again.

"I saw it as part of my job to get them home," said Hopper. "My husband suggested I use the camper van. My partner helped load the luggage, and I took off again."

While at the hotel near the Vancouver airport, planes from many nations and airlines were landing at the Vancouver airport.

"The planes had been diverted from airports on the West Coast," said Hopper.

"There were 130 planes sitting there that weren't going anywhere," said Smith

The group headed back on the road after a few hours of sleep to continue their trek toward Iowa. The question for the group was where could they cross the border into the States.

"We were not sure where we could cross over the border," said Overbergen. "Nina said she thought crossing over in Saskatchewan might be easier since it is less densely populated."

As the group traveled the friendship of the Canadian people was unspoken but obvious.

"As we traveled along flags were at half staff," Smith said.

Overbergen was moved by the show of support on the overpasses and bridges.

"I was really touched and impressed by the flags and banners placed overhead," said Overbergen. "When we were at that hotel in Vancouver, we left to go to lunch and they already had flags at half mast.

"You looked in the sky and there was no sign of air traffic since the planes were grounded. It was so nice to see that support."

On Thursday night the group stayed in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Sometime in the night gas was siphoned out of their tank and they were delayed when they ran out of gas some 50 miles out the next day.

The group dropped into the United States at the Port of Estevan and spent Thursday night in Jamestown, N.D. After driving into Minnesota and dropping off Heslinga's sisters, they continued their trek to Albert Lea, where they met Carriker for the final leg of the journey.

"It was a tearful and joyful goodbye," Overbergen said. "There was such a sense of loneliness when we were coming across Canada. It was such a comfort to have Nina with us. We didn't know what was going to happen. Her willingness to do this was such a comfort."

Crossing the border proved to be an easy chore.

"They were the nicest and courteous border people I have ever met," said Smith. "It took us about 15 minutes to get through."

Overbergen said Hopper was a little concerned about passing through the border.

"She did have some reservations about a Canadian crossing over the border," Overbergen said.

"I really didn't know what they (border guards) would think of a Canadian coming into the United States after the attacks," Hopper said.

Hopper returned home to Victoria Island on Sunday night and caught the last ferry for home. In fact, hers was the fourth from last car on the last ferry.

Smith may have said it all for the weary travelers.

"We never will forget our little angel."

Oskaloosans Remember 9/11 Rescue

September 10, 2003

DES MOINES - Sept. 11 brings vivid memories of a horrific time in America history. For 12 people with ties to Oskaloosa, it is a time to reflect on a friendship that transcends international borders.

Sunday, in a church in southwest Des Moines, the Oskaloosans were reunited with their "guardian angel" nearly two years after their week-long saga in trying to get home after becoming stranded in western British Columbia.

Pastor James Cord of Wakonda Christian Church had heard of the story and arranged for travel guide Nina Bonner and her husband, Scott, to travel from Victoria Island, British Columbia, to be reunited with her Oskaloosa friends. "Nina knew her neighbor," Cord told a group of children during the church service. "God took one woman and blessed the lives of 12 Americans. We are all God's children. It doesn't matter if we are Iraqi, Canadian or American." The Oskaloosa contingent of Ted and Connie Overbergen, Jim and Betty Harsh, David and Betty Steele, Mary Ann Hesling and Sidney Smith, were joined by Donald Johnston of Pocahontas, Jo Fageon of Burlington, Jean Chapman of Forest Lake, Minn., and Beth Hamilton of Minneapolis.

The group had nicknamed Bonner "Guardian Angel" when their Canadian friend drove them more than 1,800 miles in three days, then drove back to Victoria Island - alone - after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

"She was and still is our guardian angel," said each member of the group. "We will never forget what she did for us."

The saga of this American-Canadian love affair began long before the attacks. Connie Overbergen, a travel agent, had worked with Bonner on trips to the Northwest before and Bonner had coordinated some of the group's itinerary and arranged to pick the group up on Victoria Island and take them to the airport in Vancouver, B.C.

On the 90-minute ferry ride the travelers found out about the attacks and the shutting of the borders and American airspace. Bonner caller her husband Scott, and it was decided she would drive them.

The trip has been chronicled internationally in print, television and a book, "A Diary Between Friends."

The Bonners were overwhelmed by the response on their arrival at Des Moines International Airport Saturday evening.

"We were greeted by a bunch of the members of the church waving Canadian flags and cheering as we came down the stairs," said Scott Bonner.

"It was absolutely overwhelming," said Nina.

The church had been planning the reunion for more than a year. It was a party the church members and attendees will not soon forget.

"It has been a year to say Thanks for Giving' for our congregation," said Pastor Cord. "We have different people in here we have honored, but this is the biggest one so far."

Bonner left a special impression on the entire congregation, the same one she left on her Oskaloosa friends.

"God put her in their lives for a reason," said one church member.

"It may have been so we could be blessed by her today," said another.

Becky Blackford represented the congregation and presented Nina and Scott with a special gift during the morning worship service. The church chose a gold and crystal pineapple on a marble stand. Blackford said the pineapple is the international symbol of friendship.

Bonner answered in the same quiet manner that has made her a friend of all. "I am really thankful to God for letting me be of service." That attitude, an attitude of service, is the very thing each member of the group loves about her.

"She is a very special lady and I love her so much," said Hesling. "We didn't think we would ever see her again."

Bonner was greeted by many hugs from her Iowa friends as each greeted her before the Sunday morning service.

Red, white and blue banners with stars on them draped majestically from the rafters of the pulpit. Beside them were two red and white banners with red maple leaves on them. The banners wove perfectly the scene of how Canadians solidified their friendship with Americans on that day. More than 30,000 passengers destined to fly to airports across North America and beyond were grounded at Canadian airports on Sept. 11. Stories of friendship abounded from one end of the continent to the other. The scene of friendship shown by Bonner and her husband played out across the nation. That remembrance is still alive today. "If anyone says anything against Canada or their people they will get an argument from us," said Sid Smith. "We can never forget that friendship."

Nina and Scott spent Sunday afternoon at the rural Mahaska County home of the Overbergens. The other travelers joined them to spend some quiet time with their friend. Tears and hugs were the fare of the day.

When Clay Carriker picked up the group in Albert Lea, Minn., after three days on the road, no one thought they would ever see Nina again.

"The last time we saw Nina was at a truck stop near Austin, Minn.," said Connie Overbergen.

"She was our friend, guide, our driver and rock during a very traumatic time." Seeing Nina again was a bit of therapy for the traveling group. It was a chance to reflect on the events of two years ago, to say thanks to a friend and again break down those barriers of distance that separate them. It was a chance to say thank you - to Nina and to Scott.

Each of them took a chance on Sunday to tell Scott, "Thanks for sharing her with us."

Scott and Nina climbed aboard the big bird Monday afternoon and winged their way home. No doubt a tear settled in the corner of an eye as the guardian angel took flight. That guardian angel has left the world in better shape than it was on Sept. 10, 2001. For 12 people from Oskaloosa, Nina Bonner has more than earned her wings. Something no terrorist or anyone else will ever take away.