Captain Beverley Bass recalls the morning of September 11, 2001, as being "a beautiful day over the North Atlantic." But the day's beauty and its cloudless blue skies were short-lived. With the news that the World Trade Center had been attacked, Bass was forced to steer her American Airlines flight off its course and into Gander, Newfoundland, a small Canadian town that shortly thereafter doubled in population with grounded passengers.
Bass's experiences are the centerpiece of Irene Sankoff and David Hein's Tony-nominated musical Come From Away. The show not only explores the kindness with which the townspeople of Gander treated their unexpected guests, but also tells the true story of Bass's historic career and how she became the first female pilot to be named captain by American Airlines.
Last spring, TheaterMania spoke to Bass, and she shared her memories of the fateful day that changed the course of the world as we know it.
What do you remember about being in the air on September 11?
It was such a beautiful day over the North Atlantic when we heard on our air-to-air frequency that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, then a second plane, and then the word terrorism. And then the U.S. airspace was closed. We were planning to divert to one of the larger cities in Canada — Toronto, Montreal — and then somebody came on and said, "You're gonna get your orders at 50 degrees west longitude." That was very unusual itself. We requested landing, but we didn't get orders to land.
How realistic is the story as it is presented in Come From Away? Is it true that you couldn't get off the plane and that no one knew what had actually happened?
I was 36th out of 38 planes to land in Gander. We landed at 10 o'clock in the morning on 9/11, and they said, "You will not be getting off the plane until tomorrow." We were on the airplane 28 hours in total. It wasn't anything we had ever trained for. We got through it minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
It was very calm in my airplane. We didn't know a whole lot. One of the scenes in the show that is so realistic is when they're all standing at the front of the stage looking up at the TVs and Kendra [Kassebaum], who plays the reporter, says, "I didn't even think that they hadn't seen any of this." That's really how it was. We went 30 hours before we saw anything on TV.
How did your involvement with Come From Away come about?
What I try to tell people is that I didn't do anything special to make this happen. There were 38 airplanes. Most of them had three pilots on board. That's over 100 pilots. But I was the only pilot who returned to Gander for the 10th anniversary, because I had always wanted to take my family there. I felt like it was important for them to know where I was. It was a part of history.
That's the only reason my story is captured in the show. I don't like to blow my own horn, but I'm comfortable enough saying this: It helped the story that I was a female pilot and American Airlines's first female captain. If I had just been one of the guys, it still would have been a story, but maybe not as good.
What was it like for you and your husband to watch the show the first time?
The first night was very difficult. Obviously, I cried through the whole show because I was blown away by how beautiful it was and how perfectly they had written it. It was so authentic. It brought back so many raw emotions, mostly for my husband. When Jenn Colella picks up the phone the first time and says, "Tom, I'm fine," it was very hard for him.
How do you feel watching Jenn Colella play you, and how does it feel to have your life and career immortalized as the song "Me and the Sky"?
What I love about watching Jenn play my role is that she acts exactly the way I act. She's just so in charge. That's how it had to be for me, being a female pilot on one of the biggest airplanes in the sky. You had to show them who the boss is or you cannot maintain people's respect. She portrays that perfectly in the show.
When she sings "Me and the Sky," I feel my heart starting to race a little bit. I'm amazed Jenn can do what she does. I could never be onstage. I can't sing, I can't dance. I'm so in awe of her personally, and to know that she is singing my life story, with regard to flying, in four minutes and 20 seconds, makes me so proud. If you read my interview with David and Irene, you can take paragraphs out of it verbatim and that's the exact song. I don't even know how they did that.
What does it mean to you and your husband to have your story embraced by the Broadway community in this way?
I can't say enough positive things about theater people. I'm so amazed at what they do, and we feel so grateful to be included in the theater life. We're from Texas; we know that we're a little different. Jenn is "mostly gay," she says, and she describes me as a Southern Republican, and I say, "How do you know I'm a Republican?" It makes me laugh so hard. But it doesn't matter. We adore each other so much. We know we're the outsiders, but it doesn't mean we don't adore these people. We totally do, and I'd love to think they feel the same way about us.
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