Come from Away is a Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. It is set in the week following the September 11 attacks and tells the true story of what transpired when 38 planes were ordered to land unexpectedly in the small town of Gander in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. The characters in the musical are based on (and in most cases share the names of) real Gander residents as well as some of the 7,000 stranded travellers they housed and fed.The musical has been received by audiences and critics as a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times and the triumph of humanity over hate.
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The remarkable story behind Come From Away proves kindness always wins.
Meet the real people who inspired the hit musical Come From Away.
Story by Amy Marnie
This is Gander, a remote, tiny town in the northeastern part of Newfoundland in Canada.
Currently, it's home to 10,000 residents. Claude Elliott retired as the town's mayor in 2017. He says it's still the kind of place where you leave your keys in the car.
A remarkable thing happened in this tiny place some 20 years ago. So extraordinary, the story has been retold as a musical, Come From Away, featuring characters based on real people from the town. An award-winning hit on Broadway, the production is now touring Australia.
Correction:The Australian production was supposed to tour China in 2020, but it has been postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This production started performances in July 2019. It was scheduled to go to Brisbane in March 2021, to Sydney in June 2021 and Canberra in November 2021. Not sure of the current status.
Aircraft at Gander International Airport, September 2001
In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, 38 passenger jets rerouted and were ordered to land in Gander. The remote island town found itself playing host to some 6,700 bewildered travellers, nearly 500 airline crew and a pair of bonobo chimpanzees.
Initially, the passengers sat in their planes on the tarmac for more than 24 hours. They quickly became bored after ripping through their phone battery and inflight movies. They didn't know what had happened in New York and Washington, but rumours swirled — had World War Three broken out?
My passengers were all very well behaved… We gave them tours of the cockpit and did our best to keep them comfortable.
Beverley Bass – captain at American Airlines.
Beverly Bass, former aircraft pilot
Beverley Bass became the first female captain at American Airlines in 1986 and flew one of the grounded planes. "We were on the airplane for a total of 28 hours. Seven hours flying and 21 on the ground!" she recalls. "My passengers were all very well behaved except for one lady. We gave them tours of the cockpit and did our best to keep them comfortable."
She says hearing her signature song, "Me and the Sky," makes her feel "incredibly proud" as many of the lines are directly taken from her interview.
Passengers at Gander International Airport, September 2001
Eventually, the passengers disembarked, but for security reasons, they had to leave their luggage on the tarmac. For five days, the small community of Gander fed, housed and comforted their unexpected visitors. They donated clothing, medical supplies and nappies, and they opened their homes to people needing a shower and warm bed.
Very quickly, unique relationships formed. In the airport's international terminal, two stranded passengers, Nick, an Englishman working for an oil company and Diane, a US citizen travelling home, fell in love.
Today, they are married.
Their unique courtship is portrayed in the show and their lines are based directly from media interviews. They're big advocates of Come From Away, the musical that has immortalised their love story. They've seen the show 118 times on three continents.
Diane and Nick, 2001
Diane and Nick today
Another friendship blossomed between a local, Beulah Cooper, who sat by a landline for days with a New Yorker, Hannah O'Rourke, as she waited — tragically — for news about her missing firefighter son. Beulah did her best to comfort Hannah by telling her bad jokes. The two women are still friends today.
"People of Gander and surrounding areas wrapped their arms around the passengers at a time of confusion and angst," Beulah says. "They had no idea where they were and were feeling tremendous isolation and separation from their families and loved ones. They arrived as strangers and left as family."
Muslim Ali is a character based on several real-life people. After he's heard speaking Arabic on the phone, he must prove himself to be not a fundamentalist terrorist but an acclaimed chef. 'Muslim Ali' is just one example of a storyline from the musical that doesn't shy away from the harsher truths of society.
Claude Elliott, Gander’s former mayor visiting Australia
Thanks to the popularity of the musical, Gander has become a tourist attraction, with theatregoers worldwide making the pilgrimage to Newfoundland to experience its famed, open-hearted hospitality and 'nice people’. Former mayor Claude says it has been good for tourism and "the people get to meet and make new friends."
Visitors to Gander can become honorary Newfoundlanders in a ceremony that involves drinking a shot of locally made rum ("Screech") and kissing a freshly caught cod on its icy lips — a ritual captured in the production.
We are proud of what we did with our neighbours and friends. But we never dreamed that it would continue to impact 20 years later.
Diane Davis – retired Gander’s teacher.
Diane Davis, Gander’s retired teacher
Diane Davis is a retired teacher who has inspired a role in the musical. She gets stopped in the street by strangers. She says the musical is more than just a tale of 9/11: "The musical is about kindness and compassion in a time when it was needed. And it's always needed. It is about how many small actions combine to create a huge positive response to a crisis. It's about what my Mum taught me to do for others," she says. "We are proud of what we did with our neighbours and friends. But we never dreamed that it would continue to impact 20 years later."
The Tony and Olivier Award winning musical COME FROM AWAY tells the remarkable true story of thousands of stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland, Canada that welcomed them all.
Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships.