Musical brings 'love and compassion' of Newfoundland community to Winnipeg stage

Two of the people portrayed by actors in the hit musical Come From Away visited Winnipeg to watch the local production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

2 people portrayed in Come From Away, about passengers stranded on Sept. 11, 2001, watched Winnipeg production

Steffi DiDomenicantonio, centre, and other cast members of the Mirvish/Junkyard Dog production of Come From Away, which runs at Winnipeg's Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre until Feb. 3. (Matthew Murphy/Royal MTC)

Two of the people portrayed by actors in the hit musical Come From Away visited Winnipeg to watch the local production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

The show depicts the experience of more than 7,000 passengers on 38 planes who were diverted to Gander, N.L., after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., in which passenger jet hijackings led to crashes in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Manhattan.

The production focuses on the story of Beverley Bass, the first female pilot in the United States to reach the level of captain with American Airlines.

Bass saw the performance in Winnipeg on Thursday evening, her 91st time seeing the musical.

"Every time that I see the show, I'm just so enamoured with it, and I'm often told that it looks like I'm seeing it for the first time, even though it's been 91 times," she said Friday in an interview with CBC's Information Radio.

Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, who is also a central character in the musical, has seen it 74 times.

The actor portraying him in the Winnipeg performance does a better imitation of his Newfoundland dialect than the one on Broadway in New York City, he said.

Claude Elliott views recovered metal from the Twin Towers following a brunch at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander, N.L., in 2016. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

"I watched it last night and I was impressed with it, but it's not about how we speak," he said Wednesday in an interview on CBC's Up to Speed. "It's the story, the love and compassion that happened and help people in need, and that was all we done."

During the five days the passengers stayed Gander, the town's population increased to 16,000 from 9.000.

With only 500 hotel rooms, it was a challenge to find places to house all of the new arrivals, said Elliott. They stayed in churches, schools and anywhere else they could find room.

Bass remembers flying halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, on the way from Paris to Dallas, Texas, when a message came over the radio that the first of the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane.

"We just thought it was a small airplane. Then about 20 minutes later, we learned that the second tower had been hit and with that came the word terrorism," she said.

At that point she got on the intercom and informed her passengers that there was a crisis in the U.S. and they would be diverting to Gander.

As she made her final approach at the airport in Gander, there were cars parked along the road as far as Bass could see, she said.

"And I thought, 'Oh gosh, it looks like everybody from Newfoundland is here.' I just couldn't believe it," she said.

The local Red Cross and Salvation Army stepped in to provide support for the diverted passengers. After spending the first day on the plane, Bass recalls stepping into the terminal the morning of Sept. 12 and seeing it lined with tables of freshly cooked food.

Beverley Bass was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 49 that was stranded in Gander, N.L., following the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. (CBC)

"They had literally been cooking all night and they made enough food to feed 7,000 people. I knew then we had landed in a very special place," she said.

For Elliott and the other people in the community, however, helping the stranded passengers just seemed like the thing to do. No one expected to still be talking about it almost 20 years later.

"It's sort of funny for us, because the type of people we are. After the five days was up, everybody left and went away. Our job was done," he said. "And even today, people have said, 'Man, just a few sandwiches and water and a bed and a pot of soup and that. How can you make a musical out of that and why is it so important?'"

Bass said she's been back to Gander several times, most recently taking her husband and children.

"Those five days were just kind of, it's hard to explain because there was so much unknown. We didn't know when we were going home and that was the hardest part. But now that it's behind us and we have formed lifelong friendships, it takes on a whole new meaning," she said.

Elliott, who recently retired after 21 years as mayor of Gander, has watched the musical with audiences in Canada and the U.S. People in the two countries react differently, he said, recalling a scene in which someone borrows a neighbour's barbecue.

"Canadians understand going next door and just take your neighbour's barbecue even if they're not home. Americans are saying, 'Wow! Do you do that? Is that absolutely true? You might get shot!'"

The Winnipeg production of Come From Away runs until Feb. 3.

With files from Information Radio and Up to Speed