‘We did whatever we could for them’

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it’s a time to reflect on how all of our lives changed, to honour those who were lost, and to try to focus on the moments of beauty during a crisis.  Who better to talk to then than someone who was part of the historic events, in reality and in pop fiction? While in Newfoundland in August, I had the chance to speak to Beulah Cooper on whom one of the composite characters of the musical Come From Away was based.

Beulah Cooper was busy doing housework, and her husband was painting, when the phone rang in the morning on Sept., 11, 2001. Her son told her to turn on the television. When she asked what channel, he said: “It doesn’t matter.” As she watched the second hijacked airplane fly into the twin towers, she thought it was a movie: “It was unbelievable.” Soon the legion called and asked her to bring a tray of sandwiches, which she did, without asking what or whom for. She made a heaping tray of egg and ham and cheese sandwiches and headed to the legion.

Gander, Nfld., had 38 commercial planes and four military aircraft grounded there after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States where almost 3,000 people were killed. Close to 6,700 passengers and crew from around the world needed shelter and food for five days in Gander, before U.S. airspace was reopened. This happened across Canada, however it is truly notable in Gander because their population at the time was under 10,000. Gander rose to the challenge, opening its doors and hearts.

Come From Away is based on Gander, Nfld., immortalizing the small town’s willingness to do anything and everything they could for total strangers. The musical allowed me to reconnect to 9/11 positively, proud to be a Canadian.

Beulah’s tray of sandwiches and her friendship with Hannah O’Rourke are a major plotline in the musical Come From Away. “My heart went right to them, all those people from different countries, not knowing why their planes were grounded in a strange place they’d never heard tell of called Gander,” said Cooper.

While a composite character, Beulah in the musical, like the real life woman, did indeed have a son who was a firefighter. During 9/11, Aubrey Cooper was helping with one planeload of travellers at the fire hall. Beulah’s husband, Harold, was with another planeload at the Masonic Lodge. Beulah, who was awarded Canada’s Meritorious Service Medal for a lifetime of service to the legion, was at the legion with another planeload, including Hannah O’Rourke. (To not spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the musical, I won’t expand on that plotline.)

“We did whatever we could for them, ferrying people back and forth, having them use our showers, helping with food,” said Cooper. “It was amazing, stores just saying, ‘Take whatever you need.’”

Beulah lives alone now as Harold died in 2013, and her son, Aubrey, passed in 2017. Her house is full of photos of a life well-lived with her beautiful family, and with Come From Away memorabilia.

She’s seen the musical 25 times, travelling to Melbourne, London, Dublin, New York, Seattle, Toronto and Ottawa, for performances of Come From Away, and says she still laughs and tears up every time. Sometimes, like in Ottawa, she also “Screeches in” the cast, which makes the ritual’s recipients honorary Newfoundlanders. If you’re in Gander, Cooper can Screech you in at the legion.

Now 81, Beulah maintains friendships with several of the “plane people” who stayed with her at her house, or at the legion, and looks forward to their visits. “If he and she looks after each other, we’ll keep getting together,” Cooper said, pointing up to the sky. “I feel fine. I don’t know a day without pain or a day where I can’t wear a smile or tell a joke though.”

She’s packing up boxes of household items right now for her granddaughter in St. John’s. “You gotta help where you can, it does you good in here,” said Cooper, tapping her heart. “I do what I can, it just takes a bit longer now. It’s like my husband used to say, ‘You never miss what you give away.’”

Due to COVID, there won’t be a big memorial or commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in Gander, instead the town is planning for 20+1 service, in 2022. That said, the piece of the World Trade Centre gifted to Gander for its part in helping during the crisis, that was housed inside the town hall, has now been relocated outside, in time for this year’s actual anniversary. Beside it is one of the town’s many Come From Away signs that explains the history of Gander’s involvement, and the ties to the musical.

In November of 2019, we saw Come From Away for my daughter’s 16th birthday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto and it became the inspiration for our summer vacation to Newfoundland. My mom and stepfather joined us for the musical and our adventure to the Rock, visiting various sites around Gander that were highlighted in the musical including the legion, Town Hall, the Aviation Museum, and the Dover Fault.

If you’re looking to reconnect and remember 9/11, Come From Away reopens on Broadway on Sept. 21, and in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theater on Dec. 7. A filmed version of the Broadway musical premieres on Apple TV Plus on Sept. 10. It can be quite an emotional rollercoaster, and I recommend having tissues close at hand. A trip to Gander is also a great way to recognize good people who did great things, and to put money into a community that would give you the shirt off their backs, and did in 2001. Come From Away, Beulah, and the people of Gander, are a powerful reminder that we can all be more open and more kind, no matter what is going on in the rest of the world.

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