Come from Away musical to open in Melbourne: The Canadian town that helped stranded plane passengers

Beverley Bass had never let anything come between her and the sky. In 1976, her passion for flying saw her become the third female pilot hired by American Airlines. Ten years later, she became the US's first female captain. But on September 11, 2001, she found herself grounded in a remote Canadian town, unable to fly into American airspace as the result of an international incident.

That incident, of course, was terrorism. On that fateful day in history, Beverley was halfway across the North Atlantic on a flight from Paris to Dallas when she received word that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre in New York City.

"Like a lot of people, we thought it was a light airplane – it never entered our minds that it would be an airliner," she says. "It was about 20 minutes later when we heard the second tower had been hit, and with that came the word 'terrorism'. So things became very different in our cockpit."

With all US airspace suddenly closed, Captain Bass was forced to divert – not to a major city, but to an insignificant outpost called Gander, in the eastern Canadian state of Newfoundland. Bass' aircraft was the 36th of 38 planes to land on Gander's tiny runway; and suddenly, a town of just 9400 people was inundated with 7000 distressed foreigners.

The events of the next few days, and how the people of a small town opened up their homes and hearts to strangers in need, has now become the subject of a Broadway musical, Come from Away. Premiering in Melbourne in July, the multi-award-winning musical combines 16,000 stories – including Beverley's – in what has been described as a "celebration of the best of humankind".

For Captain Bass, the hospitality and unconditional generosity of the people of Gander is a symbol of all that is good in the world. "This is a town with just 500 motel – not hotel, mind, motel – rooms. People were put everywhere," she says. "They closed their schools for five days, people slept on fire station floors, they were in churches. Some homes took in as many as 10 passengers, and none of them spoke the same language.

"Basically, the town of Gander and the surrounding areas put their lives on hold for five days because all they did was take care of us. Every passenger got three hot meals a day for five days. They served 285,000 meals to the passengers and volunteers during that time.

"The people of Gander to this day don't think they did anything out of the ordinary. They think it is almost odd that we are so enamoured with what they did for us. All that mattered to them was a thank you."

It was not until the 10th anniversary of 9/11 – when Beverley was invited back to Gander to commemorate the occasion – that she realised a musical was in the works. Come from Away, written by Tony and Grammy-award nominees Irene Sankoff and David Hein, first opened in La Jolla, California, in 2015, and went on to take Broadway by storm, an unexpected hit labelled by the New York Times as "a big bear-hug of a musical" and "a Canadian embrace on a grim day". The Melbourne production will be its first incarnation outside of North America, with seasons in Dublin and London's West End to follow.

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Seeing herself come to life on a stage was a mindblowing experience for Beverley Bass. "The song, Me and the Sky – oh boy, it chronicles my whole aviation life, and I had no idea it was in the show!" she tells me, with great emotion in her voice. "So the first time I saw the show, my head was buried in my hands, and I missed about 70 per cent of it! So that's why I've had to see it 101 times, so I could catch up for the loss of that first show."

And she hopes to make that 102, when she sees the Melbourne production.

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Come from Away is currently playing Broadway in New York City. Tickets available from broadwayinbound.com

Come from Away will open at Melbourne's revamped Comedy Theatre in July 2019. See comefromaway.com.au

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