Hope, from the rubble of 9/11

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“Come From Away” is set in the week after that clear September morning


  • Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the musical "Come from Away," based on true accounts of the days following 9/11. Photo courtesy of "Come from Away."

  • The cast of "Come from Away." Photo Matthew Murphy

On September 11, 2001, David Hein and Irene Sankoff were living at International House, a Manhattanville haven that was housing 700 grad school students and interns from 110 different countries. The Canadian couple saw their international neighbors unifying in the face of tragedy. “There was also this feeling in New York at the time that you could reach out to anyone on the street, regardless of race or religion or where you came from,” Hein explained.

Ten years later, the husband-and-wife team would be reminded of these kindnesses as they wrote their Broadway musical, “Come From Away.” Traveling to Gander, Newfoundland, they learned the moving stories of the 9,000 townspeople who took in the 7,000 passengers from 38 planes that were diverted there on September 11 when American airspace was closed in the aftermath of the terror strikes. The town was commemorating the 10th anniversary of that impromptu gathering.

On that clear September morning a decade before, Gander residents had opened up their homes, schools and legion halls, and cooked the “plane people” three meals a day and gave them the unwavering moral support during a time such uncertainty.

Celebrating its one year anniversary on Broadway on March 12, the show, which Hein and Sankoff thought would be performed by Canadian high schoolers, recently opened in Toronto, is going on tour this fall, and will also be adapted into a film.

You went to Newfoundland in 2011. Tell us about that experience and how you chose the people you would feature in the show.

Sankoff: Well, we sort of picked the people who had stories that were a little bit interesting, that you wouldn’t necessarily think about. Like Bonnie Harris going into the holes of the airplane to make sure the animals on the planes were being taken care of. Beverley Bass was the only female pilot grounded there at the time. And Nick and Diane, in what they call an autumn romance, meeting each other and falling in love and deciding to spend the rest of their lives together. Their stories were so unusual. And just the townsfolk, those were harder to pick, but we chose people who started one way at the beginning of the show and then, at the end of the show, had had a journey.

Hein: We did try to interview every single person we possibly could. And what we really tried to do was tell every story that we heard because all of the stories were fantastic and they made us cry and they made us laugh. And we just wanted to share them with as many people as possible. So a lot of the challenge of the show was trying to fit...We joke about their being 7,000 people who landed at the time and about 9,000 people in town, so we talked about try to fit 16,000 stories into the show.

I know it’s hard to do, but can you sum up what the residences of Gander did for the plane people?

Hein: So 38 planes with 7,000 passengers basically arrived on their doorstep. And you have to remember this was immediately following 9/11. There was a lot of concern and these people without being asked and without even stopping to question it...

Sankoff: Well I mean they did. They were careful. They did make sure that they screened everyone who came off the planes.

Hein: They brought them off the planes, which they didn’t need to do. They brought them out of the airport into their legion halls and church halls. They shut down schools for the whole week. They brought them into their homes, let them wash their clothes, have a shower. Cooked them food and then let them stay over. And the entire time, they were making food for 7,000 people and constantly entertaining them, making sure they were comfortable, counseling them, making sure that they got news. They basically gave them everything they could possibly think of.

Sankoff: Some of the really specific things that resonated with me were somebody who had a little baby, somebody else saying, “My baby is gonna be born in another five months, but we have the nursery ready, so you may as well use it.” And there was someone else who was looking lonely and one of the locals said, “Can we do anything for you?” And the person was like, “I could use a cup a coffee and I just really miss my dog.” So the local went and found the person a cup of coffee and brought her own her own pet dog over.

Hein: There was a kid there who they found out was having a birthday and they decided that they couldn’t just give one kid a birthday party, so they basically held a party for every single child that had come off a plane.

Explain the bond between Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke, whose son was a firefighter in New York, and Beulah Cooper, a townsperson who is also the mother of a fireman.

Sankoff: Hannah and Dennis were stranded in Gander and they stayed at the legion where Beulah was volunteering. And as soon as Beulah found out that Hannah was the mother of a firefighter, she went right to her and said, “My son’s also a firefighter. Is there anything I can do? Do you want to come back to my house? Do you want to talk?” Hannah did not want to leave the legion; she wanted to stay there in case there was any news. But she did leave to go to church every day and Beulah walked with her to church and cried with her every single day, on top of having people stay at her home and volunteering at the legion. They have an extremely special bond and they still talk to one another.

Hein: One of the wonderful things about the show is that it actually provides a reason for a reunion between the two of them all the time. We just saw them together up in Toronto. And it’s so amazing to see these two strangers who are clearly cut from the same cloth, so welcoming of strangers. We’ve been welcomed into each of their kitchens and fed nonstop.

Sankoff: And they’re so funny. They both have sharp senses of humor and you don’t expect it. It’s amazing.

Hein: They’ve become lifelong friends. We were just talking to Mayor Elliott and he said, “At the beginning of this, there were 7,000 strangers, by the middle of the week, there were 7,000 friends, and by the end of week, they lost 7,000 family members.”

Jenn Colella and the captain she portrays, Beverley Bass, have also become extremely close.

Hein: It’s one of the huge joys of how expanded our family has become. We have this theater family and we have this Newfoundland and come from away family and joining them together.... It’s such a joy to see Jenn and Beverley spending time together. They have become best friends over the process and they clearly are in awe of each other. Jenn clearly thinks that Captain Bass is incredible for the glass ceilings that she shattered and her entire career. And at the same time, you see Beverley looking at Jenn on stage representing her and just clearly loving her with all of her heart. It’s an amazing thing, and they come from such different backgrounds, but it reinforces the message of the show that we have so much more in common than we think we have. And that stories like this can unite us.

Now for passengers Nick and Diane, who fell in love and got married.

Hein: Nick and Diane are the second biggest fans of the show. They come as much as they can. Beverley’s been to almost 100 shows and Nick and Diane are fast approaching her. They are wonderful. The incredible experience with them has been, for so long, they felt a certain level of guilt that the tragedy had brought them together. Their love had come in the shadow of this horrible event. And what’s wonderful about the show is it allows them to celebrate their love and to see it being celebrating. They come time and again and hold hands. They’re so still in love; it’s so charming and wonderful.

Justin Trudeau and Ivanka Trump came to see the show together. Were you there that night?

Sankoff: Yeah, we were.

Hein: Three days after opening. We thought opening on Broadway would be the pinnacle, but three days later, the prime minister of Canada calls…His message clearly was that this wasn’t just a Canadian story, this was a story about international cooperation and that’s something I think we can all get behind right now.

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