The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, may not seem like the obvious inspiration for a feel-good musical — but the heartwarming true story behind the sold-out Broadway hit Come from Away is a tale of generosity and kindness that’s stayed largely under-the-radar for years.
With critics singing its praises, celebrity visitors already flocking to it (including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who brought first daughter Ivanka Trump and UN ambassador Nikki Haley to Wednesday’s performance) and a Best Musical Tony nomination all-but guaranteed, Come from Away is already on track to be one of Broadway’s biggest success stories of the year.
But the true story behind it is one that deserves all the standing ovations.
The action takes place on the Canadian island of Newfoundland — thousands of miles away from New York City’s World Trade Center, Washington D.C.’s Pentagon, and Pennsylvania’s Somerset County.
With the Federal Aviation Agency immediately closing the United States’ airspace in the hours following the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, Canadian air traffic control stepped in to help.
As part of Operation Yellow Ribbon, they landed 38 jumbo jets and four military flights bound for the United States at Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport — the nearest sizable airport on the continent.
Ironically, Gander was a thriving military post during World War II, and for years was used as a refueling point for transatlantic aircrafts unable to make it across the ocean. Until 9/11, the very high-powered jumbo jets that landed there that day virtually put Gander out of business, since their tanks were big enough to make the trip without stopping.
As a result of the detour, 6,759 passengers and airline crew members — plus 9 cats, 11 dogs, and a pair of endangered apes — arrived in Gander, descending on the small northeastern town (and its nearby villages) and nearly doubling its population of 9,651.
Unable to see footage of the chaos that was unfolding in the U.S., the passengers were not allowed to leave their planes for the first 24 hours or so until customs and security could be put in place to assure no terrorists were on board — as Tom Brokaw explained in a popular 2010 documentary for NBC News. Nor could they find other transportation methods home once they were let out, like renting a car or charting a bus.
They simply had to wait.
One might expect residents to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught heading their way. (After all, the sheer amount of people presented a startling logistics crisis — with challenges surrounding food, housing, transportation, supplies and translators.) But the Canadians lived up to the their kind reputation, and opened their doors to the American refugees — dropping everything to host and comfort them until the airspace reopened and all flights once again departed (roughly 5 days later).
They even gave them a cute nickname: “the plane people.”
Taking only their carry-on luggage with them (checked luggage was forbidden to be retrieved), “the plane people” were quickly absorbed into the Gander community.
Perfect strangers were invited into people’s homes – where meals, beds, and new clothes awaited them. Striking school bus drivers put down their picket signs and volunteered to transport people from their planes. Schools were converted into makeshift shelters. Restaurants and bakeries donated food, while pharmacies provided everything from diapers to medication to feminine products.
Group cookouts were planned. Phone and computer centers were set up. Walmart cashiers invited perfect strangers home for warm showers. An empty airline hanger was turned into an animal shelter, where the pets — many of which were traveling alone — could stretch and run.
“The people of Gander were just phenomenal,” American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass told The Dallas Morning News in 2011. “I can’t say enough nice things about them. They brought smoking patches to the airplane. They brought diapers of every size. They brought baby formula. They filled 2,000 prescriptions in the middle of the night.”
“When we got off, they had tables and tables set up,” she continued. “The people of Gander had cooked all night long. They made all kinds of sandwiches. They gave us a bag. It was kind of like Halloween. You went from table to table and just picked up what you want. They had fruit and brownies and pies and cakes — they had made everything.”
She added: “There were 6,565 passengers and crew that showed up within a three-hour period. They were fed three hot meals a day, every day we were there.”
One group of terminally ill children flying from London to Disney World in Florida for their birthdays were treated to the next best thing, when a police officer Oswald Fudge’s daughter and her teenage friends created a pop-up Orlando at St. Paul’s Intermediate School — complete with local entertainment and sweet treats.
“My daughter dressed up as [local mascot] Commander Gander,” Fudge told The New York Post in an article chronicling Gander’s locals. “Three girls from my daughter’s class dressed as fairies. A bakery made a cake for 350 people, and we had balloons and stuffed animals.”
“One of the fathers said, ‘My daughter’s wish was to go to Disney World, but even if we don’t get there, it’s okay. We’ve had such a good time here, she’s not sad,’ ” Fudge recalled.
Almost 30 hours after the terrorist attacks, footage of what happened was finally shown to “the plane people.” Some lost friends and family members in the attacks — like Bass, who knew Charles Burlingame, the pilot on American Airlines Flight 77 (which crashed into the Pentagon).
Long Island natives Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke lost their son Kevin — a New York City firefighter at Rescue Co. 2 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who died in the Trade Center.
The residents of Gander were there to comfort them in their grief.
That time together during one of the world’s darkest moments formed tight relationships between the residents and the temporary refugees — ones that have lasted well beyond their stay.
When the travel ban was lifted on Sept. 14, all of the 6,759 “plane people” slowly returned to their aircrafts and flew back to their original destinations. But Gander surely never left them.
Money was donated and scholarships were set up to say thanks. Gifts were sent. Two travelers fell in love and married. The O’Rourkes, like many, kept in touch with their host families and still talk to this day, The Post reported.
Many returned on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, The New York Times reported — where a small ceremony was held at the town’s community center.
Also there to witness the 10-year anniversary? Irene Sankoff and David Hein — the husband-and-wife writing team behind Come from Away.
Sure, many of the stories from Gander had already been told in a book (The Day the World Came to Town), a Canadian TV movie (Diverted) and a BBC radio play (The Day the Planes Came). But Sankoff and Hein went one step further: They chatted with Newfoundlanders and “the plane people” alike, and turned their interviews into a poignant and emotional piece of theater.
They filled their show with a small cast of actors, all playing multiple roles. Some characters are specifically based on real people, like Bass (played by actress Jenn Colella) — who provides the story’s emotional center. Others were made up of composite sketches of multiple people Sankoff and Hein met throughout their research.
Before Broadway, Come from Away fine-tuned its emotional tale with out-of-town tryouts and stagings — including stops at Canada’s Sheridan College, the Goodspeed musical festival in Connecticut, the National Alliance for Musical Theater in New York, the La Jolla Playhouse in California, the Seattle Repertory Theater in Washington, the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto.
Director Christopher Ashley even brought the entire cast and crew back to Gander in the fall of 2016 for a pop-up performance, so that Newfoundlanders could see how they were being depicted on stage.
“Because we were in New York, we are really sensitive to making sure this was done right,” Hein told the Washingtonian last fall. “But when we started this we were very clear that this isn’t a story about 9/11, this is a 9/12 story. It never seems there’d bad time to tell a story about kindness to strangers, and particularly now, it feels more important.”
Come from Away is now open at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.