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The Outside World: ‘Come From Away’ creators look back on 9/11

Click to play video: 'Special ‘Come From Away’ broadcast set to air' Special ‘Come From Away’ broadcast set to air
Real life Gander Mayor Claude Elliott and his Broadway counterpart Joel Hatch stop by to chat about the release of the Tony Award winning musical Come From Away on Apple TV Plus – Sep 1, 2021

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the duo behind the Come From Away, offer a rare, intimate remembrance of their time in New York on 9/11–an experience that informed their Tony-winning, Broadway hit.

From: Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Date: 12 September, 2001 5:30 AM
Subject: The Outside World

Where we are it’s been pretty quiet.  Blue sky, the thunder showers were terrible yesterday. I sort of dread going out into the real world again, as I’m not sure what that will be like now.  I’m sort of alternating between horror and disbelief.  We are very lucky to live where we do, and be in contact with so many people. I still can’t believe it’s real…

Two decades later, I only remember the clear blue sky. Not the rain. This is from an email David and I wrote to our family and friends back in Canada two decades ago, found buried deep in my Yahoo folder like a time capsule — something I haven’t looked at in a long time. Back before Facebook or Twitter status updates, back before most people had cell phones, it was written on a desktop computer far less powerful than the laptop we’re writing this article on — the same one we wrote Come From Away with, our Broadway musical about Newfoundland in the days after 9/11.

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Two decades later, we are, like many, thinking about where we were on that day — but also about the days following: how we responded to what happened. We’ve told our story in sound bites for several years now, but looking through these emails there are many details that we’ve forgotten.

From: Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Date: 14 September, 2001 2:38 AM

It’s still a little too quiet up here. The wait staff in both restaurants we went to in the last two days were beyond distracted.  It’s strange being in a city full of people with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The biggest crowds on the streets are around postcard stands.  We bought plenty of pictures of the twin towers and the area around it. It’s hard to believe it’s all destroyed.

I went up on the terrace of our building the first day, but haven’t been up to look at the skyline since. I know a lot of the residents who are high enough and face the right direction have kept their curtains closed.

We were living at 122nd and Riverside, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a residence for graduate students from 110 countries, founded by a man named Harry Edmonds in 1924, after he met a Chinese student who hadn’t had a single person speak to him in weeks. What started with Sunday suppers became “International House,” a community to foster international cooperation and community.

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At the time, I was aiming toward my Master’s in Acting and David was a singer/songwriter working at a recording studio, living together but on separate creative paths. We were each working on theatre shows then, both of which were about to open the week of September 11th.

Click to play video: 'Calgary’s The Military Museums to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11' Calgary’s The Military Museums to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11
Calgary’s The Military Museums to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – Sep 8, 2021

Our friends at International House were the first to knock on our door to see if we were okay that morning, saying, “Are you OK? Come get something to eat in the cafeteria with everyone. Don’t be alone.”

We were hardly alone. There were 700 students in our residence. We stood on the rooftop with them, looking downtown, waiting for news about so many friends and family members (including David’s cousin Tanya, who worked in the Twin Towers, but fortunately escaped). Some of our fellow residents were refugees who thought they had escaped their own countries’ threats of imminent danger.

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Another resident was an American friend who turned from where we stood looking downtown at the smoke and started walking away. When asked where he was going, he replied “to enlist.” One couple moved to Afghanistan soon after to be near the wife’s family — the husband had been a college football player and wanted to be useful out there. His sweater was red but I can’t remember what school or state. Some people left the city as soon as they could. Others vowed never to leave.

I often wonder what happened to them all, but rarely burst into tears anymore when I do — although I still find myself smiling when I remember chatting over a meal. I still jump at certain loud noises. I’m still nervous when I don’t hear from someone on time. I still don’t say “I’ll see you tomorrow,” because you just never know.

From: Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Date: 16 September, 2001 12:48 PM

Some organizations are asking for financial donations for the families of the victims, and they say they could use water and ice, hard hats, goggles, other construction type stuff, and T-shirts. I may feel silly, but I may head down with a bag of our old T-shirts.

I went to give blood a couple days ago, and even then there was at least a five hour wait. We’ve been trying to help however we can. The feeling in town is indescribable. They keep turning away volunteers, so everyone sits around helplessly. We try to do what we can; Yesterday we delivered blankets and some food to Columbia University, where they’re sending stuff downtown. Some of our friends have lost friends and we try to console them. One of our friends was in Times Square when it happened and was one of the people running through the streets that you saw on TV. He has epilepsy and the stress has caused two seizures since Tuesday, so I’ll probably hang out with him today and make sure that if he has another one that he doesn’t get hurt.

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I know this sounds stupid, but we just opened our shows last night. Broadway is back up and running, so our producers and directors decided that they should too. And people have actually come to see the shows. I think they just want something to take their mind off it for a while.

The way people are gathering together is truly remarkable.  I hope, that among the other things you’ve seen on TV, you’ve seen the people gathering at Washington Square Park with candles and poetry, flowers and songs… Overall, I am struck by the way New Yorkers are looking out for one another.

I still remember walking home from the theatre that week. It was and continues to be somewhat scary to walk home from the subway in New York at night — but that night, countless doorways were lit with candle-light vigils — commemorating what was lost, while lighting the way for us to make it safely through the darkness. That sense of community continues to light the way for us today through the unfortunate constant stream of darkness that it feels like we’re going through.

So much from that time in New York has informed our work on Come From Away. It’s why the story of an international community taking care of strangers resonated with us so much. It’s why people doing good deeds for others, no matter how small, seemed important to celebrate. It’s why Broadway reopening means so much to us now. Time and again, theatre has become a way for us to respond by coming together as a community — and Come From Away has allowed us to do that again, with our families in our homes on AppleTVPlus or live on stage in theatres reopening around the world.

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One month after these emails, we were married. Like so many New Yorkers who seized the day and lived for the moment, we eloped on October 12th, down at City Hall. David’s cousin Tanya was our witness. Tanya had been working in the Twin Towers area when the attacks occurred but had managed to escape. None of us, save Tanya, realized how close City Hall was to Ground Zero. She hadn’t been down there since September 11th. So after getting married, Tanya retraced her escape path for us as she remembered ducking into a Citibank branch, the cloud of dust… It was horrific to imagine. Beyond strange to experience it on our wedding day.

David Hein and Irene Sankoff in New York, 2001. Handout/Irene Sankoff and David Hein

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I remember walking past closed stores, caked in dust. At Ground Zero, a Canadian flag had been posted, a testament to the Canadians who were helping in the recovery. And in one of the windows, someone had written in dust, “Heroes live forever.”

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Handout/Irene Sankoff. Handout/Irene Sankoff

While being a “9/12 story,” Come From Away was always intended to honour those lost that Tuesday, the heroes and the everyday people, and also the countless community members who in the days afterwards gave blood, shared clothing, volunteered, comforted, and reached out to one another — helping people so they didn’t have to be alone.

Some things haven’t changed in 20 years. In 2001, it was “I don’t know you but come over for a meal” and in 2021, it’s “I know you’re in isolation, so I’ve dropped off a meal at your door.” That spirit was embodied in the story we found in Newfoundland, but it was also in New York in those days after, as well as around the world.

And it’s still here today. We see it in the 20,000 acts of kindness organized by Pay-It-Forward 911 (payitforward911.org) — or when our Come From Away cast and crew give back by making September 11th a day of service to one another, packing lunches for food banks with thousands of other volunteers. We see it in people who sourced PPE equipment or helped strangers find vaccination sites. We see it in our friends from 2001 still emailing to check in and send love.

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Read more: ‘Reassurance, compassion and love’ — Canadians reflect on efforts 20 years after 9/11

Before 9/11, I could look down 8th Avenue from International House and see the World Trade Centre — in a new city, it always helped me know which direction I was heading. Twenty years later, there is a Come From Away banner covering up the space where the towers used to be — a reminder that we would not be here without its loss.

Like in 2001, though after being dark for much longer, theatres are now reopening — Broadway on September 21st and Toronto in December. Meanwhile, its story is being shared in 100 different countries around the world on AppleTVPlus. We may not be able to come together in the same ways yet, but we are not alone — we have never been alone. And by remembering our past, we can hopefully come together to light our way out of today’s darkness.

Good deed ideas for September 11th as a Day of Service (from payitforward911.org):

  • Buy a coffee shop gift card and pay for the coffee of a stranger behind you in line, asking them to keep it going.
  • Feed a stranger’s parking meter.
  • Buy as savings bond for an infant born on September 11th.
  • Call a nearby school and ask if they need any supplies. Go buy them and deliver on 9/11.
  • If you can afford to give away $50-100, give money to a favourite local food cart, donut shop or diner. Stand at the register and pay the bill for as many people as the money will cover. Tell the recipient what you’re doing (to remember 9/11) and ask them to Pay It Forward.
  • Bring old books or magazines to a hospice, retirement center or children’s hospital.
  • Purchase a bus/rail pass for a stranger.
  • Bake a cake and bring it to firefighters working on 9/11 or buy lunch for a police officer.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein are writers of the Tony award-winning Broadway hit, “Come From Away.”

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