Meet the People Who Inspired the Characters of Come From Away
This post was written for the 2016 Ford’s Theatre pre-Broadway production of Come From Away.
The characters in the musical Come From Away are composite characters based on the experiences of real people and actual events of September 11 through September 15, 2001.
In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Come From Away creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff traveled to Gander and recorded hours of interviews with local citizens and “come from aways” (the name Newfoundlanders give visitors—including the stranded passengers).
Those interviews became the seeds of David and Irene’s stunning, critically-acclaimed musical. Read on to find out more about the real people who inspired the show.
Spoiler Alert! Although every attempt has been made to be as vague as possible, some plot points of the show are given away below!
Claude Elliott was elected mayor of Gander in 1996 and continues in that post today. Like he does in Come From Away, Mayor Elliott starts his days by going down to the Tim Horton’s in town to keep in touch with the townspeople—and he really was fighting with school bus drivers who came off the picket lines in order to help transport the thousands of passengers who arrived in town on 9/11. He was instrumental in orchestrating all the efforts across Gander and the rest of Newfoundland throughout the week.
Bonnie Harris was the manager of the animal shelter in Gander and had worked at the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for five years. Harris was the first to ask officials to look at the plane manifests to see how many animals were on board, and on September 12, she and two other women from the SPCA, Vi Tucker and Linda Humby, were the first to venture into the holds of the stranded planes to assist those animals.
It took the women 10 hours in cramped, unsanitary conditions to visit all the animals in all the planes—including one epileptic cat with a pill strapped to its crate and, yes, two rare Bonobo apes. Eventually officials were convinced to allow them to move the animals to the hangar where they could be cared for. Local veterinarian Doug “Doc” Tweedie, also helped care for the animals.
Luckily for the women, the two rare apes had a handler who tended them.
Beulah and Hannah
Beulah Cooper was the Treasurer of the ladies’ auxiliary for the Royal Canadian Legion in Gander on 9/11 and she served the “come from away” guests at the Legion hall when they arrived.
Hannah O’Rourke’s husband, Dennis, took Beulah up on her offer of a shower, but Hannah wouldn’t leave the phone in the Legion hall. Hannah and Dennis’s son, Kevin, was a fire fighter in Brooklyn—just across the bridge from Manhattan and the twin towers—and he was missing on 9/11. Hannah felt that if she stepped away from the phone, even for a minute, she might miss the call.
Just like in the musical Come From Away, Beulah did her best to comfort Hannah by telling her bad jokes. Beulah could empathize with Hannah , because her own son was a volunteer fire fighter in Gander. The two women formed a friendship that continues to this day.
In 2001, Oz Fudge was one of two town constables in Gander. While the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the so-called “Mounties”) handled major criminal investigations, Fudge handled community-oriented enforcement, including traffic tickets, public disorderliness and the like.
Throughout the week after September 11, Fudge responded to any and all needs of the passengers, just as he does in Come From Away.
Beverley Bass was the third female commercial airline pilot hired by American Airlines in 1976, and went on to become the very first female captain in 1986. Bass co-founded the International Society of Women Airline Pilots a few years after she was hired—which today has hundreds of members from all over the world—and served for 16 years as a Check Airman (the position on the flight team that performs the pre-flight checks). Bass retired in 2008, after a career that spanned 32 years.
And, as she says in the signature song, “Me and the Sky,” she really did get her start earning $5 per hour flying dead bodies for a mortician in Fort Worth, Texas. She was 21 years old at the time.
Nick and Diane
The chaos of September 11 in Gander gave two people with very different lives the chance to come together and find love. Just as happens in Come From Away, Nick and Diane were really on the same plane from London to Dallas. Diane was flying home to Dallas and Nick, an Englishman who worked in the oil industry, was traveling to Texas for business.
They and fellow passengers stayed at the Society of United Fishermen Hall in the small town of Gambo, about 30 miles outside of Gander. During the four days they were stuck in Newfoundland they became friends, went sightseeing around the island, and of course, participated in a “screech in” ceremony.
The gay couple who befriends Nick and Diane in Come From Away are also based on real people. Kevin Tuerff and his partner (also named Kevin) were traveling back to Texas, where Tuerff was CEO and co-founder of Enviromedia, an environmentally and socially conscious marketing firm.
Tuerff was so inspired by the compassion and kindness he experienced in Newfoundland that the following year on the anniversary—and every year since—he has sent his employees out onto the streets of Austin in pairs, armed with $100 and instructions to do good deeds for strangers. Today, that initiative has become the Pay-It-Forward 9/11 foundation, which encourages people everywhere to remember the generosity of the people of Newfoundland by doing three good deeds on September 11.
Heather Hoagland is former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @HLHoagland.