The real-life characters and true stories in Come From Away
Winner of best new musical at the 2019 Olivier Awards, Come From Away is delighting audiences with its overwhelming message that love is greater than hate. With music, lyrics and a book written by Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical tells of the heroic actions by the residents of Gander and nearby Newfoundland communities in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 who welcomed in thousands of stranded passengers and crew members after planes were grounded.
Filled with inspirational stories as well as a message of hope, read all about some of the true stories in Come From Away and the town of Gander.
True stories in Come From Away
Where is Gander?
Gander is a town located on the island of Newfoundland, as part of the Canadian province Newfoundland and Labrador. With a population of 11,688 (2016), it is a small Canadian community and is a 31 hour drive away from the capital Ottawa.
Gander International Airport opened in 1938. One of the largest airports in the world, Gander Airport was home to the first takeoff of a transatlantic flight heading to Shannon in Ireland in 1945. Later that year, the first commercial flight passed through Gander. Due to its remote location, Gander Airport only serves a few flight paths to Canadian destinations. Used as a refuelling stop for many planes, Gander airport is a large airport for the size of its town and was able to accommodate 38 planes landing one after another in a matter of hours.
Operation Yellow Ribbon
Shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made the decision to shut down its airspace, forcing over 4,000 planes to land at their nearest airport. With many of these planes in Canadian airspace heading to destinations in the United States, Operation Yellow Ribbon was launched by Canadian forces to handle the diversion of civilian airline flights and ensure that all planes were grounded as quickly as possible. As a result of this operation, 255 aircraft were diverted to 17 different airports across the country.
Gander Airport was told that 18 planes would be landing, but a total of 38 planes were diverted to the Newfoundland airport, carrying 6,579 passengers and crew. Even though planes were cleared for takeoff and allowed to continue travel on 13th September, Operation Yellow Ribbon was a short yet vital operation to ensure the safety of thousands.
How did ideas for Come From Away start?
Inspired by the stories of Newfoundland communities, Irene Sankoff and David Hein wished to memorialise the events in musical form. In 2011, the pair visited Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to interview locals and returning passengers whose stories would form the basis of Come From Away.
After interviewing residents and returning “come from aways”, the pair workshopped the stories of individuals into an interweaved narrative, ensuring each story remained true to life. After workshops in Seattle and short runs in towns across the United States and Canada, Come From Away eventually premiered on Broadway in 2017, receiving seven Tony Award nominations. The musical has been praised for its ability to find a bright side to the act of terrorism, celebrating the compassionate behaviour of individuals in the face of atrocity.
Throughout the musical, songs highlight the lives of those who found themselves on the island, with characters named after individuals that Sankoff and Hein spoke to.
Are the characters based on real-life people?
The characters in Come From Away are all inspired by Sankoff and Hein’s interviews.
Beverley Bass was the first female American Airlines pilot, who earned the title in 1986. Her life is represented in the song “Me and the Sky”. In an interview with Theatremania, Bass said that Come From Away presents a realistic portrayal of what happened on that fateful day.
“It was very calm in my airplane. We didn’t know a whole lot… That’s really how it was. We went 30 hours before we saw anything on TV”.
Claude Elliot was the mayor of Gander on 9/11, orchestrating the efforts for the townsfolk to take in thousands of stranded passengers. Elliot is still the mayor of Gander today, with the town holding commemorative events on the anniversary of the terrorist attack.
Bonnie Harris looked after the animals who were travelling on the planes, including bonobo chimpanzees who are referenced in the show. Bonnie joins Beulah Cooper, who was a leading figure in serving the “come from aways” who suddenly found themselves in Newfoundland.
Passengers represented in the show reflect the darker consequences of the terrorist attack, as well as lighter moments. These include Hannah, whose son passed away serving as a firefighter in New York on 9/11. Nick and Diane were also two passengers onboard a flight to Dallas. Prior to flying, the pair were unknown to each other. Waiting to get off the plane, the pair got talking and immediately hit it off. At the end of the musical, audiences can find out whether Nick and Diane stayed together, but you’ll have to book your tickets to Come From Away to find out.
Do the characters speak like Newfoundlanders?
In the show, audience members can hear characters saying typical phrases that’s typical for a Newfoundlander.
Here’s just a few of them:
- A “come from away” – A traveller who comes to Newfoundland that wasn’t born there.
- A scoff and a scuff – A dinner and a dance.
- Screech in – A Newfoundland tradition officially welcoming newcomers. To perform the ceremony, the traveller must kiss a codfish and then drink a shot of Screech (a type of rum) to be officially inducted as a Newfoundlander.
As well as the Newfoundland phrases, characters in the show sing and speak with a strong Canadian accent which at some points can sound Irish. Due to mass numbers of Irish citizens to Canada, many residents in Newfoundland claim direct Irish descent. As a result, Canadian characters in the show pronounce their vowels in a different way, resulting in a Canadian/Irish distinctive twang.
Is this the first time the stories have been told?
This is not the first time that the stories of Gander residents and stranded passengers have been told. The Day the Planes Came was broadcast in 2008 on BBC Radio 4 and tells of the effect that 9/11 had on everyone involved in Operation Yellow Ribbon and Gander.
Diverted is a television movie that first aired in Canada in 2009 and is a fictional account detailing what happened in Gander.
However, the interviews conducted by Sankoff and Hein allow audiences to delve deeper into the lives of those affected, with Come From Away giving a tender portrayal of Gander in the immediacy of 9/11 that is both harrowing and heartwarming.