Louisville area travelers helped inspire Tony award-winning musical ‘Come From Away’ about Sept. 11 experience

Published 6:53 am Sunday, February 13, 2022

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Tell City, Indiana residents Ralph and Rose Reed were on a transatlantic flight returning to the United States from a trip to Germany.

“Our dad was a World War II prisoner of war and was returning home from a soul-searching trip to the Elbe River where he had been captured during the war,” Pam Franzman told the Courier Journal. “But while their return flight was still out over the Atlantic, they were told they were making an unplanned stop in Newfoundland.”

When the United States was attacked, the airspace over the country was completely shut down. As a result, 38 aircraft headed for the United States from Europe were diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. Almost 7,000 passengers and crew were stranded there, doubling the town’s population for several days.

Passengers on the inbound flights weren’t told much, just that there had been a serious crisis in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all flights were suspect as authorities couldn’t be sure who was onboard the incoming flights.

“Based on the vague information they were given, passengers on my parent’s flight thought they were being hijacked,” said Franzman. “They spent 12 hours inside the plane, on the tarmac before enough school buses could be rounded up to transport the thousands of passengers from the airport into the town.”

In the 21 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, stories of the so-called plane people and the outpouring of love and hospitality from the people of Gander have endured and inspired a Broadway musical.

The true story of the small town that welcomed the world is told in the Tony award-winning musical “Come From Away,” which plays at The Kentucky Center Feb. 15-20 as part of the PNC Broadway in Louisville 2021-22 season.

Created by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the musical is the real-life story of compassion, generosity and finding the light in the darkest of places. The husband and wife team traveled to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and spent hundreds of hours conducting interviews with local citizens and “come from aways” (the name Newfoundlanders give visitors) including stranded passengers like Inez and David White, a Louisville couple who also unexpectedly landed in Gander while returning from a cruise in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 11.

“In Gander, the school bus drivers were on strike but they came back to transport all these bewildered travelers to safe lodging as we waited to be able to come home,” said White. “We were told we could only take our carry-on bags and our plane blanket when we left the plane.”

The stranded passengers were given shelter in school gymnasiums and other public buildings. The residents of the small Canadian town gathered cots and supplies for the thousands of passengers. They prepared three meals a day for the visitors and offered comfort and support during a time of fear and uncertainty.

“The people were wonderful,” White said. “They put their lives on hold to feed us and make us feel secure. We were each given a NATO cot and we settled in a large firehouse to wait until we were allowed to come home.”

On the third day of their unexpected layover in Gander, a local woman asked the Whites if they would like to come to her home for a shower and sleep on a real bed.

“We quickly volunteered and she took us to her home,” White said.

The Reeds were also befriended by a local woman who picked them up each day from the shelter and brought them to her home for meals, showers, and to wash their clothes.

“They stayed in Gander for five days before they could catch a flight back to the United States,” Franzman remembered, “but they stayed in touch with their Gander host and she came for a visit and stayed in their home.”

In 2017, “Come From Away” opened on Broadway, and not long after, in honor of her parents, Franzman, her sister and their daughters traveled to New York City to see the production.

“I think my parents wrote this play because it was exactly as they explained it,” she said. “My parents are now gone but seeing ‘Come From Away,’ we laughed, we cried, and we celebrated what had been a milestone in our parent’s adventures and lives.”

“Come From Away” is part of the PNC Broadway in Louisville 2021-22 season, which also includes “Mean Girls,” “Hamilton,” and “Anastasia.”