“That was the best play I’ve ever seen,” my mom proclaimed as we exit Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre. Me, I’m still processing.
We had just experienced a preview of Broadway’s musical “Come From Away” and I was still wiping away tears from the moving performance. “It was incredible,” I reply, knowing that any words I spoke would fall short of being able to describe the emotions running through me after witnessing such an amazing story and production. Audience members were on their feet even as the last note was sung. With scores of Broadway shows under my belt, I have never seen a standing ovation happen so quickly — and so well-deserved. The diverse cast of 12 actors – 6 female, and 6 male – had the difficult task of conveying multiple characters on a simple set through humor, heartache, and the blending of numerous personal experiences of the people whose stories they were trying to tell and they nailed it – I truly don’t know how they could have done it better.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, people all over the world were witnessing the crushing news reports that planes had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the air, however, aircraft passengers were held aloft, suspended in time, unaware of what awaited them.
Shortly after the planes struck the World Trade Center, the FAA ordered a closure of the North American airspace and commanded all planes to land immediately. As a result of this closure, over 200 flights bound for the United States were redirected to Canada. Thousands of people were stranded, away from home, for five days in the midst of the most devastating terrorist attack in United States history.
Gander International Airport served as a refueling stop in the early days of transatlantic flights. As planes evolved and were able to travel longer distances, the air traffic to the crucial airport slowly dwindled and the town settled into a quieter life. The airport takes in only about 10-15 flights these days, but on September 11th, nearly 40 flights carrying over 6,500 passengers were suddenly redirected to the small town, raising their population by 66% in a matter of hours. There weren’t enough hotel rooms, restaurants, or other resources to handle that many people, but instead of resorting to stressed hostility, the people of Gander responded immediately with remarkable kindness.
As Gander prepared for the sudden influx of people on the ground, passengers in the air were told very little. When the planes landed in Gander, the passengers were kept on board the aircraft for over a day while clearances were arranged. Few had phones and little was told to them by the flight crew. While the anxious travelers were trapped on the planes, the people of Gander prepared. They gathered blankets, pillows, medical supplies, toiletries, and everything else they could think of that the passengers might need. The supplies came from stores who freely donated them and households who had anything to spare. They cooked. They filled every community center and school with cots and bedding to house the “plane people,” and when those spaces ran out, they opened their homes. When the scared and weary passengers were finally able to disembark from the cramped quarters of the planes, they were met with bagged lunches and the smiling and friendly faces of the people from Gander who were ready to welcome thousands of strangers with open arms. For five days, Gander and surrounding small towns hosted the plane people, the “Come From Aways.” The local telephone company set up phone stations so that the people could call home. The television station set up TVs in the schools and community centers so that people could remain informed on what was happening in the United States. The Gander residents threw cookouts, and gatherings, and worked day and night to take good care of their 6,500 guests. For five days worlds and people collided in a small town in Canada and the immense generosity of the human spirit shone through the darkness.
“Come From Away” is the story of these five days.
“On September 11, 2001 the world stopped. On September 12th their stories moved us all.”
“Come From Away” opens this weekend on March 12th (2017). You can get your tickets and bus transportation through Starr on our website or by calling Starr at 800-782-7703.
Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy and Chris Bennion