We don’t need reminding on what occurred on September 11th, 2001. It is etched in the minds of many, forever seared in our collective consciousness.
The names of the major players, what was taken – stripped away – need not be mentioned here. It is what occurred in the immediate aftermath of one of the more tragic events in modern times – on a bustling unsung jewel of an island in the Atlantic – that are worthy of note and recognition.
3,000 kilometres from Manhattan, some 38 planes, with over 6,500 confused and frightened passengers from all walks of life, touched down in the picturesque aviation town of Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. What happened next, in the context of the day, was nothing short of extraordinary.
Bonds of friendship were formed – bonds of love in some cases – and the accepting and welcoming of complete strangers turned immediate family, were forged, and tightly.
Yes, the kindness of the Ganderites and neighbouring communities – if not Newfoundlanders as a Labradorians as a whole – to the descended come from aways has been well documented. Hell, it is the stuff Tony winning musicals are made of.
Now one filmmaker has taken that story of beauty and brightness out of pain and darkness and has adapted it into an emotional, poignant and heartwarming documentary – You Are Here: A Come From Away Story.
Celebrated Canadian director and filmmaker Moze Mossanen, fully immersed in the magnitude of the growing sensation that was the soon-to-be Broadway gem Come From Away, had the idea of telling the story of Gander on September 11th and the days that followed, and doing so on a wide scale.
“I contacted the producers of Come From Away in New York with this crazy idea of creating a documentary, and I really needed to have their ok with it, because I really wanted to have access to a lot of people and to build relationships,” shared Mossanen. “This is the type of project that is really special because of the source material, the music and the way they went about it was to create a bond with a community and to gain their trust and confidence. And that’s exactly what I wanted – for me and my producers it was really important to do that, to move forward in a really organic, grassroots level.”
Rewind to September of 2001 and perfect strangers Nick and Diane found themselves amongst the 6,000 strong displaced at Gander airport.
“On the plane we were not told what happened, we were just told that the American airspace was closed,” Nick shared. “I thought oh there’s something wrong with the airplane. Then when we landed we were told what had happened. That didn’t really sink in until we got taken to our shelter. They put the tvs on with the looping news and it was, oh my god, it was like a movie. It was like a horror movie, it didn’t look like it was real. It was terrible to keep watching this and to think of all the lives that were lost. What on earth is going on?”
“It was especially worrying to me, because we were on the plane for over 28 hours,” seconds Diane. “All of the planes had to sit there for several reasons. Security reasons, there could have been bombers or terrorists on our planes, any of those planes. Plus they had to organize to do something with us. It was worrying to me to sit there, because I did not know how my family in Houston was. I had a son who lived here who used to have to fly for work and I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t know if my family knew where I was at first.”
Nick and Diane’s story – one of thousands of unique tales of where and when and with whom in the aftermath of 9/11 – is one of the more uncompromisingly beautiful and bright of the bunch, one that would see a growing relationship blossom in the midst of utter chaos.
“I don’t know if you’d find anywhere else in the world where people are so open, loving and welcoming, and friendly,” Nick says of his appreciation for Newfoundland hospitality. “You couldn’t have chosen a more incredible place to be stranded for five days. If it hadn’t have been for their kindness and generosity – they were entertaining us and screeching us in and taking us to Dover fault – if it wasn’t for all of that kindness I wouldn’t be sitting here today with Diane. We could have been stuck in the corner of a hanger somewhere, laying on the cement and not even knowing your next door neighbour. It’s due to the kindness, generosity and given nature of the Newfoundlanders that I am here with Diane today.”
Nick and Diane, from strangers to friends and much more, were married on September 7, 2002. They honeymooned in Newfoundland, where they were treated to a lively local reception planned by their vast growing network of friends.
Kevin Tuerff, known to Come From Away buffs as Kevin T., was likewise amongst the throngs of passengers who touched down in Gander. His experience, the warmth and generosity dolled out generously by livyers, moved him to the point of near life-changing, epiphany striking status.
“I came back and immediately wanted to tell people that story,” shared Tuerff. “In that terrible month and year our country was living in fear and it was one terrible story after another, constantly watching the same video of the planes hitting the tower and the pentagon. I wanted to tell the story of what I saw on that dark day in Gander that restored my faith in humanity.”
Nick and Diane Marson and Kevin Tuerff were among the dozens interviewed by Mossanen for You Are Here, who delved deep into the Gander connection from multiple angles – be it the locals, come from aways and more. The recurring thread of compassion and kindness in the face of struggle was overwhelmingly apparent in all cases.
“What was extraordinary was something good came out of this on one of the worst days known to memory,” says Mossanen. “When so much death happened, so much destruction and tragedy, that in another part of the world we saw a better face of humanity, that our true capacity is actually in the face of the people who turn out to help. I don’t know who said this to me, but I’ll never forget it, that in a moment of crisis don’t look for the culprit, don’t look for who caused it, look for the people who are turning out to help. That’s the true reflection of what we’re like and I think that’s such a good thing to remember. It’s hard to do that, because you ultimately want to go towards revenge and finger-pointing and accusations and culpability, but then we forget that no, during these times more people turn out to save, to help, to aid, to comfort.”
Mossanen’s vision was to put a spotlight on Gander and the surrounding region, to share the – at the time – little known reality of just how far a group of people would go, pushing selflessness to the extremes, to come to the aid of those who need it. That vision is one shared by the Marson’s, Tuerff and so many come from aways turned familiar faces to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
“In the troubled times we live in where there’s such divide in the world, not just America, I believe the only way we can solve some of that is by being compassionate and helping others, talking with others and doing good deeds for others. Arguing over the facts just isn’t working,” said Tuerff. “Newfoundland and Labrador is a beacon for how we should be living in this world … It’s like going to a second family reunion. We have this common bond, both the Canadians and the Americans, so it’s just great. I have, on my subsequent trips, made a lot of friends. I’ve spent more time travelling across the province and exploring what amazing natural beauty you have. I’m the unpaid ambassador of Newfoundland. I’m trying as hard as I can to get Americans to see the show and visit. I know that they’ve seen an uptake in tourism, but I know it’s only going to get better.”
“What’s wonderful is the story of Newfoundland and how Gander and other towns took care of passengers all over the world,” Diane says. “It needs to be told. There needs to be more of that humanity celebrated … We’re not the heroes of this story. The Newfoundland people are. Whatever we can do to promote this for Newfoundland, that’s what we want to do.”