GANDER, N.L. — Cheers went up Tuesday at the legion hall in Gander, N.L., as 9-11 volunteers portrayed in the hit Broadway musical "Come From Away" celebrated its seven Tony Award nominations.
"It was a super morning, and there was so much excitement," said Beulah Cooper, who is still close friends with the unexpected guests she welcomed into her Gander home during five extraordinary days after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"A tray of sandwiches got me here," she joked.
"I just want to congratulate everyone involved. It was a super job and I'm so happy to be a part of it."
Gander almost doubled in population as the attacks closed U.S. air space, diverting 38 planes with 6,579 passengers and crew to the sprawling international airport on the edge of town.
What happened next has become a legendary tale of simple compassion. With few questions asked, Gander and the surrounding communities of Gambo, Appleton, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Glenwood donated everything from food to prescription drugs as they turned schools and meeting halls into shelters. Many residents threw open their own homes to "the plane people."
Stranded travellers from all over the world were often floored when their offers to pay for such help were turned down with remarks such as: "You'd do the same for me."
Those true stories of human kindness during a horrific time struck Toronto theatre producer Michael Rubinoff, a self-described "recovering lawyer," as fodder for a musical about this uniquely Newfoundland 9-12 aftermath.
The result is a critically acclaimed production that has won over audiences in La Jolla, Calif., Washington, D.C., Seattle, Toronto and now on Broadway.
Two benefit concerts showcasing a pared-down version of the show last fall in Gander had both sold-out crowds on their feet clapping long before the final number finished.
Rubinoff, a producer of "Come From Away" and associate dean of visual and performing arts at Toronto's Sheridan College where it was developed, was back Tuesday where it all began.
"Whether it was good news or not so good news, I wanted to be in Gander with the people that inspired these stories," he said in an interview.
"As we were watching together, waiting, just to hear 'Come From Away' nominated for best musical and six other nominations, it was really special. The people that are portrayed, they're just incredible.
"It's very rare that you have a musical that not only is a true story, but where the characters who inspired it are alive, and to be with them to share in this milestone, oh boy, it was quite emotional."
Rubinoff said about 25 people shared a meal of breakfast bakes and traditional Newfoundland toutons, a type of thick pancake served with molasses.
"To be surrounded by these people who have really become like family, and to share in something so special, it is another moment on this journey that I will never forget."
Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, who is also portrayed in the show, said "Come From Away" offers a hopeful message that is very timely, especially in the United States.
"It's about helping people with wanting nothing in return, and that's what probably the world is missing today, more of that. That's our way of life here."
The Tony Awards will be presented June 11 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
— By Sue Bailey in St. John's, N.L.
Follow @suebailey on Twitter.
The Canadian Press