Come From Away: Stories and Lessons of Those who Lived It

Steven Sauke

The news came as a shock. That morning, I was emerging from my room when my mom met me in the hallway. “Steven!” she said. I could hear in her voice that something serious had happened. I wondered if I was in trouble for some reason. Her voice trembling, she said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”

Surely it must have been an accident. But what a catastrophic accident! We rushed into the living room and watched as they showed the horrifying footage on the news. Someone in a building near the Twin Towers called in to the news and told the anchors that they had seen it from their window. A plane had deliberately flown into the Tower. Deliberately? Who would do such a thing? It occurred to me that this was the “JFK” event of my generation, where everyone remembers where they were when they learned of it. I looked at my watch to take note of the date. September 11, 2001. I needn’t have bothered.

As we watched in horror, a second plane slammed into the other tower, causing a massive fireball. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Two planes crashing into two of the tallest buildings in New York within a few minutes of each other doesn’t just happen by accident. By this time it was getting time for me to start preparing for my work day, as Seattle is 3 hours behind New York due to time zones. I took a small radio into the bathroom to listen while I prepared and prayed desperately. The radio announcer related that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. We later learned that a fourth plane crashed in a field near Pittsburgh, as the passengers tackled the hijackers.

American Airlines Flight, over the North Atlantic

Meanwhile, an American Airlines plane was flying westbound over the Atlantic Ocean, en route from Paris to Dallas. Captain Beverley Bass got word on their air to air radio frequency that the towers had been hit, and New York airspace was closed. The airspace for the entire country was closed soon after. They knew then that they would need to divert to Canada, initially considering Toronto or Montreal. They then got word that a remote area would be wiser in case something happened, so they were ordered to land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland.

Air France, over the North Atlantic

The plane bound from Paris to Newark suddenly dropped in elevation, and passenger Kevin Tuerff, accustomed to flying, looked up at the GPS map on the ceiling of their jumbo jet. He wondered why they were suddenly flying due north rather than due west. Were they flying to the North Pole?

Continental Airlines, over the Atlantic

The flight was bound from Gatwick, England to Houston, Texas. Diane was returning home from visiting her son Mike and his family, stationed in the US Air Force in the UK. On the same flight was an oil industry professional named Nick, whose business took him to Houston. Neither of them knew that tragedy would bring together two strangers from opposite sides of the ocean.

Gander, Newfoundland

Gander Academy French immersion teacher Diane Davis heard of the attacks that morning. She went home for lunch and watched live as the towers fell. She would return to school to teach that afternoon. Her colleagues asked her to help mobilize help, possibly preparing food, and she readily volunteered as a point person for staff. With a staff phone list in hand, she registered with the town of Gander, telling them she had about 50 names and could probably count on half of them helping out. They moved desks and set up computers in the front at three schools, starting with the local high school. By the time they got to Gander Academy, they had about 100 volunteers setting up. After being up for 72 hours straight, she was ordered home to rest. She slept three hours and went back to work. By that time, they had 770 people who needed help.

As the people of Gander prepared, so did the nearby towns of Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo. Six towns got ready to welcome thousands of people diverted to Newfoundland. Janice Young, a nurse from Lewisporte, worked 12-hour shifts to help people in need. Members of the local media, including Janice Goudie and Brian Mosher, would work tirelessly over the next few days, splitting their time between reporting the news and bringing aid to those who needed it.

“The world changed today, for the worse. Our flight from Paris to New York missed an international terrorist disaster in New York and Washington, DC. (Hijacked planes crashed into WTC & Pentagon. We’ve been sitting on our plane now for 12 hours (7 now on the ground). All we can do is wait patiently for news about the tragedy, for a place to try to talk to our families. We’ve been told we may have to sleep here overnight (on board). We are fortunate to be alive. Many on the plane cried when we heard the news. Everyone is shell-shocked. No one can imagine what is next regarding our national security. Who can we trust now? Will this heinous crime start a war? All we can do is pray. P.S. Just learned we will soon depart plane and perhaps spend night in school here. At least 30 planes here waiting with stranded passengers aboard.”

So wrote Kevin Tuerff on his in-flight menu, having landed at Gander Airport. He was travelling with his partner, also named Kevin. Very few people had working phones on the plane, though Tuerff was able to attempt making calls from a first-class seat that someone in first class graciously allowed him to use. He didn’t get through because most people in the US were calling each other to make sure everyone was all right. He finally got through to a friend in Amsterdam, who was able to fill him in on what he had heard on the news. He then went back to their seat and told everyone what he had found out. Between trying to call out, watching Shrek twice, and dealing with an upset passenger behind them (Kevin J. offered her some medication for her nerves, which she declined), they passed the long hours. Their plane was on the tarmac for 15 hours before they were finally allowed to deplane, one of the first of the 38 planes, containing a combined total of 6,579 passengers. They had to leave their checked luggage on the plane, so they were only allowed their carry-on items. So Kevin and Kevin had only their bags containing cameras, passports and two bottles of Grey Goose vodka that Kevin J. had managed to procure in Paris.

In his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, Kevin relates what happened when they left the plane. Security at the airport was tight. Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were stationed there. (As another character in the musical comments, “There were soldiers everywhere.”) They went through immigration and customs, and Kevin says, “And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party!” The people of Gander had stepped up and provided help and food for their thousands of guests. People had homemade baked food, chicken from KFC, and everything in between. Kevin managed to find a pay phone and call his parents, but had to go, as his ride was there. He watched people at the airport put “Out of Order” signs on the phones so they could get people to the places they were to stay.

Captain Bass’s plane deplaned early the morning of September 12, having been on the plane for 28 hours. She tells me that they “walked into the terminal building in Gander. I was shocked to see all of the food that had been prepared for the nearly 7k passengers and crew members. It was evident the folks of Gander and the surrounding communities had stayed up all night preparing and cooking for all of us. It was so heartwarming. During our 5 days there nearly 285,000 meals were served to the come from aways…as they call folks who are not from Newfoundland.”

The come from aways were housed all over Gander and the surrounding communities. Beverley Bass and her crew stayed at Gander’s Comfort Inn. She mainly stayed put at the inn, as she did not have a cell phone at the time and she needed to know right away if they were ready to leave. Kevin and Kevin were among a large group housed at the College of the North Atlantic. A Ganderite teenager gave them an air mattress, and it deflated the first night. The Society of United Fishermen Hall in nearby Gambo welcomed Nick, Diane, and the other passengers from their plane. Janice Young of Lewisporte hosted a couple British women in her home and helped out at a local church. Gander resident Beulah Cooper aided passengers from an Irish Aer Lingus flight, and filled four rooms of her house with passengers. The people of Newfoundland welcomed strangers into their schools, churches, businesses and homes with open arms. As Mayor Claude Elliott points out in his foreword to Kevin Tuerff’s Channel of Peace, they came from over three dozen countries. (Kevin tells me there were people from more than 90 countries.)

Among the passengers on the Aer Lingus flight was a couple named Dennis and Hannah O’Rourke, returning to New York from visiting Ireland. Beulah Cooper helped them as they desperately attempted to contact their son Kevin, a firefighter back home in New York. She developed a friendship with Hannah, which would be invaluable later when the O’Rourkes arrived home and found that their son didn’t make it. His name is inscribed on the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero:

 Photo by Jodi Parks Disario. Used with permission.

Photo by Jodi Parks Disario. Used with permission.

Diane Davis tells me, “As one of hundreds who helped at the school, I fell into an organizational role. I helped with general information in the office of the school for passengers. Like others, I helped passengers make international phone calls, I did announcements and took notes for Captain Burgess when he met his flight. I organized bulletin boards for communication for each flight and helped to answer questions. Other teachers organized food and clothing. Some planned games and activities for children. Some took people home for showers, to sleep, or for laundry. We did not do things that were out of our skill set or extraordinary. We did the same thing we would do for anyone needing help. What is remarkable is how many need help and how many came to give it in the most basic of ways. Food, clothing, a drive somewhere, use of a phone.”

Kevin Tuerff relates that wherever they went in Gander, strangers stopped and offered to drive them to their destination. Others had similar experiences.

Stop the World!

On September 13, as Nick and Diane had been getting acquainted, they decided to take a gander (pun intended) at the nearby Dover Fault. Nick brought his camera, which he pulled out at the lookout. Diane suggested getting out of the way so he could photograph the beautiful scenery, but she didn’t realize that he was more interested in her than the scenery. With this single photograph, he “stopped the world” and preserved a memory that would be a turning point in their lives:

 Photo by Nick Marson. Used with Permssion

Photo by Nick Marson. Used with Permssion

They would return a year later, on their honeymoon, and again in 2017 when the town of Dover updated the plaque at the lookout with their story:

Photos by Nick and Diane Marson. Used with permission.

“What Was That Ungodly Screech?!”

During that time, some of the come from aways were “screeched in.” Kevin Tuerff would not have this privilege until 2011 at the 10-year celebration, and his (now former) partner would be screeched in later. The musical explained some of the background behind the Screech In ceremony, but I was still curious about it and asked Diane Davis. She tells me, “The Screech In had many variations. A Google search will get you some info but the Screech is a rum based drink that harkens back to when our salt fish was shipped to Jamaica and the ships came back with rum and molasses. It’s a bit of fun and when well done, it’s a good laugh. Kissing the cod is perhaps similar to the effort it takes to kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland. You really need to want it bad to do it. I love the Screech In song. Another song of the musical genius of Sankoff and Hein. Folks will be thinking it’s a traditional song.”

Departure, Tributes and Reflection

After five days in Newfoundland, the planes were finally allowed to leave. Kevin’s Air France flight returned to France, and they found themselves stranded once again, this time in Paris. At the airport, they witnessed a deeply moving show of support there and on the TVs as Europe came to a standstill, cars stopping on the road and people getting out of their cars to observe a moment of silence for the people of America. Europeans stopped what they were doing and stood at attention as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.

For Diane Davis, “The most moving experience for me was helping to count money from a donation box to put it in the school safe. We were exhausted and my vice principal and I began to cry. There were so many denominations from 4 aircrafts that we had to sort it by colour first to try to recognize currencies. There were 2 personal cheques for 1000 made to Gander Academy. When I see the scene of the collection on the aircraft and the passenger writes a cheque, I cry. We were overwhelmed with the gratitude of passengers. I still am by the hugs from strangers.”

A grateful American businessman welcomed by the town of Lewisporte took up a collection to fund scholarships for students there. It lasted for years, and both of Janice Young’s daughters benefitted from it.

Come From Away

Years later, the 10-year celebration and the musical Come From Away would serve to bring many people together. Mayor Claude Elliott met Kevin Tuerff at the celebration. Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis met when they learned that they had been combined into a single character named Beulah Davis for the musical. (They laughed about having never met before that.) Sankoff and Hein combined reporters Janice Goudie of the Gander Beacon newspaper and Brian Mosher of Rogers Cable into one person named Janice Mosher.

Kevin Tuerff finds the song “Prayer” from the musical particularly moving. He tells me that the “Most moving part of Come From Away for me is the song, “Prayer”, based in part on the Christian hymn “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”  I’d always loved that hymn. It had played in my head for days after 9/11, and was sometimes the only consolation when I would see the continuous loop of TV footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Its lyrics were on my heart when I attended Mass at Notre Dame in Paris on September 16th, 2001. The first time I heard it, I immediately started crying. I never remembered telling the writers about this, Air France lied to us, saying we would leave Gander for New York, but instead they flew us back to Paris. We should’ve just stayed with the kind people in Gander!”

I must say I concur with his assessment of the song. The first time I heard it, I was in tears. I love the combined Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu prayers, in addition to multiple languages in one song, all praying for the same thing: Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Shaantih in Hindi) and praise to God (Allah in Arabic).

Response

Kevin founded an environmental marketing firm called EnviroMedia in 1997, and after his experiences in Gander, he started a new initiative called Pay It Forward 9/11. You can learn more about it at www.payitforward911.org. Basically, as described in the musical, every year on 9/11, he distributes $100 to groups of his employees and sends them out to do random good deeds for strangers. In this way he hopes to remember the horrific acts of 9/11 and the incredible selfless outpouring of love he was shown by strangers in Gander. He describes some of the truly moving deeds his employees have done in his book. In this way he hopes to combat xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and racism and replace them with compassion. He calls it a “jump start to the heart.” I highly recommend ordering his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 on Amazon. I now own it in audiobook form (read by the author), as well as Kindle and the physical book. In addition to his story in Gander, and that of many of the others mentioned in the musical, he includes practical tips about how you can do good deeds for strangers. (You can also view the tips on the website for free.) It doesn’t have to be expensive, but he has seen lives changed for the better by some of the simple acts performed.

Similarly, since her retirement from teaching, Diane Davis has been instrumental in helping displaced Syrian refugees in Gander. Kevin Tuerff recently moved to New York so he can help his church to welcome immigrants and refugees there. Beverley Bass enjoys picking up the tab for first responders and others at restaurants. She paid airfare for the family of a member of Come from Away’s band when their homes in Dominica were destroyed in Hurricane Maria. Last summer she took her family to Newfoundland and personally thanked every mayor of every town that helped out. According to Nick and Diane Marson, “It has renewed our faith in humanity and given us a new family. It certainly changed Nick’s life, he threw his life up in the air, moved to Texas and married Diane. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t!”

Accuracy and Repeat Viewings

One thing I asked everyone I interviewed was how accurate their characters were represented in the musical Come From Away. The consensus was that they were very accurate. As mentioned above, some characters were combinations of two people. Kevin Tuerff told me that “The Kevins” actually lived in Austin, Texas rather than Los Angeles. Sankoff and Hein made this change so that they wouldn’t have “too many Texans” in the musical. (He also mentions in his book that they did not go to the Legion for a drink while stranded in Gander, and they were not Screeched In until years later). Nick and Diane Marson pointed out that they made some minor changes to put everyone in one airplane and one shelter. Beverley Bass is deeply impressed with the way she is portrayed. She tells me that Jenn Colella is an ideal actress to play her. “First of all, she is adorable and has the most amazing voice. She belts out ‘Me and the Sky’ which is my aviation life compacted into a 4:19 second solo, the only solo in the show. Her body language and everything is just the way that I am. We both have similar haircuts and she used to have blonde hair like me, but has decided to let it go natural and is no longer blonde.” Diane Davis tells me that she personally observed most of what happened in the musical, and it brings back the memories of those events actually happening.

Another thing I asked everyone was how many times they have seen the musical. I believe Beverley Bass holds the record at 106 times as of the time she responded to my questions. Diane Davis hasn’t counted, but she believes it has been at least a dozen times, in Gander, Toronto, New York City and Winnipeg. It makes her cry every time. Kevin Tuerff recently attended his 26th performance over the course of five years, with his nephew and an African friend who was recently granted asylum in the US. Nick and Diane Marson are at second place among the people I interviewed, at 75 times in six cities and two countries. They tell me it is rewarding to show people who are older and yet have not found their “special someone” that there is still hope. Nick and Diane were “both into middle age, not 20 somethings” when they met. They also feel it is like renewing their vows every time they see the musical

Relating to Come From Away

One thing I love about Come From Away is how much I can identify with it. I grew up in the Philippines, but I currently live in the Seattle area. I have also lived in Hong Kong and Montana. Having lived on opposite sides of the Pacific, I often feel like a come from away wherever I go. (“Where are you from?” is a complicated question for me.) In addition, I distinctly remember the events of 9/11. I remember the uncertainty of what would happen. That horrible morning, the hits kept coming. A plane hit one tower. A plane hit the other tower. A plane hit the Pentagon. A plane likely bound for the White House crashed in a field near Pittsburgh. Where would the next plane hit? After I got to work in a Seattle highrise that morning, I wondered if it would hit our building. Would a plane crash into the Space Needle? Our employer gave us the option of going home just in case. I decided that, worst case scenario, a plane would hit our building, and I would be killed and go to heaven. Heaven didn’t sound so bad right then. When I listened to the cast recording of the musical years later, it brought back those memories and left me in tears.

With that in mind, I also asked everyone if there was a way they could relate to the musical like I could.

Diane Davis shared that “9/11 was the hardest I worked ever to do something good, to volunteer, to be a contributing citizen. I am also on Gander Refugee Outreach Committee now and the time and energy involved in welcoming 4 Syrian families to Gander has renewed and polished all those citizen skills. Part of teaching our families was telling them the story of 9/11 and again, David and Irene selected stories that emphasize inclusion, compassion, empathy and community. For me though, the memory that always strikes me is the passengers seeing it on TV for the first time and when I see it on stage I cry. It’s the sense of helplessness, no matter how willing we were, that there was nothing we could do to make this not true or better.”

Nick and Diane Marson tell me, “As we travel to other cities where the show opens, and meet so many new people, we feel like we still are come from aways. One of our favorite aspects of the show is meeting new people and sharing stories with them.”

Kevin Tuerff says, “As a gay Catholic, I know what it’s like to be marginalized. When I see the scene when the Muslim man (Ali) is scared because of how others are treating him simply because of his religion, it makes me sad. No doubt there was tremendous anxiety about who was a terrorist because the ones who hijacked the planes came from Muslim countries. But they were extremists who disobeyed their own religion. Virtually every religion in the world has one common teaching: The Golden Rule­–Treat others as you want to be treated. I hope as Come From Away goes on tour around the world, people are reminded of this, and take their experience in the theater and incorporate it into their daily lives.”

Tips for Visiting Newfoundland

Another question I asked everyone was where they would recommend going when visiting Newfoundland.

In addition to Gander, Beverley Bass recommends visiting Gambo and Lewisporte, as well as the other “adorable little towns” in the area. As far as restaurants in Gander, she recommends Bistro on the Roe, Rosie’s, and The Gander Bread Box Bakery & Café. “Everyone is so incredibly nice that you really never want to leave.”

Diane Davis says, “There is a Beyond Words bus tour that will take visitors to the various sites around Gander and does a great job of telling Gander’s 9/11 and aviation history. I like to make sure people see Gander Heritage Memorial Park and read some of the letters at the town hall in Gander. I also recommend the Peace Park in Appleton and visiting all the town halls in the communities where passengers were housed. Gander, Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo. Everyone should visit the Dover Fault and sing “Stop the World” too.”

Kevin Tuerff says, “The best place to start a tour of Gander is at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. They offer a seasons tour of the Gander International airport and several scenes in Come From Away called Beyond Words. I recently took a self-driving tour of other beautiful town across Newfoundland from Maxxim Vacations, called the Come From Away Experience. The island has absolutely stunning beauty and remarkably kind people.”

Nick and Diane Marson have a rather unsurprising yet exciting suggestion: “Do we ever! Of course we like to see our Newfie families, but ….   Our visit to Dover Fault on Sept. 13th, 2001 highlighted the budding feelings between us…Nick wanted a photo of Diane, not the beautiful scenery, so that meant he was as interested in me as I was in him...  It is the “Stop the world” moment in our lives and is portrayed as such in the play.”

Go See Come From Away!

Come From Away is currently playing on Broadway and Toronto. The musical is kicking off its national tour in Seattle in October. (I can’t wait!) The tour is currently slated for Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Costa Mesa, Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon), Vancouver (British Columbia), Edmonton, Calgary, Omaha, Appleton (Wisconsin), Pittsburgh, Greenville, Baltimore, Hartford, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New Orleans, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago and Ottawa. The show also opens in Melbourne, Australia in July 2019. Tickets are now on sale for the Dublin production, and it runs in London starting January 20, 2019. Tickets are now on sale there as well.

The show lasts 100 minutes, and there is no intermission. It is recommended for ages 10 and up.

You can get more information on the musical’s website, www.comefromaway.com. I also highly recommend visiting www.payitforward911.org for ways you can help spread the kindness that the people of Newfoundland showed to strangers.