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Actress on stage wearing a captain's uniform. Other actors look on in the background with a wooden table in front of them.

The story of Gander's 'come from aways'

Most stories from Tuesday 11 September 2001 are stories of heartbreak, tragedy and self-sacrifice. However, in the Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, the love and generosity of a small community and 6,579 ‘come from aways’ changed a dark day into a time of hope and human spirit.

Written by Simon Button


The ‘come from aways’

When the airspace over North America was closed on 9/11 and planes were grounded, the town of Gander in Newfoundland suddenly found itself playing host to more than 6,500 passengers and crew.

With all airborne planes forced to land at the nearest airport and inbound flights from Europe diverted to Canada, a total of 38 planes carrying 6,579 people and 19 animals touched down in Gander, almost doubling its 10,000-strong population.

On the northeastern tip of a province nicknamed The Rock by locals, these ‘come from aways’ (as the locals call people not born there) were welcomed with open arms. They were fed, clothed, housed and entertained – most notably at a ‘screech-in’ ceremony where kissing a cod earns you the title of honorary Newfoundlander – in and around Gander before aircraft were again allowed to fly.

Woman taking a phone call on a mobile phone looking shocked in a captain's uniform with people sat chatting behind her on wooder chairs.

The cast from Come From Away in action.

A tale of hope and unity

This remarkable true story forms the basis for Come From Away, an equally remarkable musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein that celebrates the human spirit and shows how people are at their best when faced with the worst. With laughter, tears and soaring music, it’s about hope and unity as the spirited locals and global passengers overcome reticence and cultural differences to forge a common bond and lifelong friendships.

Ontario-born Irene and Canadian David were in New York on 9/11, staying in a residence for international graduate students from all around the world. “Those people took care of us, we had neighbours come over and help us,” David recalls, “we all shared music and got through it together. So when we first heard this story years later, when a friend mentioned it, we looked into it and we realised ‘This feels like our experience’.

Musicians in the foreground playing the tambourine and violins with actors and stage lights in the background.

A production photo from Come From Away.

Man in a shirt and tie holding up a yellow fisherman hat in his left hand and a wired telephone to his mouth in his right. Around him are other people sat in wooden chairs chatting and smiling in his direction. In the background is the blue backwall of the set.

A production photo from Come From Away.

On the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the writing partners and husband and wife couple traveled to Newfoundland to interview the townsfolk as well as the ‘come from aways’ who had journeyed back there to mark the occasion.

They found the locals to be just as welcoming as they are in the show. “They would invite us into their house,” David smiles, “and say ‘Don’t be spending money on a hotel, just come stay with us’. They’d give us the keys to their house and then they’d leave and they’d say ‘Just feed the cats’. We came back with lifelong friends and a million stories to tell.

Those stories, collected across hours of interviews, were whittled down into a 100-minute musical, with Irene saying: “It’s so important to be sharing the story of people who reacted to something horrible in a positive light. We spend so much time focussing on the negative and I think it’s important to show the other side – people responding with kindness and people responding as a community.

From coast to stage

Come From Away was workshopped in Oakville in 2012 and enjoyed ecstatically-received runs in San Diego, Seattle, Washington and Toronto before arriving on Broadway five years later. Audiences were drawn in by its roster of real-life characters, including Gander town mayor Claude Elliot.

Elliot himself recalls: “On the first day we had 7,000 strangers. On the third day we had 7,000 friends. And on the fifth day 7,000 family members.” Among those strangers turned friends and family members, as featured in the show, were an eager local news reporter, the mother of a New York firefighter desperate for the news of her son, and the first American Airlines captain Beverley Bass.

Being interviewed by Sankoff and Hein for four hours back in 2011 brought back so many memories for the aviation trailblazer. When she and her passengers deplaned, there were tables and tables of food waiting for them in the terminal.

The people of Gander, I guess, had cooked all night long,” Bass recounts. “I mean, there was food for everybody. I knew immediately that the people were the nicest people I have ever been around in my life. It didn’t matter what you needed or what you wanted, it was there.

In 2015 she got a call from the producers inviting her to see the show in San Diego. “I went to it sight unseen and I had no idea that my role was so prominent and I certainly didn’t know that a song had been written called Me and the Sky, which chronicles my aviation life. It was astounding. By the end of it, my head was buried in my hands because I was just sobbing.

I’m honoured that my story is impacting young girls to this day. Sharing my story with audiences has been life-changing and I’m so grateful to be a part of this show’s journey. The musical is so true, it is so real. What a gift it has been to the world. The show gets a standing ovation every time because people like how something so beautiful managed to come out from such a tragedy.

Actress on stage wearing a captain's uniform singing with her arms out dramatically. Other actors look on in the background with a wooden table in front of them.

A production photo from Come From Away.

Two actors passionately kissing on stage. She's grabbing his green and yellow varsity jacket. They're surrounded by an excited-looking group of people and musicians with violins.

A production photo from Come From Away.

Strangers Nick Marson and Diane Kirschke were on the same flight from Gatwick bound for Texas, where British oil executive Nick had business to attend to while American Diane, a buyer for a department store, was on her way home after visiting her UK-based son.

They were both divorced and not seeking romance, but across their five-day stay where they were invited to get-togethers and singalongs, they fell for each other. When their plane finally took off again they were, Diane smiles, smitten. “There’s a scene in the show where the stewardess is bringing towels for everyone and she goes ‘Hot towels? Hot towels?’ all the way down the plane. When she gets to us she says ‘Cold towels?’ That’s exactly as it happened.

The couple kept in touch through emails and phone calls before Nick proposed on the phone two months later. He moved to the US soon afterward, they got married in 2002 and had their honeymoon in Newfoundland, with Marson saying of the time they originally spent there: “I think it’s made me a better person. I try to be my best self every day, be happy, make other people happy and make them laugh.

The best of humanity

David Hein feels the show spreads a vital message. “There’s something important in having faith that we have more in common with people and having that faith overcome the fear,” he says. “Right now it feels important to tell stories about overcoming differences and coming together as an international community. It’s wonderful to take a story that has inspired you and share it with the world and see it inspire other people.

Nick Marson agrees. “While 9/11 was about the worst of humanity, what happened in Gander over those five days was about the best of humanity. Those people opened their town and their hearts to us. It’s a story of human kindness.”

Four people sat on wooden chairs in a line with yellow fishing hats on, all looking at the man on the far right. A man is stood behind them holding up a giant fish.

Production photos from Come From Away

A man and a woman standing on wooden chairs holding hands lit by spotlights. Other people are silhouetted in the foreground.