Remembering The Story Of 'The Plane People' On 9/11, 20 Years Later
“Come From Away,” a Tony award-winning Broadway musical, is based on a real-life 9/11 story.
The feel-good performance strikes notes of virtue and goodness on a day that those qualities seemed missing from the world. It also captures the awfulness of being in the dark — the feeling of not knowing — that so many people shared on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Come From Away” takes place in the tiny fishing town of Gander, Newfoundland — more than a thousand miles from lower Manhattan. Gander is home to Celtic heritage, plaid shirts and an essential ritual for visitors: down one shot of rum and kiss a codfish.
Within minutes of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the entire U.S. airspace shut down for the first time in history. Planes still in the air from Europe had to divert to Canada, which left some 7,000 passengers stranded in Gander scrambling to catch up to the horrific news.
“Come From Away” tells the story of these “plane people,” as they were called, and their host community in Gander, who on this harrowing day for humanity showed so much of it.
Gander residents fed, housed, clothed and poured drinks for strangers. They opened up their shops without charge. They filled more than a thousand prescriptions for the people who had, in their lingo, “come from away.”
Two women are central to the musical — Beulah Cooper of Gander and Hannah O’Rourke of New York.
Cooper, who still lives in Gander, recalls receiving a phone call asking her to bring a tray of sandwiches to the legion — and she had no idea why.
“So I made my sandwiches and I brought them down. And I asked what was going on and they said there was a planeload of people coming in,” she says.
In the early hours of the morning, the passengers landed and funneled into town. Cooper took frantic people to the hotel to make phone calls.
Cooper formed a close tie with O’Rourke, one of the passengers who was traveling back from her native Ireland that day. O’Rourke remembers being told by the flight crew that the plane had to land in Canada because of problems at the airport in New York.
O’Rourke and Cooper were both in their 60s at the time, and both were mothers of firefighters.
From Newfoundland, O’Rourke desperately tried to phone New York again and again for any news of her son. He was a fireman with Rescue Company 2 in Brooklyn — and was missing.
Two decades later, the now 87-year-old mother remembers the frustration she felt that day on the phone.
“If you got through, you got through. And if you did, you didn’t,” she says. “That was it.”
After five days in Gander, the plane people finally flew home, and O’Rourke gets the news. Her son — a father of two girls — had been killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
She says before that fateful day, she kept reassuring herself he was fine.
“If there’s a way to get out, Kevin [O’Rourke] will find it, you know. But unfortunately, he didn’t,” she says. “I have to pick up the pieces.”
Her son always wanted to be a firefighter “to help people and save lives,” she says. “That was his passion.”
Cooper remembers hearing the tragic news from her new friend. His death causes Cooper to get teary whenever she thinks about it.
“It’s hard when you lose a child. It’s hard,” she says. “But she knew in her heart of hearts that they weren’t going to find him — they were going to find his body.”
“Come From Away” debuted in Ontario, Canada, in 2013. Four years later, it began a run on Broadway. Cooper and O’Rourke sat in the audience, hand in hand, for opening night in the Big Apple.
Now, the two always sit next to each other when they go to the show, Cooper says, and shed tears together.
The first time seeing “Come From Away” was “very hard to watch,” O’Rourke says, because it puts her through the emotions again. But she sees the musical as keeping her son’s memory alive.
“Come From Away” will be performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Actress Happy McPartlin, who will sing the role of Cooper at the Lincoln Memorial performance, says there’s a healing message weaved throughout the musical.
There’s one key moment in the musical when the passengers start learning of what happened at the World Trade Center.
“When they just see it on the television set for the first time,” she says, “there’s a musical moment where they say, ‘Lead us out of the darkness, lead us somewhere to safety, lead us far from disaster, lead us out of the night.’ ”
That’s what “Come From Away” does, she says, uplifts the audience out of darkness and prompts them to share the humanity shown in Gander.
The day the plane people took flight once more out of Gander, Cooper says the community sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” and “So Long It’s Been Good To Know You.”
She says there wasn’t a dry eye in town that day.
Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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