They still Come from Away and Remember 911

Another anniversary of 9/11  already. A tragic anniversary for so many but also a time of fond memories for residents of Central Newfoundland who were moved to act when thousands of passengers were stranded after landing at Gander International Airport when air space was suddenly closed.

As we travelled around Newfoundland this summer we met a number of travellers who brought up the 911 experience in Gander when we told them where we were from. At the Bonavista Social Club one man told us he was moved to tears in recently reading the book The Day the World Came to Town. People on the Fogo Island ferry mentioned it. Staying at a Tourist Home in Rose Blanche we were asked if we knew about it.

Oh yes, we know about it.

We were both very involved in the caring and catering to these people during their 4 day stranding in Newfoundland. It was a gift to be helpful and needed in those days when so many were fearful and afraid. It was an experience where we saw the best of humanity and our colleagues and peers rose to heroic status in their desire to go above and beyond for strangers.

Thirteen years later, it seems like some people are still only discovering the story of Gander and area hosting the world. I’m sure there are many other amazing stories elsewhere but the idea of small town Newfoundland (aided by even smaller towns in the area) coming to the rescue of so many seems to evoke a feeling of hope in people we meet.

This spring, I was contacted by playwright Irene Carl Sankoff who, with her husband David Hein, had researched and written a musical about 911. A number of teachers who volunteered to help passengers had contributed to many media investigations and interviews over the years. CBC, BBC and Radio Canada have been through Gander Academy at various times filming and asking questions. Some of us have been interviewed several times in English and French.

Many times I’ve been left on the cutting room floor! In two official languages!

The playwrights were different when we first met them a few years ago. It was more of a round table and almost like a debriefing where we were able to share our various experiences of that time. Everyone experienced different things during those days. Passengers and residents had different points of view and connections to events. I heard stories from friends I’d worked with for years that were completely new to me and different from my own 911 experiences. Only now and I realizing how successful this talented couple is.

On the afternoon decided for the latest visit, I met the group and gave them a tour of Gander Academy. We were introduced but I did well to retain a couple of names. I started by explaining the timeline for teachers in school that day. We taught all day and most of us were also there all night when we knew there was a way to assist.

We started at the main door, where passengers were eventually greeted in the wee hours of the morning of September 12, 2001 and then we moved through some classrooms and to the gymnasiums so the visitors could see where passengers had slept for 4 days. We looked at the library and talked about the need to see the news that day and how heart wrenching it was to watch people see the towers being hit on repeating newscasts. We saw the computers were they lined up to send messages to loved ones. By the time we made it to the staff room, we just had to sit and I answered as many questions as I could. They were so moved and wanted to have a deeper understanding of the situation.

Irene and David invited us to join them all for dinner at the Bistro on Roe. With some other guests from Appleton, we met again a number of people we knew were producers or directors. Seating was done to allow them to ask us questions and we were each asked to tell stories again about our roles in caring for passengers and to reflect on how it impacted our community then and since. It was a lovely evening because our audience was so interested in the stories and of course, it was social with great food. We joined them after at the local Legion to witness their Screech In ceremony where they became honorary Newfoundlanders.

Later that evening, I did a bit of research and discovered that our hosts were the principle partners of JunkYard Dog Productions and established producers of musical theatre. From the conversations, I understood they are planning to continue to develop the musical with the intention of perhaps taking it to Broadway. I didn’t realize their production, Memphis had already won a Tony award.

The musical has been performed  by students at Sheridan College in Toronto  as part of the Canadian Musical Theatre Project and was web cast as a live performance a couple of years ago. It was interesting to watch a musical about an event I’d experienced. It is now is being workshopped by theatre troupes in the United States. Characters are very much fashioned after actual residents and passengers, though I’m not convinced we can all sing that well. Some of the music can be heard on line here.

Come from Away might someday shine on the stages of Broadway the way my teacher friends, neighbours and family shone in Gander. It’s a play about hope and caring and people doing their best at the worst time. It’s music reflects the emotions of the time and also the Newfoundland culture and people.

Someday, I’ll visit New York and see Ground Zero and cry.

I’ll also, hopefully see Come from Away and laugh and cry and celebrate being a part of something great at an terrible time.

Tomorrow, at Gander Academy, we will remember our passengers and the impact they had on us. We won’t forget. Ever.

911 changed the world.

We should not forget the terror but we also have to remember the kindness because that is what will truly change the world for better.

Happy birthday Mom.



6 thoughts on “They still Come from Away and Remember 911

  1. Diane – Every year as this anniversary arrives, I think of you and the amazing actions taken by your community during what must have been an extremely challenging time. It makes me proud to say that I know someone who has shown the world what compassion & action truly mean. Bonnie


  2. Thank you for sharing this! I was one of the “plane people.” It is still very emotional for me when I flashback to those days. The love and the care you gave us was wonderful. I was 6 months pregnant and felt especially vulnerable. We survived thanks to Gander!


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