These days, Beverley Bass lives in Argyle, Texas, but during her working life, the world was her home. She was an airline pilot for American Airlines and one of the first to fly the big birds. She spent 10 years of her career piloting Boeing 777s.
She was flying one on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s the kind of day when every detail is seared in your mind.
“On 9/11, I was flying from Paris to Dallas. We left two hours late that day because the airplane had a mechanical and that delayed our departure. If I had left on time I would not have landed in Gander that day and there would be no story from me.”
That story is captured in Come From Away, a piece of musical theatre that tells how the people of Newfoundland welcomed some 7,000 passengers and crew in 28 wide-body airliners grounded at Gander airport by the terror attacks on the United States.
“We were westbound over the middle of the North Atlantic when the co-pilot and I heard something on our air to air frequencies, which is a mandatory radio signal that we have to monitor at all times when the plane is over international waters and out of range of air traffic control.”
What they heard from a plane flying in front of them was that one of the World Trade Center towers in New York had been hit by an airplane.
“Like many we assumed it was a light airplane but about 20 minutes later we heard the second tower had been hit and with that came the world terrorism.”
Beverley just kept flying her plane never dreaming she would hear that New York’s airspace would be closed and that eventually U.S. airspace would close too.
“Once that happened we knew we would be diverting and we started programming our computers for Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, the bigger Canadian cities. Then, as we approached 50 degrees longitude ,where you actually come in first contact with Gander control, we learned we would receive our orders.”
Airline pilots normally do not get orders to divert.
“When we divert an airplane we usually co-ordinate with dispatchers,” she said, “but that day was unique.”
Her plane was ordered to land at Gander.
“We were No. 36 of 38 wide bodies to land in Gander and we had flown for seven hours when we landed. When we got parked, Canadian officials came on board the plane and informed us that we would not be getting off the plane until the next day. It was about 1015 a.m. on Sept. 11 when we got parked. We were on the plane a total of 28 hours.”
Gander airport was built during the Second World War and it was originally used by the U.S. air force to take the fight to Nazi Germany. In the post-war era it became the last refuelling stop before going to Europe. As planes have become more sophisticated, pilots don’t land there as much as they once did.
“I had never landed there before 9/11,” Beverley said, “but airline pilots are very familiar with Gander. We always have to have alternate airports we can divert to if we have a mechanical problem or a passenger situation requiring an emergency landing. But I would say most airline pilots will never go into any of those airports because airplanes are so reliable today.” Ironically, after 9/11 she returned to Gander airport twice more because of medical emergencies.
“None of us would have ever known anything about what Gander was like or the people there.”
That was about to change.
“The first revelation was when after being on the ground in the plane for some time, they started supplying us with water bottles, energy bars, nicotine patches for smokers, anything we needed.
“When we got off the plane at 7:30 a.m. on Sept 12 we walked into a very welcoming community. The terminal was lined with tables and tables of food. It was obvious to me that the folks in Gander had been up all night with every stove in town turned on. They cooked enough food for 7,000 people.”
Her contact with the people of the area was more limited, she said. She and her crew stayed at the Comfort Inn near the airport to be ready when it came time to depart. The passengers were transported to the Knights of Columbus lodge.
“We didn’t have cellphones or pagers, so I didn’t learn a lot about what went on until I saw the musical.”
In fact, she has learned a lot about what happened from the musical which she has now seen some 135 times.
“I now have had an opportunity to go back to Gander and thank all the mayors of each of the communities, all the places that took such good care of all of us. That was something that was very important for me. I wanted to personally thank each community — Gander, Appleton, Lewisporte, and Gambo — that helped out.”
She did that in the summer of 2017.
“I took my whole family with me. It was wonderful. They all got screeched in. I had already been screeched in on a previous visit. I kissed a real cod just out of the swamp or whatever he came out of. It was alive, the real deal.”
She praises the people for opening their hearts and their homes.
“They comforted thousands of passengers and crew when we were living through the darkest time in American history.
“It is a timeless message,” she said.
At this point on the history of the musical, the role of Beverley has been played by five different actors. In the production coming to Ottawa, she is portrayed by Becky Gulsvig.
Having seen the show so many times “you have to realize I have now seen my fifth doppelganger because we just got back from the opening in Melbourne, Australia. At first it was very daunting. You can’t imagine having someone on stage emulating you. The first was Jenn Colella.” She is still playing her on Broadway.
“I met her at the opening of that show. She plays me so perfectly, I am truly honoured to see her up there every night. It really is great.
The others are: Eliza-Jane Scott (Toronto production), Rachel Tucker (London, Eng.) and Zoe Gertz (Australia).
“I’m now good friends with all of them. My poor husband; now he’s got five others to deal with.
“My husband and I have both seen it 135 times. I just just got back from Chicago where I saw it twice.”
And her pilot daughter has seen the musical more than 30 times.
“She was with us on opening night in La Hoya, California when the original show was on the way to Broadway.”
The producers of the show do fly the people who are represented in the show to opening nights where they are acknowledged.
“They have brought the Ganderites and the Come From Aways to Broadway, Toronto, London and Melbourne. I do a lot of PR events that are associated with the show.
“And because I was an airline crew member, I have had more than 2,000 pilots and flight attendants taken to see the show. I try to go with the big groups I just had 70 retired American Airlines flight attendants see the show in Chicago.”
She has co-founded a women airline pilots group and 160 of them have seen the show on Broadway.
“I am always with those big groups, because I want to be. I am very proud of the show.
“I remember thinking when we left Gander that I just wanted the whole world to know what we had just experienced and what we had gone through. Now the show is making it possible for the whole world to learn about the story of how wonderful these Canadians were to us during that horrible time.”
Next: Meet the Canadian writing team behind Come From Away.
Come From Away will be at the National Arts Centre from Aug. 20 to Sept. 8. There is very limited seating left. For more information, please see broadwayacrosscanada.ca