Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Premieres Broadway’s “Come From Away”
Starting Tuesday night and running through Sunday, award-winning Broadway is coming to the Van Wezel in Sarasota! The true story of Newfoundland, Canada and the 38 planes landing there on September 11th, 2001, will be telling the story via the stage. The show has won various awards including the Tony! One of our area residents, Eileen Cantarella, was one of the 7,000 people who was stranded in Newfoundland, Canada. She talked to the Suncoast Post about her unique, amazing experience.
SP: First of all, tell me where were you going on 9/11/2001?
EC: We were living in the UK at the time in London and my husband was already in Phoenix AZ, we were on our way to a wedding in Santa Barbara CA. We lived in Europe for so long we didn’t really know America very well even though we’re both American born. We said fine we’ll meet in Las Vegas watch a show or two and then we’ll drive to Santa Barbara for the wedding. I’m on a plane from London to Chicago then onto Vegas and about four hours into the flight I notice that the screen where it shows the route of the aircraft, well it wasn’t saying Chicago anymore. It was saying Gander Newfoundland. Shortly after that the pilot gets on the plane loudspeaker and he says there’s been an incident and U.S. airspace has been closed.
Now you hear something like that you think is it a joke is or is it for real. When you hear something like that it’s extremely difficult to process that information, so people were very quiet they were unquestioning I think they were shell shocked into thinking that something like that could happen in America. Ultimately, they landed the plane maybe an hour later in Gander. There’s a huge airfield there and all of the planes that were in the air were told to land at Gander because it had a huge airfield. There were 38 planes and we were the 37th of 38 planes to land and when we landed, we stayed on the plane. I want to say it was a total of about 24 hours from the time we got on the plane until the time we deplaned. It wasn’t until the next morning that we actually are able to get off the plane. We had very little food they gave us something like a candy bar each and some water but there was there was literally no food on the plane because they weren’t expecting to have to feed us second meal. There was no place left in Gander, all the hotels were full and all the other facilities were full and they took us to a Salvation Army center in this little town called Gambo Bay. We were shown into the sanctuary where they had pews because it’s sort of a church like atmosphere. Pick your pew and they had pillows and quilts and sheets for us. We were not allowed to take any luggage from the flight so everything was on the plane and passengers who had medication that they needed to take couldn’t access it so the next morning when they asked for volunteers. I said I would help the people who needed medication, we would try to find out what they needed and I helped the pharmacist to organize the prescriptions to be delivered to the passengers.
We spent the days in this very large room they had long tables with seats there were no comfy chairs there was no place to go there was nothing to do, the first two days. The weather was nice so you could go for a walk or a school bus came and took some people on a shopping trip but after that there was there was really nothing to do. We were very fortunate that we had a singer entertainer on our flight whose name was Julian Dawson and he would sing to us twice a day once in the late afternoon and then once in the evening after supper. I think you’re trying to take in what happened and trying to get in touch with family. We as a plane of 198 people were able to set up a website, Gander organized telephones so that people could call their families and let them know that they were alright. The people in Gambo Bay came to the Salvation Army center and invited some of the elder people to their homes to make them more comfortable. I think it was difficult not knowing exactly what our future was going to be because we had no information. The pilots went to a different destination. After about three days our pilot came to speak to us and basically said we don’t know when we’re leaving. It was a United flight that I was on and as you know two of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center were United flights. I will say that the people of Gander had absolutely no idea that there would be 7000 people, they doubled their population overnight with these 38 planes and they took it in their stride. They welcomed us, they fed us, they gave us underpants.
People didn’t have anything; we had no luggage so you couldn’t change your clothing for five days. There were 198 people and five bathrooms. When I say bathrooms, I mean five toilet stall toilets in one room so there were no showers or anything like that. Some of the Islanders invited us into their homes for showers which was really sweet. They took us on a little sightseeing tour until the weather changed. People formed a small community and we were dedicated to helping each other comforting, each other giving each other, moral support was needed because you couldn’t talk to your family all the time. I didn’t know anybody else on the flight but you found people that you had something in common with. It’s not a comfortable situation but we were all in the same boat and so you make the best of the worst situation. I think we were very lucky that we weren’t on one of those planes that went into the tower, so you spent some time reflecting on that being thankful.
SP: Once you got there you found out everything about what had happened on 9/11?
EC: Yes well, we were still sitting on the plane, they never divulged a great deal of information I think they wanted to handle this very quietly so that the passengers wouldn’t become considerably upset. The pilot allowed us to listen to the Canadian Broadcasting Company and we listened for hours finding out what actually had taken place in New York. That’s what we did while we were on the on the plane.
SP: How long did you end up staying in Gambo Bay?
EC: We were there for five days roughly and they were long days. They would let us know that we have a departure time and it’s going to be at 10:00 o’clock tonight we need to get back on the buses early before departure and asking us to please come back to the Salvation Army center and they say why we’re perfectly comfortable her. Why do we have to come back and well we’re gonna go back home and people would say we’re good here. It was a very odd scenario people suspended their reality and engaged in this one with the people of Gamble Bay. It was astonishing to hear people say well I really don’t want to come back. We couldn’t leave until there was the full manifest of passengers and then go rather than go back to our original destination, I went back from Chicago to New York, United gave me a first-class ticket and put me on the other side of the aircraft. When the plane flew over New York lower Manhattan you could see this smoldering heap of twisted metal. It was just terrifying and it just broke your heart to think of all the poor people that died. It was horrendous.
SP: Did you meet anyone that you keep in touch with?
EC: I did I think as time goes by, we communicate less but there were several people on the flight with whom I became friends and when we were living in London, we would see each other maybe once a year or once every two years and we would exchange emails. There was a girl whose name is Deb was from Indiana and she was a vice president for Rolls Royce engines who is the one who’s phone I used to alert my family. She used to come over regularly choose the Rolls Royce plant and we would see each other, go out to a restaurant. You know you form these very close relationships as if you’ve been friends forever because you need somebody to hug you or you need somebody to put their arm around you and just say things are OK.
SP: Have you seen the “Come From Away” Broadway show?
EC: I have seen it. When I turned 75, I didn’t know we were going. it was a surprise, we went to brunch in a lovely restaurant in NYC and then my son said to us we have a surprise for you, he and his wife and his son. I said what surprise? He said you’re going to see “Come From Away”. I cried the first time I saw it and then I was able to see it again. We’ve been invited on Tuesday night to Van Wezel. The music is wonderful. First of all, I have to preface it by saying all the events and the information that they give you is absolutely correct. I can’t fault them at all they told everybody’s story by selecting these actors and they play several roles, switching from passengers on the plane to Gander airport, there’s the mayor and there’s the union person and there’s all sorts of different people from school teacher policeman so they go back and forth. It is extremely well done and 90 minutes is all you need. The music is uplifting, the story is very well told and you walk out and think yourself that from such tragedy, they’ve made a feel-good musical about a community of people that came from away. When they say come from away, they’re talking about people who are not from New Foundland so they call it from away.
SP: How did Van Wezel or the play find out about you?
EC: Good question! We have this large group of friends here and found out that the play was coming two years ago and when I saw that it was coming, I shared my story that nobody knew. I bought 35 tickets for everybody that wanted to come and see it and then the pandemic came and it was canceled. Ellen Dyer, who’s the head of tickets called me up and she said there’s not going to be a play, the New York cast is not coming because of the pandemic, so they canceled it the first year, and then they canceled it last year as well. We said you know if it comes back, we definitely want to go and see it. Ellen rang me up one day and she said do I remember correctly; didn’t you have something to do with 9/11? She put me in touch with two gals from Van Wezel and they organized a number of interviews for me to do based on my experience.
Since all of this happened, you’ve moved to Bradenton?
EC: We moved to University Park, we bought a house here five years ago and then in November 2018 we made this our home. My sister lived on Longboat Key and we came here and looked around. We moved back to America and this is so ironic, we found out that maybe a mile from our house is Emma E. Booker Elementary school where George Bush was told what had happened on 9/11 and not only that but just a little bit further down the road is the flying school where the terrorists took flying lessons. We came and found a house and here we are and we love it! Initially we would go back and forth between the UK and the US but three years ago I said enough. We love it. We love our neighbors. I think Sarasota is brilliant!
Photos from Facebook & Van Wezel Performing Arts Center