An American Stamp on a Love Letter to Newfoundland: Come from Away

On the rugged shores of Newfoundland, local residents refer to visitors as “come from aways.” Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, 38 commercial aircraft abruptly diverted to the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, where they remained for four days after U.S. airspace closed. During that period, some 7,000 “come from aways” – also known as the “plane people” -– found shelter and solace in Newfoundland. The travelers were from around the world, but the great majority of them were Americans, including at least one U.S. Department of State employee. Today, many of those travelers and their families, who waited anxiously at home for their safe return, still have warm memories of the Newfoundlanders who opened their homes provided food, blankets, clothing, and refuge to them during their time as “come from aways.”

The generosity of the Newfoundlanders and the gratitude of the “plane people” formed a lasting friendship that has now spanned 15 years, as a moving reminder of the best of humanity confronting the worst of times. In 2011, as the world marked 10 years since the 9/11 attacks, the Canadian creative team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein traveled to Newfoundland for a commemoration marking this unique act of generosity and the bond it cemented. As they met with the residents of “The Rock” as well as some of the “plane people” who had come back to visit, the book and lyrics of a musical they called Come from Away began to take shape.

Ambassador Heyman meets some of the real life plane people whose stories are told in Come From Away (left to right: Nick and Diane Marson, Ambassador Heyman, Captain Beverley Bass, Kevin Tuerff). [U.S. Consulate General Halifax photo]

After a few previews in theaters in Connecticut and California, the musical had a highly successful presentation at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., in September and October 2016. A week of additional showings was added to the original schedule in Washington to meet audience demand before the production moves on to Toronto November 2016 to January 2017 and premieres on Broadway in February of next year.

As the production plans moved forward, Toronto theatre producer and associate dean of visual and performing arts at Sheridan College -- who had conceived the initial idea of Come from Away –- set out to bring the story back home. With a grant from the United States Mission to Canada’s Public Affairs Section, the actors and musicians of the Come from Away company traveled to Gander. On October 29, U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce A. Heyman and Steven Giegerich, U.S. Consul General in Halifax, joined Newfoundlanders for a special performance in the Gander hockey rink.

The cast from Come from Away thank the crowd after a performance in Gander, Newfoundland. [Photo courtesy of @WeComefromAway Twitter]

“What a rare, amazing privilege it is to see Come from Away where it happened,” Ambassador Heyman said. “We are thrilled to meet the people who were part of that memorable episode in Newfoundland history, and the talented actors and musicians who are re-creating the story so that we remember, and honor, the importance of what happened on those four days in September 2001.”

“I believe in the power of art to heal and to explain stories in ways that words alone cannot express,” the Ambassador said. “This musical is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there are still good people who do good things for no reward other than knowing they made the lives of fellow human beings better.”

Mayor Claude Elliott (right) and his wife meet Broadway actor, Joel Hatch, (left) who plays Mayor Elliott in Come From Away. [U.S. Consulate General Halifax photo]

During Ambassador Heyman’s visit to Gander, he presented a commemorative plaque to the Mayor Claude Elliott, with the inscription: “On September 11, 2001, hundreds of American citizens and people from the world over found themselves suddenly in an unfamiliar place. In typical Newfoundland tradition, you opened your homes and your hearts to these ‘come from aways.’ Those who know the people of The Rock know that kindness to strangers has been your way for generations. And on that fateful day, love and comfort prevailed over evil and tragedy as the enduring legacy of Newfoundland. The travelers and the people of the United States are eternally grateful.”

Ambassador Heyman with the plaque he presented to the town of Gander, Newfoundland on October 28, 2016. [U.S. Consulate General Halifax photo]

About the Author: Kay Webb Mayfield is Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Mission to Canada.

For More Information:

  • Read  “A Detour to Kindness:  Delta 15 in Newfoundland”  -- the story of one of the “come from aways” Peter Kaestner, which appeared in State Magazine in November 2001.
  • Learn more about the Come From Away show and company and follow it @WeComeFromAway on Twitter.
  • Follow the U.S. Mission to Canada @USEmbassyOttawa on Twitter and on Facebook to view highlights from the Come From Away Company’s visit to Gander.
Ambassador Heyman, Consul General Giegerich, and officials from Newfoundland meet with the creative team, cast, and crew of Come From Away in Gander, Newfoundland. [U.S. Consulate General Halifax photo]
Posted by Kay Mayfield
November 1, 2016

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