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‘I honestly can't think of a better story to tell’: A 9/11 tale of compassion comes to Utah's Eccles Theater

SALT LAKE CITY — Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001? Those alive and old enough to understand can usually answer that question in detail.

Stéphane Lessard,consul general of Canada based in Denver, is no exception.

While working in one of his first government positions in Canada, he was part of a group touring an aerospace company when someone rushed in with a printout from CNN’s website showing the Twin Towers engulfed in flames and smoke.

The room — full of Canadians — immediately fell numb and silent.

“I remember how I and my colleagues and my friends felt, and the truth is we felt angry and hurt because you guys (the United States) were hurt and angry. You had been attacked, and it hurt us too because we're family,” Lessard said in an interview with the Deseret News.

According to Lessard, the relationship between Canada and the United States forged over more than two centuries goes much deeper than simply a common border and shared economic and governmental interests. To Lessard, it’s personal, and it’s that personal relationship that he believes is at the heart of the Tony Award-winning musical “Come From Away,” which makes a stop at the Eccles Theater Nov. 6-11 and tells the story of how one Canadian town reacted with immense kindness on 9/11.

“Our past is tied together, our present linked together and our future is bound together, and it's those realities that I think this play gives us an opportunity to focus on,” said Lessard, adding this is why he has invited Gov. Gary Herbert, Rep. Rob Bishop and other government officials to see “Come From Away” and attend a reception on Nov. 8 while he’s in town for the Utah Global Forum.

The story

Kevin Tuerff likewise will never forget where he heard the news about the terrorist attacks on 9/11: He was in a plane flying over the North Atlantic Ocean from Paris to New York City.

“All of a sudden our plane just dropped elevation and banked sharply to the right, and I looked up at the screen on the GPS map and it looked like we were flying to the North Pole,” Tuerff said in an interview.

Shortly thereafter the pilot announced that because of a major terrorist attack on the United States, the plane would be redirected to Gander, Newfoundland, a town with approximately 10,000 residents at the time.

Tuerff’s plane was one of 38 that landed in Gander carrying approximately 6,600 passengers and crew members. They stayed on the runway inside the planes for several hours before being allowed to disembark.

The touring company of the musical "Come From Away," which will be at the Eccles Theater Nov. 6-11.
The touring company of the musical "Come From Away," which will be at the Eccles Theater Nov. 6-11.
Matthew Murphy

“When they finally let us get off and to go through security was when we witnessed the amazing amount of compassion that this small town had,” Tuerff said. “They had been working all day to prepare to invite these strangers from 90 countries into their town, into their schools and churches and their homes.”

The citizens of Gander had banded together to provide food and shelter for the thousands of stranded people, which Tuerff emphasized was quite the feat considering the ratio of local population to passengers — it would be the equivalent to 6 million people showing up suddenly joining New York City’s population of 8 million.

“They were providing for me something that I'd only read about in the Bible: ‘I was a stranger and ye welcomed me,’” Tuerff said.

The stranded passengers stayed in Gander for several days after 9/11 before planes were cleared to depart, and from those days came countless instances of kindness shown by the citizens of the small Canadian island town. Those stories — including Tuerff’s — served as the inspiration for the musical “Come From Away.” Tuerff later wrote about his experience in his book “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11."

To the stage

Canadian husband-and-wife writing team David Hein and Irene Sankoff conducted interviews with passengers and residents of Gander, gathering thousands of stories that they distilled into a 100-minute musical using 12 actors. It’s a showNew York Times theater critic Ben Brantley said “even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.”

“As an actor, I've been in many shows — some of them are good and some are not so good — and I'll just say that this one, it's unique in its power to bring people together and spread hope about a subject matter that brings up such ideas of tragedy,” said Andrew Samonsky, who plays Kevin T. — the character based on Tuerff — in the musical’s touring cast.

The show’s power to bring people together is one of the reasons Lessard appreciates the musical’s story and looks forward to seeing it himself. He said as the United States and Canada’s relationship has been tested in the last year’s political climate, the show is a reminder of the longstanding ties between the two nations.

“It’s possible that people will read a tweet here or news headline there and get the impression that this relationship is perhaps transient and only built on economics and, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We built this continent together … and I would say that this (musical) really shows that our peoples are family.”

And in Samonsky’s eyes, a story of unity is exactly what the world needs.

“(After seeing the show on Broadway for the first time), I was laughing, I was crying and the show ended and I thought, 'My goodness, that is why we do theater' — to affect people in this way, and spread love and kindness and acceptance and send a message like that out into the world,” he said. “… I honestly can't think of a better story to tell than this one right now."

If you go …

What: The national tour of “Come From Away”

When: Nov. 6-11, times vary

Where: Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City

How much: $35-$150

Phone: 801-355-2787