“This is not a 9/11 story. It’s a 9/12 story.” – David Hein, co-songwriter
Ask anyone on the street, and they’ll definitely know what 9/11 was. But see if they know anything about the town of Gander and the surprisingly large role the people in that town had in the immediate aftermath, and you’ll be lucky to find even one person who has heard of this story. However, through the recent Broadway hit Come from Away, hopefully more recognition will be given to the unsung (Canadian) heroes of an event that changed the world forever. Welcome to the Rock!“It was the worst day we have ever seen…” – Sen. John Kerry
What Was 9/11?
The attacks of September 11, 2001, or 9/11, was a series of coordinated terrorist attacks by the extremist group al-Qaeda on various locations in the United States. 4 flights were hijacked, and diverted towards major buildings: two planes flew into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City, one crashed into the Pentagon, a major intelligence location for the U.S. government, and the final flight planned to crash into the U.S. Capitol buildings, but the hijackers were overcome by passengers on the plane and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died, most of which were innocent businessmen and businesswomen, civilians, and firefighters. Immediately after the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that all international flights were to be stopped, meaning that they would have to land in another country.
“Crossroads of the world”
Where is Gander?
Gander is a small town in northeastern Newfoundland, home to roughly 10,000 residents. It is home to Gander International Airport, an important refuelling stop for longer transatlantic flights.
“…but it brought out the best in all of us.” – Sen. John Kerry
So, what does Gander have to do with anything?
Since American airspace was effectively closed, international flights bound for America had to land somewhere else.
The convenient location of the airspace, combined with the fact that it was already used to large, commercial jets landing to refuel made it the suitable choice for several diverted flights to land. However, this was no pit stop. A total of 42 flights (38 of them civilian), and more than 6,600 passengers and air crew members landed in Gander, combining to be more than 2/3rds of Gander’s population at the time! Passengers had to stay in the area for nearly a week, before being allowed to continue to their destination. Residents of Gander showed their extreme generosity, volunteering to house and feed the passengers and crew. More can be seen in the two videos below:
“Emotionally transcendent” – Jay Irwin
How did this story become a musical?
A Torontonian lawyer and theatre producer was inspired after learning about the story of Gander, and approached various people to try to turn it into a piece for theatre. After several rejections, the songwriter couple of Irene Sankoff and David Hein agreed to become a part of the team. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the two interviewed several residents of what occurred through their eyes, and several characters in the musical are real locals of Gander. In an interview with the two, here’s what they had to say about their experience:
What went into telling that story? You went to Gander, right? DH: Yes. We started researching it several years ago and found out there was going to be a commemoration ceremony happening, that all these people were going to be travelling back to Gander to reunite on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. So we applied for a Canada Council grant, went out there and ended up staying for quite a while. The people of Gander wouldn’t let us stay in hotels—they’d say, “Don’t be spendin’ money, stay with us, here are the keys, just remember to feed the cat.”
Were you thinking “musical” at the time? DH: We had originally been thinking of doing it as a documentary play like The Laramie Project, [which is about the murder of a gay university student in Wyoming]. But then they had a benefit concert at the hockey arena, with this Newfoundland band, and everybody got up on the floor and started dancing. That’s when Irene realized it should be a musical. We weren’t trying to make a Broadway show, though. We were trying to be true to the story. What we really wanted was for the people we’d interviewed, when they sat in the audience, to be proud of what they were seeing and to say that we got it right.
After they wrote a shorter version of Come from Away, the project was met with great success, and Sankoff and Hein wrote a full production, and the rest is history – so much so, that on March 15, 2017, on Broadway…
Justin Trudeau attended a show? And Ivanka Trump?
Yup. They did. And he loved it. The Broadway show was immensely popular, and is still playing to standing-room-only audiences. The show was nominated for seven Tony awards, winning Best Direction of a Musical, and also won several Drama Desk Awards among a boat-load (or, shall we say, plane-load) of awards.
OK, I’m sold. Can I listen to it now?
Sure, but don’t blame me if you get hooked on it!