The theatre critic for The Chicago Tribune changed his mind about Come From Away. When he saw it on Broadway, his reaction was lukewarm. But when he saw a touring production in Chicago, he revised his opinion.
The essence of the story finally hit him: “In times of crisis, ordinary human beings pull together and are willing to share what they have with complete strangers.”
Fair enough. Good on him for acknowledging a different feeling about the show.
The essence of the story of Come From Away, and what happened in Gander, Nfld., on and around Sept. 11, 2001, has become profoundly resonant. (Moze Mossanen’s wonderful documentary You Are Here: A Come From Away Story, which you can watch on demand on CraveTV, opens in 800 theatre in the United States this week.) And rightly so.
9/11: Cleared for Chaos (Wednesday, Discovery Channel, 10 p.m.) adds another, vital piece to the story. The one-hour documentary special chronicles how the small team of air-traffic controllers at Gander airport handled the unexpected task of landing a vast number of planes. They had the lives of many thousands of people in their hands and they did it with aplomb. With ingenuity and calmness, these unsung heroes fulfilled the mission.
The program works terrifically, first establishing the confusion and fear on that morning. The very first voices we hear are the controllers in Gander: “America 49, you will be landing in Gander, now get your plane in line” and “You do not understand me, U.S. air space has been closed.” Then we get a short, vivid account of the attacks and decision to get every plane in North American air space on the ground.
It started as a quiet morning in Gander. Dwayne Puddister, who was working that morning, remembers, ruefully, the mood: ”There’s nothing going on.” Then they knew about the planes hitting the twin towers. And then the phone rang. Gander would be taking in as many planes as it could take, and directing others where to land. At that point, there were three people working there in air-traffic control. When Harold O’Rielly told the others what he’d been ordered to do, he says. ”They looked at me like I had two heads.”
There are short dramatic recreations – none of them in the slightest bit cheesy – of the staff in Gander having terse conversations with pilots. Some of the pilots wanted more information and were deeply skeptical. There was no time for debate. It was follow-my-instructions, and then get your plane down.
The program includes interviews with the remarkable pilot Beverly Bass – who is a central figure in Come From Away – who landed one of the largest planes that morning. She was already mildly famous as the first female pilot to be appointed captain by American Airlines. Bass remembers that her first impulse was to fly onward to Edmonton. Then, when ordered into Gander, the plane was too heavy to land and she had to organize a hair-raising fuel dump with the help of the air-traffic controllers.
The special also has commentary from a flight attendant working that morning on a plane forced to land in Gander, and with a passenger who was a police officer, who acknowledges he became suspicious of other passengers on the flight. The nerve-shredding impact of the morning of 9/11 is right there, in his memories.
But the program (written and directed by Gary Lang) mostly sticks to that one space at the airport where the air-traffic controllers – properly called Nav Canada’s Gander Area Control Centre – knew they were playing a crucial role in what was not only an unthinkable aviation emergency, but a world crisis. They couldn’t think about that. They just had to keep on working, focused entirely on landing planes, getting them parked and making people safe.
There’s a memorable scene at the end in which the controllers talk of realizing that after the final plane was parked in Gander, there wasn’t a single plane in the air over North America. It was a job done, but it was only then that they understood the scope of the situation.
In the years that have passed since Sept. 11, the narrative has become tangled to the point where personal reminiscence blends with almost feverish qualms about how the world changed after. Out of all that has come one strong thread, the one told in Come From Away: About how “ordinary human beings pull together” in a time of stunning crisis. This program adds to that thread and is another reminder of how Canadians reacted. In a way, that isn’t a tangled narrative at all.