Entertainment Stage Come From Away: The 9/11 pilot, the tiny Canadian town and the unlikely musical

Come From Away: The 9/11 pilot, the tiny Canadian town and the unlikely musical

Planes Gander September 11 2001
Planes line the tarmac at the tiny Gander airport in Canada on September 11, 2001. Photo: Getty
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On September 11, 2001, Captain Beverley Bass was enjoying a bite somewhere over the middle of the North Atlantic when word came through on the radio of the American Airlines B-777 she was flying back from Paris that one of New York’s Twin Towers had been struck.

“We thought it was a light airplane. The co-pilot and I just talked about it and kind of went back to eating our lunch,” Ms Bass tells The New Daily from her Dallas home.

“I don’t mean to make light of it, but we could have never imagined that it was an airliner.”

With the next communication, Ms Bass’s life – and the world – changed forever.

“About 20 minutes later we heard that the second tower had been hit and with that came the word ‘terrorism’,” she says.

With all US airspace closed, Ms Bass was ordered to land in Gander, a tiny outpost in Newfoundland, Canada.

Her aircraft was one of 38 wide-bodied planes redirected to the sleepy town that day, their combined load of 7000 passengers and crew from 100 countries almost doubling the town’s population.

Beverley Bass September 11 2001
American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass in Gander after September 11, 2001. Photo: Supplied

What happened next was such an unexpected light on a day darkened by mass murder and despair that the story has been immortalised in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Come From Away.

“Who would have ever thought?” marvels Ms Bass, 67, who has seen the play 128 times.

On that devastating 2001 morning, Ms Bass was only concerned with keeping her passengers calm. After she touched down in Gander at 10.15am, it would be another 21 hours before her plane could disembark, but neither they nor the other stranded jets were forgotten.

As soon as plane doors opened, the people of Gander galvanised.

American Airlines plane September 12 2001
Captain Bass’s passengers finally disembark on September 12. Photo: Supplied

“They delivered as much as they could to the airplanes: Water, [muesli] bars, diapers, formula, they emptied our lavs and filled 2000 prescriptions and did not charge a single dime for any of it,” she recalls.

“School bus drivers came off strike to transport all the passengers … They declared a state of emergency. It was unbelievable how they co-ordinated everything.

“They literally cooked food for 7000 people and they did it overnight.”

Gander passengers September 11
Passengers from stranded planes are given food and shelter in Gander in 2001. Photo: Getty

With only one motel in the area, the locals took passengers into their homes. Almost 18 years later, Ms Bass is still emotional about it.

“When we left on September 15, 2001, all I can remember thinking is, ‘I just want to tell the whole world about the people of Gander’,” she says.

And look what’s happened! The musical is allowing the story to be told around the world.”

Come From Away cast
The cast of Come From Away hit the highs. Photo: Matthew Murphy 

It wasn’t until the 10th anniversary of September 11, when Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sanko and David Hein (who penned the book, music and lyrics for Come From Away) interviewed Ms Bass, that she learned of the project.

Four years later in 2015, the show premiered in California with Ms Bass and her family as the VIP guests.

“I had no idea what I was sitting down to watch,” says the pilot, who was blindsided, albeit delighted, to see her own inspiring life story – in 1979 she was American Airlines’ first female co-pilot – starring in the musical.

“I was a little girl with a big dream and I think my parents will tell you I was also very stubborn,” says Ms Bass, a mother of two whose daughter, Paige, 26, is also a pilot.

“Once I made up my mind that I wanted to be a pilot, really nothing was going to stand in my way. I was gonna fly.”

Zoe Gertz Beverley Bass
Zoe Gertz, who is playing Beverley in Come From Away in Melbourne, with the real Captain Bass. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Today, Ms Bass, who works as a pilot on a private jet, mentors youth and spreads the word about Come From Away.

“You walk out of our show and people are just bouncing off the ceiling,” says Ms Bass, who with her husband, Tom Stawicki, will be in the audience in Melbourne.

“It is such a feel-good show, you are a better person when you walk out than you were when you walked in.”

Come From Away plays at the Melbourne Comedy Theatre from July 3 to October 27. Details at comefromaway.com.au

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