On New Year’s Day, Faith and I enjoyed a musical and emotional treat, attending a performance of “Come From Away” at the Kennedy Center. “Come from away” is an expression used in Canada’s Atlantic provinces for someone who has moved to the area from somewhere else. In this case, the area was the town was Gander, Newfoundland whose residents were visited unexpectedly by some 7000 stranded airline passengers forced to land there in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
“Come From Away” opened on Broadway in March of 2017 and was nominated for seven Tony awards, winning the one for “Best director for a Musical.” The show is currently still running on Broadway and in London and Melbourne, Australia as well as on tour in the U.S. Beyond the pleasure of wonderful singing, dancing, and raucous good humor is the manner in which the show is “a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times” (as Ben Brantley wrote in a review of the show’s opening on Broadway).
The best description I could find of what happened on that fateful day was in People.com in an article written by Dave Quinn on March 17, 2017. He wrote:
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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 hangar 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.”
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.