On the morning of September 11, 2001, 38 planes in the air above northeast North America were diverted to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, when the U.S. closed its airspace. With little knowledge of why they had landed, around 7,000 passengers were released into the town of 10,000. What happened over the next few days is the subject of Come From Away, a new musical by Canadian husband-and-wife playwrights David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
“Everyone came together in light of the tragic circumstances,” Sankoff says. As residents saw stranded passengers sleeping uncomfortably in school gyms, churches, and campsites, they came forward to offer them their own homes, show them around, and even entertain them. “They became lifelong friends,” Hein says.
In an act of epic generosity, Gander provided medications and set up crisis centers. The local Walmart let passengers take whatever they needed off the shelves. People crawled into the planes’ holds to rescue pets. The charity of strangers deeply affected the inconvenienced passengers: Former chairman of Hugo Boss, Werner Baldessarini, must have been humbled gathering underpants from Walmart for the women, and when the company offered to send a private plane to pick him up, he refused. Passengers on one flight out set up a scholarship fund for area students now worth over $1 million, and a company executive established one day a year to give his employees $100 to do something good for others. “As the world was watching the worst of mankind, they were seeing this generosity,” Hein says.
The experience evoked personal transformations, too. One couple fell in love, and an 80-year-old man who had been adopted during World War II opened up for the first time about being Jewish. “He wanted to share it with someone,” Hein says. “There’s this incredible moment of feeling like he has to share his story.”
Sankoff and Hein spent a month in Gander around the tenth anniversary of September 11 to observe a massive reunion. Having collected hours of stories — and having fallen in love with Gander — the couple returned home with more than enough material for a show, their third as a team. Sankoff and Hein found themselves thrust into the world of the stage as partners after their first musical, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based on the true story of Hein’s mother’s second marriage. Come From Away was quickly snatched up by local producer and philanthropist Kenny Alhadeff for a Seattle run. “There’s so much support from most of the people who the show is based on,” Hein says. “You may be watching the show and sitting next to the people being portrayed on stage.”