“We were all exhausted — just spent. Most of us had been up for five days straight working But somehow I can’t sleep so I sit down and turn on the television And I just start crying. I hadn’t let myself cry the whole time.” — Claude, the mayor of Gander, Newfoundland, “Something’s Missing” from “Come From Away”
I remember that feeling. It was around 1:30 a.m. Sept. 12, 2001. After seeing the shocking news the morning before at 8:46 a.m., we in the newspaper newsroom swarmed into action, making calls, talking to area natives in NYC, following the wire reports, putting pages and pages of heartache in the 9/11 paper, working on a special section for the next day’s edition, writing, editing, designing. … Then, the day was over. I was home. And I, like Claude, allowed myself to cry.
But my day was nothing compared to what was going on when 38 planes dropped into Gander, Newfoundland, after the airspace above our country was closed.
The 9,000 or so “Islanders” welcomed the 7,000 or so unexpected guests to their “rock” in the “middle of nowhere” at the “edge of the world.”
The next five days were filled with casseroles and questions. Blankets and flannel shirts. Cots and toiletries. Baby formula and diapers. Irish whiskey and crisis counselors. Cod and kisses. Telephones — lots and lots of telephones — and computers. Friendship and love. Hugs and tears. Thank yous and goodbyes.
Lucky for us, someone (Irene Sankoff and David Hein) dug into their story and wrote a musical — an award-winning musical, nominated for seven 2017 Tony Awards (musical, original score, book, featured actress, lighting, choreography — and direction, for which it won).
“Come From Away” tells the tales of the town that opened its arms that day.
Tales of Janice the news reporter — “I’m new,” she says over and over. (Wow, what a first day on the job.) Of Bonnie, the S.P.C.A. volunteer, who took care of the 19 dogs, cats and a chimpanzee, in the bellies of the planes. Yes, a chimpanzee. A pregnant chimpanzee, at that.
Of Hannah, whose son was a firefighter in NYC.
Of Diane and Nick, whose futures intertwined long after Gander. Of Kevin and Kevin, whose futures did not.
Of Captain Beverly, who anxiously awaited the names of fellow pilots in the air that day.
Of the family from Africa and a bus driver — and the Bible that allowed them to speak the same language. Of the Muslim passenger strip-searched before boarding for home. Of the diverted rabbi and the Polish-born “Islander” who was “told as a child never to tell anyone” he was Jewish.
Kindness. Generosity. Prejudice. Connections. Prayers. So many stories.
And, the music? Oh, my — the music. Catchy. Sweet. Sad. And played beautifully by a live band. The lyrics — from hilarious to heart-wrenching.
And the dancing. And the energy.
And the tears — that was me, and the rest of the audience. And the chills — me, again. And toe-tapping. Yep, me.
To sum up “Come From Away” in a word — “powerful.”
It touched me to the core when I listened to the soundtrack, and even more deeply as I watched the actors live on stage. I don’t think I have ever seen an audience erupt into applause and a standing ovation so quickly and so unwilling to leave a theater. Maybe not even “Hamilton” audiences.
I felt as much an “Islander” (honorary) by the end of the show as did the 7,000 guests who spent five days on the “rock.”
Oh, and why are Newfoundlanders really terrible at knock-knock jokes?
This will explain it — an exchange between Hannah, the mom of an NYC firefighter, and Beulah, the mom of a Gander firefighter:
“Beulah — why are Newfoundlanders really terrible at knock-knock jokes?” Hannah asks.
“I dunno,” says Beulah.
Hannah: “Well, try it. I’ll be a Newfoundlander.”
Beulah: “Knock knock!”
Hannah: “COME ON IN — THE DOOR’S OPEN!”
The door’s open? More like it was their hearts that were open.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.