As the hit musical “Come From Away” takes Broadway by storm, Newfoundlanders are getting ready for a potential wave of tourists drawn to the place where those true stories happened.
“No doubt we’re going to be expecting an influx of people,” said Debby Yannikidis of the Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The town is preparing. Is it preparing to the degree it should be? We hope so. But we really won’t know until we get through this season.”
The extraordinary 9/11 hospitality of Gander and nearby communities is celebrated in the big-hearted musical now selling out tickets and racking up accolades — including seven Tony Award nominations.
It recounts what happened when the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, closed U.S. air space. Gander nearly doubled in population as 38 planes with almost 6,600 passengers and crew suddenly diverted to the sprawling international airport on the edge of town.
Gander and its neighbours in Gambo, Appleton, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Glenwood donated food, clothing, prescription drugs and anything else their unexpected guests needed. Churches and a school became makeshift shelters and many residents welcomed “the plane people” into their homes.
Disoriented, frightened passengers from around the globe were simply taken into the communities over the next five days.
Catharsis and compassion
“Come From Away” has been praised for acknowledging the pain that resonates from 9/11 as it also provides a cathartic look at how compassion for strangers helped restore some faith in humanity.
Yannikidis said Gander wants to welcome visitors who will arrive as a result. But people are keenly aware that the musical and any resulting economic opportunity stem from tragedy, she added.
“I think that’s why it’s important that the aviation museum, a not-for-profit organization, is taking the lead on being able to provide tourists some sort of an experience,” said Yannikidis.
The North Atlantic Aviation Museum on the highway through Gander houses a piece of World Trade Center steel donated by firefighters on Long Island, N.Y., as thanks for the province’s generosity. It’s part of a larger 9/11 memorial display.
Yannikidis said there are plans for tours that will include locations featured in “Come From Away.”
Beulah Cooper, a Gander resident and 9/11 volunteer portrayed in the play, said there’s also talk of her and other locals meeting with visitors who’d like to hear their stories first-hand.
“I feel humbled by it all,” she said of the musical’s triumph on Broadway and beyond. “When we were in New York, I said to (Gander Mayor) Claude Elliott: ‘Claude, I’ve invited half of New York to come to my place.’ And he said: ‘Yes, Beulah, and I’ve invited the other half.'”
Ken Sooley, owner of CapeRace Newfoundland Adventures, offers self-managed packages that include the keys to various coastal homes, a rental car and his guide book. He has added a side trip to Gander this year as “Come From Away” buzz grows.
“There’s a common thread of human kindness and caring throughout the Newfoundland culture that most do experience when they come to visit,” he said.
Exit surveys typically indicate that hiking, birds, icebergs and whales initially drew guests to the island — but encounters with Newfoundlanders were the trip highlights, he added.
“The majority of people say their best experience was with the people. When people come to Newfoundland, they’re taking a cultural adventure.
“The scenery is the main attraction, but that soon becomes the backdrop.”