The true story of how the small Canadian town of Gander helped stranded passengers on 9/11.
Posted in , Aug 30, 2021
“On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, there’s an airport. It used to be one of the biggest airports in the world. And next to it is a town called Gander...”
So begins the Broadway musical Come From Away, the true story of how residents of the small Canadian town of Gander came together to help when 38 planes—carrying 7,000 passengers (and 21 animals) from around the world—were diverted to their airport on 9/11. The planes were sent there as a part of Operation Yellow Ribbon, a Canadian initiative to safely land planes at Canadian airports and clear the U.S. airspace on the morning of September 11, 2001. The large Gander International Airport was a natural fit. While it is quieter these days, in the 1950s the airport was one of the busiest in the world as it was an ideal refueling stop for pre-jet aircraft travelling between Europe and North America. During WWII, the airport was the main staging point for Allied aircraft heading to Europe. There were plans to tear the airport down, but the town – miraculously – hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
In 2017, Come From Away was nominated for seven Tony Awards; director Christopher Ashley won for Best Direction of a Musical. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the beloved musical is being filmed and will stream live on Apple TV+ starting on September 10.
The musical was written by Canadian composer-lyricists Irene Sankoff and David Hein. They were both in New York City on 9/11 and like many, were deeply affected by the experience. They traveled to Gander where they learned how town residents did not hesitate to open their doors to 7,000 strangers. They provided the stranded passengers with everything they needed —clothes, medication, baby formula, beds, and phones to call their loved ones. “There is a sense of collective responsibility to be good to one another that the people there were raised on,” Hein said in a recent interview. “And when the world needed it, they were there for them.”
The story also closely follows the stranded passengers, called “come from aways” by the Gander residents. It shows their confusion and horror after learning about the attacks, as well as how they eventually forged deep connections with each other. “This show is not just about the tragedy and the darkness,” says Astrid Van Wieren, who plays the character Beulah Davis, a Gander school teacher. “It’s about the cracks of light getting through, interconnectedness and our humanity.”
One way the passengers and Gander locals connected was through their faith. “We learned how the local library in Gander became this sacred place of worship for many different faiths,” said Sankoff. “We knew that was important to include.” They show this through the song “Prayer,” which follows various characters—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and others—as they come to grips with the tragedy of 9/11 and pray to God for a sense of hope. “It took work to make the prayers of the world to harmonize together,” said Hein. “But it’s become a wonderful metaphor for the work becoming bigger than itself.”
Faith was particularly important for Q. Smith, who plays Hannah O’Rourke, a mother with a son in the New York City Fire Department. “In the Bible, it says faith is the thing that we cannot see, but the thing to hope for,” says Smith. “In real life faith gives Hannah strength, just like it gives me strength too.”
The musical’s screen premiere comes during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s never a bad time to tell a story about people being good to one another,” says Hein, “but right now it feels important to remind people of that.” That is exactly what the cast and crew hope the audience will take away from it – a sense of duty to one another.
“Newfoundlanders keep their doors open,” says Smith, “They ask, ‘how can I be of service?’ I hope that everyone will walk away as a Newfoundlander. That’s what this show is about – helping one another.”
Come From Away is streaming on Apple TV+ starting September 10th. Check out the trailer below.