When Simon Robinson’s family booked a flight for Sept. 11, 2001 to visit him in Florida from their home in England, he was nothing but elated.
Simon and his wife Sarah — now both Las Vegas residents — highly anticipated their family’s visit, as the couple had only recently moved to America from their native England.
“We were still fishes out of water trying to make a new life in America, and we were looking forward to seeing our family,” Simon remembers.
That is, until they turned on the television on the morning of 9/11, and they knew this was not going to be a normal day.
They had no idea what had happened to their family members traveling that day, including Simon’s parents, sister and 82-year-old grandmother.
“No one knew what was going on. It was pandemonium,” Simon remembers. “There was no way to know if their plane had fallen out of the sky.”
Little did he know, his family’s plane was one of 38 aircrafts that had to be suddenly grounded on 9/11, when the Federal Aviation Agency closed the United States’ airspace after the terrorist attack.
All of these planes were diverted to the nearest airport on the continent — in the small town of Gander, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland.
There, in spite of daunting challenges to accommodate a sea of 7,000 stranded passengers, the entire town banded together to provide the shaken newcomers with accommodations, food and a sense of welcome.
This incredible true story is captured in the acclaimed Broadway musical “Come From Away,” coming to The Smith Center February 19 to 24.
A Day of Uncertainty
Simon wasn’t alone on 9/11 when desperate to find out what had become of his traveling family.
When he tried calling his family’s airline, Virgin Atlantic, the phone lines were tied up all day.
“I remember almost every minute of that day,” Simon says. “What people probably don’t think about is all of these planes were grounded, and many people assumed it was just American flights, but there were so many people from around the world who were flying to America. Many on their dream vacation of a lifetime”
He finally got through to an airline representative at 10 p.m.
He was surprised when he was directed to call The Salvation Army in Gander, Newfoundland. After leaving a message, he soon received a return call from his father, assuring that the family was being safely housed there.
“Once I knew my parents had landed and were safe, of course I was very relieved,” Simon says.
Grounded in Gander
His family has Gander to thank for that.
With their plane the third of 38 to land in the small town, they waited on the runway for several hours.
“They didn’t know what was going on,” Simon says.
When the passengers were allowed to disembark the plane, they were taken to Gander’s Salvation Army, where bunk beds and a dining hall had been prepared.
This had worried Simon, he recalls, as “my grandmother was old, and sleeping in some kind of Boy Scout bunk bed.”
An Unexpected Welcome
But the people of Gander saw to it that his family, and the thousands of other stranded passengers, were all taken care of.
Gander residents lined up their cars by The Salvation Army, each driving stranded passengers to the Newfoundlanders’ own homes to use their personal landlines to call friends and family.
“There weren’t enough phones at The Salvation Army. There was just one line,” Simon explains. “My mom just got in this lady’s car, who kindly drove her back to her house and let her call me back in Florida.”
That wasn’t all. Without enough space to house all the stranded passengers at The Salvation Army and local hotels, the residents of Gander also invited many passengers — many hailing from around the world — to stay in their own homes, where food and clothes were provided.
With still more passengers forced to camp at the airport, the people of Gander provided those individuals with home-cooked meals and beverages.
“They were so amazed at how nice the whole community was,” Simon says.
His family remained in Gander for three days, before their plane was able to refuel and take them home – making their plane the first to land in Manchester, England after the events of 9/11.
“Virgin Atlantic gave everybody their money back, to rebook and fly again,” Simon says. He notes, however: “That was the last time my grannie ever flew. She was too frightened to ever get on a plane again.”
True Events Brought on Stage
Simon only heard recently that a hit Broadway musical had been made about these inspiring days in Gander.
It’s fitting, as the performing arts are an innate part of his life. Simon is a piano technician, and his wife Sarah is Dean of Students at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.
They often see shows at The Smith Center – and “Come From Away” will certainly be one of them, Simon adds.
“I definitely want to see this, because it’s really intrigued me,” he says. “Obviously people are loving it, because it’s done very, very well. I was reading about its future opening in London and how it’s going to Australia and the U.S. tour now starting, and it’s pretty incredible.”
A Changed Perspective
The events from 9/11 and their family’s experience in Gander has changed Simon and his wife’s perspective on life.
They focus a little less on the future and material things, he says. Instead, they enjoy traveling the world, and focus on enjoying life experiences while they can.
“It really makes you realize that anything can happen at any time in this world, and within a blink of an eye everything can change” Simon explains. “We live each day more now. This tragic event pushed us to making sure we don’t wait to see the world and enjoy everyday of life. My family were the lucky ones that day. Many were not so lucky and lives were changed forever”.
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