A Broadway musical was born out of one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history. Come From Away, both a musical and a book, is based on the amazing true story of a Canadian town’s response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. When it became clear that the United States was under attack using hijacked airplanes, Canada implemented Operation Yellow Ribbon (1), a plan for diverting inbound U.S. flights to Canadian airports. The operation was set in motion after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all air traffic over the United States. Operation Yellow Ribbon diverted 255 U.S. bound civilian flights to 17 Canadian airports, as a way to prevent attacks on other possible targets in the United States. None of the planes that landed and were inspected at Canadian airports posed a threat.
Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport received 38 of the airplanes carrying close to 7000 passengers and crew members. The visitors, who practically doubled the tiny town’s population, were referred to as the “come from aways”. The kindhearted residents of Gander offered “simple and heartwarming hospitality — everything from home-cooked meals to blankets and lodging.” (2)
Come From Away tells little known stories of some of the Gander residents and affected travelers in the days following September 11, 2001. Irene Sankoff and David Hein are a husband and wife team who wrote the musical based on interviews they conducted with the townspeople, passengers, pilots and crew during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A love story that unfolded between strangers Diane Gray and Nick Marson, two of the stranded passengers, helped inspire Come From Away.
On September 11, 2001, Nick and Diane were traveling separately on the same flight when their plane and their lives made a significant detour. While they waited in various lines for items like medication and sleeping cots, they started talking and decided to set up camp next to each other. Within the first few days, as they explored the town and got to know each other, a mutual interest had sparked between them. Five days later, with the airways back open, Nick and Diane went their separate ways. Even though the time spent getting to know one another was short, the impact of their meeting was big. Nick proposed to Diane over the phone in November 2001. Their own story is one they have not grown tired of, as a CBC article (3) notes the Marsons have seen it 75 times.
Director Christopher Ashley first learned about Operation Yellow Ribbon in 2012 when he read Sankoff and Hein’s first draft of Come From Away. Ashley ended up directing the 2017 Broadway production, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Director. He’s currently directing the touring version. Ashley considers the story to be more about 9/12/01 rather than 9/11/01 in that the focus is on how humans can choose to come together in times of crisis.
Ashley’s hopeful the show can spark the type of kindness and caring that the townspeople of Gander showed to strangers in the audience of Come From Away. “I think the experience of watching our show keeps changing as the events of the world keep changing,” Ashley said. “Working on this show has been a pretty extraordinary kind of exploration into the kindness that people are capable of,” he said during a phone interview with Los Angeles Downtown News.
Sources for this post include:
(1) Wikipedia: Operation Yellow Ribbon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Yellow_Ribbon#cite_note-WashPost-6
(2) Los Angeles Downtown News, "The Kindness of 9,000 Strangers" by Sean P. Thomas, November 28, 2018
(3) CBC, "Meet the Marsons, the couple brought together in Gander during 9/11" by Mike Moore, September 11, 2018