The story of hospitality shown by Gander and surrounding towns during 9/11 is, by now, legendary. The new CBC documentary Gander’s Ripple Effect explores how feeding, clothing and caring for stranded air passengers led to lifelong friendships and the creation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Come From Away.
The doc also looks at the lesser-known stories of how a world famous architect was inspired by his experience in Newfoundland, and how Gander’s 9/11 volunteers are still welcoming the world by assisting Syrian families fleeing war.
The Newfoundland towns that helped passengers stranded by 9/11 are not huge, have only basic infrastructure and would not be considered wealthy, but somehow they absorbed and comforted thousands of stressed visitors of all ages, needs and languages for a week after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Architect Craig Dykers, interviewed in Gander’s Ripple Effect, has a chilling memory of approaching New York City by air on that morning.
As we turned and banked over Long Island and I was looking out the window … that’s when the second plane hit and there was a puff of smoke on the horizon.– Craig Dykers
“As we turned and banked over Long Island,” said Dykers, “I was looking out the window, and that’s when the second plane hit and there was a puff of smoke on the horizon.”
Dykers’ plane, along with many others, was rerouted immediately to Gander as North American airspace shut down. By the end of the day, 7,000 “plane people” in 38 jets were waiting on the tarmac while the Red Cross, town councils and various churches worked out how to get them processed, fed and settled for the night.
At the time, no one knew how long the visitors would be staying, and there were significant security concerns. In home videos taped onboard his jet on the Gander tarmac, passenger Kevin Tuerff found the heat in the plane stifling and the lack of information worrying, but he was grateful to be in Canada.
“We’re safe here. Every single plane over the ocean is being diverted here, I think. We’re not sure where we’re going to go or how long we’re going to be here. We’ve been on the ground for eight hours and in the plane for 15 hours… I don’t even know.”
What they must have been going through — so far away, can’t get home to want be home with their family and we all got to put ourselves in that position and that’s terrifying.– Claude Elliott
The town’s emergency plan kicked in, and so did a tireless band of volunteers, churches and service clubs.
It seemed like everyone got involved; people started cooking meals, offering rides, showers and telephone time and many emptied their linen closets to find sheets, towels, pillows and blankets for the new arrivals. Stores donated toothbrushes, diapers and underwear, and school bus drivers paused a strike to help out.
“The tragedy. What they must have been going through — so far away, can’t get home, want to be home with their family, and we all got to put ourselves in that position, and that’s terrifying,” said former Gander mayor Claude Elliott. “And to be in a strange land.”
Jan Ramirez, interviewed in the documentary, was working as an archivist for New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. With subways and highways closed, one of her colleagues hiked to work and when she arrived, she placed a dusty face mask on Ramirez’s desk, telling her she now had the disaster’s first archive item. Ramirez took the suggestion to heart, and a decade later, when the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened, she was named chief curator.
“There are a lot of reading sources about 9/11 but when they come and see the crushed Ladder 3 truck or a little tiny segment of what had been a football-sized communication mast on the North Tower, it’s very powerful,” she said.
“It’s a real mathematical reckoning of the size of this event, and I think you need to know the size of the event to know the ramifications that became global thereafter.”
Well, not many people shared that vision to turn this into a musical. It’s not obvious.-Michael Rubinoff
In Gander, during the 10th-anniversary pancake breakfasts, parades and ceremonies, two Toronto writers were taking notes. Irene Sankoff and David Hein had been encouraged to visit Newfoundland by Michael Rubinoff of Sheridan College. For years, Rubinoff had been trying to convince writers and producers that there was a play, maybe even a musical, in Gander’s 9/11 story.
“Well, not many people shared that vision to turn this into a musical,” said Rubinoff. “It’s not obvious.”
Sankoff and Hein agreed to go on the research trip but they were skeptical the story could be turned into a theatre piece, much less a musical.
“When we first came here the town was filled with press and they were all looking for a five-second sound bite. What we were looking for, well we didn’t know what we were looking for. So we just talked and we ended up talking to people for three or four hours and it was those conversations that inspired us. And then the music, there was a benefit concert with the Navigators and everyone danced.”
Next, Sankoff and Hein took the script to the best known musical theatre pitch event: The National Alliance of Musical Theatre where there was a bidding war for Come From Away. Junkyard Dog Productions came out on top. They dubbed the musical “a 9/12 story” and plotted a lengthy and circuitous route to Broadway. There were runs in California, Seattle and Washington and the musical’s content was fine tuned along the way. The strategy ultimately paid off.
We see this as our opening night. Broadway, that will take care of itself. This is the most important performance that we’re going to give.– Joel Hatch
Gander’s Ripple Effect catches up with the cast, crew and producers as they travel to Gander before their Broadway debut to perform at the rink; the same space commandeered to be a walk-in fridge during the 9/11 crisis. Joel Hatch plays former Gander mayor Claude Elliott in the musical.
“We see this as our opening night,” said Hatch before performing in Gander. “Broadway, that will take care of itself. This is the most important performance that we’re going to give.”
In the original Broadway cast, Newfoundlander Petrina Bromley plays SPCA manager Bonnie Harris, who crawled around inside luggage holds to find and care for cats and dogs and a pair of rare chimps headed to the Cincinnati Zoo.
“I’m a little bit (nervous) because you always take dramatic liberty,” said Bromley, who has portrayed historical figures before; in Oil and Water, she played Violet Pike of St. Lawrence, who helped rescue survivors of an American supply ship in 1942.
Ultimately, there was no need for anxiety; the documentary shows how the Newfoundland audience joyfully embraced the production. With Gander and area firmly onside, the producers, writers and actors now faced the uncertainty of how the musical would play in in New York.
Not only is Come From Away a largely Canadian story, it was written by Broadway newbies and lacks well-known stars. And the larger question loomed of how a New York audience would respond to a musical about the events around 9/11. Irene Sankoff says the musical’s narrative is, at its core, about welcoming strangers.
“Our show speaks for itself. They welcomed these people off the planes. They didn’t know who was on them. They didn’t need to do that and I think it was a smart thing to do and it wasn’t just a nice thing, it was a smart and it was a brave thing to do,” said Sankoff.
“They could’ve had 7,000 angry people, and they didn’t. Instead they have lifelong friends. And it was interesting because it was at a time when Americans were refugees and there but for the grace of god, right?”
Since the documentary’s completion, Come From Away has been nominated for a Grammy Award, won a Tony Award, broken attendance records and despite a cost of $12 million, become profitable. As well as a continuing run on Broadway, there’s a Canadian production plus new runs planned for London’s West End and Australia, and the Mark Gordon Company is producing a feature film.
The documentary Gander’s Ripple Effect: How a Small Town’s Kindness Opened on Broadway airs on CBC Television in Newfoundland and Labrador on Aug. 18 at 8:30 p.m. N.T.
A link to watch the documentary will be added to this story when it is available.