“The people of Gander opened their homes to complete strangers”

Pilot Beverley Bass saw the tragedy of 9/11 bring out the best in people
“The people of Gander opened their homes to complete strangers”

Illustration by Eoin Ryan

Every pilot I know can recall where they were the moment they learned about the events of 9/11. I was over the middle of the Atlantic, captaining a non-stop American Airlines flight from Paris to Dallas-Fort Worth. News came over the cockpit radio that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, and my co-pilot and I assumed it was an accident, which seemed strange, given the good weather in New York. About 20 minutes later, the second plane hit, and with that came the word “terrorism.” Looking back, I’m not sure we even knew what that meant—it was something we associated with far-off places.

When U.S. airspace closed, we received orders to land in tiny Gander, Newfoundland, where we would join 37 other diverted commercial aircraft. All told, about 7,000 passengers descended on the small Canadian town, nearly doubling its population. On the ground, we were told we couldn’t leave the aircraft until the next day, so our 156 passengers and crew spent the next 21 hours confined on the plane. But the people of Gander were phenomenal. They delivered everything you could imagine throughout the night to the planes—diapers, formula, nicotine patches. They even filled 2,000 prescriptions for people who had packed their medicine in their checked bags.

When we got off the planes the next morning, tables of food lined the airport. The residents had stayed up all night cooking for us. Over the next few days, as we waited for U.S. airspace to reopen, Gander treated us like family, opening their homes and hearts. The flight crews stayed at hotels and schools, while the town converted churches and gyms into shelters for the passengers. When those filled, the people of Gander opened their homes to complete strangers and prepared thousands of meals for their guests.

On the morning of Sept. 15, I finally left Gander to fly our passengers to DFW, but the town of Gander never really left me. My husband and I returned for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Also present were writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who were gathering stories about what had transpired there.

I spent four hours speaking with the couple. Little did I know that almost four years later, I would get invited to the world premiere of Come From Away, the musical they created based on those stories.

When I attended the show’s debut in La Jolla, California, with my husband, Tom, and daughter, Paige, I had no idea there was a song titled “Me and the Sky” based on my interview. There’s also a scene where the actress playing me, Jenn Colella, borrows a passenger’s cellphone to call my husband. I looked over to see Tom broken down in tears. That was the first time I realized how hard that day had been for him.

I’ve seen the show now a total of 67 times, becoming fast friends with Jenn and traveling to productions across North America and ultimately on Broadway, where it opened in March. I always wanted the world to know about the generosity and kindness bestowed upon us during our stay in Gander. The musical is finally allowing that to happen.

American Airlines remembers those lost on 9/11.