POST: 'Come From Away' - what's so special about this town?

What's it about?

Come From Away is an original musical based on true events that took place on September 11th, 2001, in and around the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland.

What I experienced?

Where were you on September 11th, 2001? It's a safe bet that most people who were alive on this day know exactly where they were and what they were doing. Me? I was in New York City, in my elementary school classroom on the Upper East Side. I was 6 years old. From my seat on the rug, I witnessed grown-up after grown-up worriedly poke their head through the door of my classroom and engage in panicked whispered conversation with my teacher. Parents with tear-stained faces arrived to pick up their children until I was left alone. "There’s a problem with the trains," my teacher told me, before rushing me onto a yellow school bus that was empty save for a girl I had never seen before and my bus driver, Deserae. My mother met me at the bus stop where she informed me that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and the same place where we occasionally would shop at the Disney store and have family lunches was no more. My generation is the last that will remember that day, but at the time, I was thankfully still young enough that I didn't truly understand the horrors of what happened.

I had thought that at this point in my life, I had a fairly thorough grasp of it all, with any blanks that existed in my childhood more or less filled in... and until experiencing Come From Away, I had never heard of Gander, Newfoundland. What's so special about this town? Well, on September 11th, 2001, 38 diverted flights made emergency landings in Gander, thus nearly doubling the town's population, which, prior to the landings, was only around 10,000 people. The locals of Newfoundland went out of their way to care for the stranded "Come From Aways," which is how people native to Newfoundland refer to visitors who were not born on the island. 

I come from New York City, where it is all too easy to believe that you exist in the center of the universe, in this gritty, beautiful, cultural hub. 

The "Come From Aways" of 9/11 came from all over the world, in all shapes and sizes, races and religions, and they spoke a variety of languages. But they were united in one thing: while stranded on their planes (and it was hours - in some cases, over 24 hours total, before the passengers were allowed to exit their aircrafts), the passengers had no idea what atrocities had taken place in America. Some people knew that there had been an accident in New York, but with limited working cell phones and no internet access, these people were clueless, scared, and they just wanted to go home. 

According to the show's website, much of the content of Come From Away was gathered in person at Newfoundland's "10th Anniversary commemoration of the "Come From Aways'" unexpected visit. While in attendance, the show's writers "collected hundreds of hours of interviews that" were "distilled into the 100-minute show." So everything I was seeing on stage was based in truth. The story was real, and the characters were either based on easily googleable figures, or written from a composite of multiple real people. And I felt for all of them.

There was a middle-aged lady from New York City who had a son that was a New York City firefighter. She wasn't able to get through to him...

There was a hilarious young African American man from New York City who was naturally skeptical of the kindness of strangers.

There was a Muslim Chef who was initially treated like a threat by both the airport security and his fellow passengers due to his religion.

There was Beverley Bass, the first ever female pilot to make Captain at American Airlines, and a totally real person, by the way (See below). 

Beverley Bass!

Beverley Bass!

There was a couple who were both named Kevin (real people). *Side note: One of the Kevins, Kevin Tuerff, has recently published a first-hand account of his time in Gander in September of 2001.

Kevin Tuerff!

Kevin Tuerff!

There was a Texan named Diane and a Brit named Nick who fell in love after being brought together through horrendous circumstances (also real people). 

Diane and Nick!

Diane and Nick!

And then there were the Newfoundlanders, real people who literally opened their doors to strangers, and did everything in their power to make the "Come From Aways" feel at home, while they had no other choice but to stay.

There was something cathartic about Come From Away... I could not watch the events unfold without reflecting back on my own experiences from that day. And it was nice to bear witness to the experiences of others, bear witness to the sadness, but also to the beauty and love that prevailed despite chaos and destruction. 

The people of Newfoundland were accepting and warm and empathetic hosts to guests they never asked for. I found myself thinking that Canadians were just better people, plain and simple. I knew that sometimes Americans, myself included, ragged on the place, but...I mean, I joined millions of New Yorkers daily in deliberately walking by homeless people, sick and hungry and mentally ill, and rarely doing anything to aid them. And maybe I'm just cynical, but I don't think America would observe a country-wide moment of silence in honor of those who perished in a Canadian tragedy. But the Newfoundlanders did that for us. And if that doesn't represent the resilience of humanity in the face of senseless acts of terror, then I don't know what does. Gander, Newfoundland, shares a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, a massive thank you from New York City to the people of Gander for their selflessness, although the Mayor (Claude Elliot) maintains that the verbal "thank yous" received from the "Come From Aways" as they finally were given clearance to return home were more than sufficient. 

Want to see it?

What did you experience?

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