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9/11 20 Years Later: Tony Aiello's Real-Life 'Come From Away' Story

By Tony Aiello

In Gander, Newfoundland they call September 11 "the day the world came to town."

Hundreds of New Yorkers and thousands of others traveling by plane were diverted to Gander by the terror attacks.

It's a story told in the Broadway show "Come From Away."

It's a story I lived, firsthand.

Two decades later, the scene I saw through the window of a Continental DC10 remains etched in my mind.

Planes Landed In Gander, Newfoundland On 9/11/2001
(credit: CBS2)

Plane after plane on the Gander Airport tarmac. September 11, 2001.

My wife Liz and I were returning to New York from a ten-day vacation in Italy.  Our flight, Continental 45, was the 37th of the 38 to land in Gander.

It was about five hours into the flight when Capt. Nick Dobi spoke to us on the intercom.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want to assure you there is nothing wrong with our flight," Dobi said. "But there's a security situation of some kind in New York and we've been told to land in Gander.  When I have more information, I will share it with you."

Liz and I assumed it was a bomb scare or something similar, and perhaps the diversion to Gander was an overreaction.

As we circled the airport and saw plane after plane, we realized it was serious.

Tony and Liz Aiello in 2001.
(credit; Tony and Liz Aiello)

As soon as we landed, we fired up our cellphone.  It was a new digital phone, and it didn't work in Gander.

The woman seated in front of us had an analog phone.  The moment she powered it up it started ringing.

We heard her say "Honey, I'm fine.  Why are you crying? ... Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Oh my God!"

Liz and I couldn't help ourselves.

"What happened? What's wrong?" we asked.

"A terror attack in New York! The Twin Towers are gone!"

Moments later, Capt. Dobi came into the main cabin and confirmed the nightmare unfolding in New York.

Video shot by Alvise Tedesco, an Italian videographer on my flight, captured the captain's exact words.

"Two American Airlines flights were hijacked and crashed into the two World Trade Center buildings," Dobi told us. "They were destroyed.  Rubble.  Thousands are dead and wounded."

We were stunned and anxious, with no idea what to expect in Gander.

Complete Coverage9/11 Twenty Years Later

And as we spent long hours on the plane, I certainly never imagined that years later, the loving kindness, the open hearts and helping hands that shaped our time in Canada, would one day inspire a smash Broadway show.

"It would be wonderful if the world was like Newfoundland, and we didn't need to celebrate stories like this," said David Hein, "Come From Away" co-creator. "But right now, I think we still need to."

Hein and his wife Irene Sankoff lived in New York City on 9/11.  Hein's cousin managed to escape the South Tower before it collapsed.

They remember how the city and much of the world pulled together in the days after the attack.

"We wanted to capture that and put it out for whoever could see it," Sankoff told me.  "There was fear and there was anger, and there also was hope and a lot of community and a lot of looking out for one another."

It strikes me that at a time when every person of good will in the world wanted to "do something" to help people impacted by the terror attack, fate dropped 7,000 people into the laps of Newfoundlanders.  They were able to "do something."  And they were grateful.

"It's a story about taking care of one another," Hein said.  "It's this incredible instinct that humans have to want to help."

The long hours on the plane in the days before smartphones meant we could only imagine the terror visited on New York and elsewhere.

It was late in the afternoon on September 12 before the 150 passengers were allowed off our plane, and into the terminal.

Getting off the plane in Gander, Newfoundland
(credit: CBS2)

We searched for a TV and finally saw that awful video of the planes striking the towers.  The reality was worse than we had imagined.

By the time we deplaned, Gander was full.  No more room for stranded passengers.

Local bus drivers answered the call for help.  They came off of strike to take us where we needed to go.

"It needed to be done, and so it was done," said Petrina Bromley.  She's the only Newfoundland native in the Broadway "Come From Away" cast.

"Our province has a long history with shipwrecks and stranded travelers," Bromley told me.

"Tragedy washing up on our shore kind of thing.  So I'm hoping it's somewhere in our DNA to be there and be ready to help," Bromley said.

The buses took us to Philadelphia Pentecostal Tabernacle in Lewisporte.

Philadelphia Tabernacle Church In Newfoundland
(credit: CBS2)

The pews in the main hall were set up with donated pillows and blankets.

I ended up with a "My Little Pony" comforter donated by a young girl.

Across the street at Lewisporte Middle School, they cancelled classes so the passengers had a place to gather, to watch TV and use the internet.

The locals constantly checked on our every need.

Every time we tried to walk around the quiet harbor town, local people stopped to insist we ride with them.

"You're 'plane people?'  Hop in!"

We had our pick of donated clothing and toiletries.

They fed us well, three meals a day. A volunteer at the church even buttered our toast.

Donated food in Gander, Newfoundland
(credit: CBS2)

I remember one morning Pastor Russ Bartlett announced with a twinkle in his eye "you're going to enjoy breakfast today.  We made 'Newfie steak.'"

Newfie steak?  Sounded great.

We went into the cafeteria and were handed a plate of fried bologna, AKA "Newfie steak."

They were having a little fun at our expense.

"Everyone's on edge, they know how to turn up the dial a little bit to put you at ease," Sankoff told me.

We gathered to worship on Friday night, and we signed a "thank you" board to express our gratitude before we left on Saturday, September 15.

Twenty years later, it's the "Come From Away" song "Stop the World" that best sums up my time in Newfoundland.

The lyrics, in part: "Stop the world.  Take a picture.  Try to capture, to ensure this moment lasts... ."

My five days in Newfoundland.  Just a moment in my life.

A moment I think about often, with gratitude that is difficult to express.

"It's more of a universal story than we ever imagined. We all wanted to help, and we all felt helpless," Hein told me. "But the Newfoundlanders could do something, and they were so thankful for it."

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