Gander, Newfoundland: the Canadian town that inspired Come from Away
The history of a remote town central to 9/11.
Even the word Newfoundland conjures up mystique and intrigue. Together with Labrador, this rugged island forms Canada’s easternmost province. Along its shores cling old fishing villages with brightly coloured cottages. Its dense forests teem with wildlife and its vast tracts of ancient granite have earned it the nickname ‘The Rock’, also a fitting metaphor for its hardy people.
Newfoundlanders share a gritty mix of indigenous, French, English, Scottish and Irish heritage. European settlement dates back to 1497 when Italian-born explorer John Cabot claimed the land for King Henry VII of England. With the promise of plentiful cod, a steady flow of immigrants followed. Cod was to Newfoundland as gold was to Victoria.
Many years on, a new wave of strangers would arrive by air. On September 11 2001, as the terror attacks on the US unfolded, thousands of US-bound aircraft were forced to find alternative destinations. Among them were nearly 7000 passengers and crew aboard 38 planes who suddenly found themselves in a small town in Newfoundland. As fate would have it, they were in rock-solid hands.
“When the word terrorism came across the air-to-air traffic radio it sent a chill through the cockpit,” says Captain Beverley Bass, an American Airlines pilot on duty that day. “Then the call came that all US airspace was closed and I was ordered to land in Gander.”
For Captain Bass and her fellow pilots, this remote town was a telling destination. “It’s one of the emergency airports we have to study for international crossings between the USA and Europe,” she says. “Most pilots will spend their entire career never landing there.”
Yet Gander exists because of that airport. Established in 1936, it was once the biggest airport on the planet. It ferried aircraft to Britain during World War II and was the main testing site for Concorde. So while there was room for the 38 planes on the town’s runway, there was nowhere near enough room for passengers and crew in a town with only 500 hotel beds.
In no time the Ganderites, together with locals from the surrounding villages, opened their hearts and homes to the stranded passengers from 93 countries, who quickly became known as the “plane people”. A state of emergency was declared and every school, gymnasium and community centre was transformed into makeshift accommodation.