Beverly Bass was a pilot on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Dallas/Fort Worth on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorist attacks caused her plane and 37 others to be diverted to Gander International Airport in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, after the United States’ airspace was shut down.
Inbound flights from Europe were sent to Canada, and over 4,000 planes were forced to land at the nearest airport.
“I was so naïve to what terrorism was,” she said. “I never thought it would happen on U.S. soil. We had little information. We didn’t know the planes were hijacked. I assumed (the plane) would be (diverted to) Toronto or Montreal, one of the bigger (Canadian) cities. We never thought it would be Gander. (We were plane) number 36 of 38 to land (there).”
Bass and three others who were in Gander or involved with the efforts to send those planes there spoke at a panel discussion June 25 at the Fox Theatre in Midtown following the opening-night performance of “Come from Away,” the hit musical based on the true story of nearly 6,600 passengers and crew being stranded in Gander (population 11,000). “Come from Away” is at the Fox through June 30 as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta series.
Bass was joined on the panel by Claude Elliott, former mayor of Gander; Lisa Pierce, senior director for USA sales and market development for Air Canada; and moderator Kevin Tuerff, a passenger whose book, “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11,” was one of the stories used for “Come from Away.”
Pierce worked in New York for Air Canada at the time of the 9/11 attacks and helped coordinate the airline’s operations from there.
“Some (pilots) had witnessed what happened (from the air). We had an employee who lost a daughter and a manager who lost a wife” in the attacks, she said.
“Come from Away” is about how Gander welcomed the passengers and crew members with open arms and dealt with the shock of having thousands of temporary residents.
“One of the things to know is we are a town of (11,000) people and 500 hotel rooms. The strongest asset a community has is its people. So we didn’t have any problems,” Elliott said. “They made donations and took people into their homes. The government didn’t want people taking passengers into their homes because they weren’t sure if the attacks were still (being planned). We are kind to people, love people and (are) compassionate.”
Tuerff said when he and his boyfriend at the time, also named Kevin, were walking to Walmart to buy some clothes, since their checked luggage had to stay on the plane, they felt that love from Gander residents.
“Three different times, someone offered us a ride, so we took the last person up on the offer,” he said. “These are the types of things we think about. Would you do this in Georgia? Will you take in a million people if they flew into Hartsfield-Jackson (Atlanta International Airport)?”
Tuerff, who lived in Texas at the time, said he lives in New York today. There he has gotten to know Hannah, the real-life version of one of the “Come from Away” characters that lives there and whose son, a firefighter also named Kevin, died on 9/11 trying to save others.
“Her grandson is now in the FDNY (Fire Department of New York) academy,” he said.
Bass said when her plane was getting ready to depart Gander the weekend after landing there, the passengers again felt welcomed by the locals.
“We could not leave yet because every flight out had to have the same exact passengers and crew as when they came in,” she said. “One person played ‘God Bless America’ on their accordion while we were waiting. There was not a dry eye in the house.”
Pierce, who has been to Gander seven or eight times, said, “This show represents the culture, the people, everything.”
Elliott said when “Come from Away” was performed in Gander in 2016 before hitting Broadway, finding a venue large enough to host it was a challenge.
“Our people wanted to see it,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that we have an arts and cultural center that seats 400. The only place we could do it was at the hockey rink. … We had 2,500 people for each of the two shows. It was very emotional. What we saw in the U.S. (with the terrorist attacks) was the worst in people, and what we saw in Gander was the best of mankind.”
For more information on “Come from Away” or to purchase tickets, visit www.foxtheatre.org/comefromaway..