Local Man Remembers His Own Come From Away Story
Next week, Jim Knubel will be traveling back in time to a place he knows well.
Thanks to the Broadway musical, COME FROM AWAY, the York, South Carolina resident is headed to Gander, Newfoundland to reconnect with old friends on stage and in the audience. The show comes to Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Belk Theater, March 7 - 12.
The musical recounts the actual events that led residents of a small Canadian town and surrounding areas to open their homes and hearts to people from across the world who were stranded there, due to the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
On that day, Knubel and his wife, Phyllis, were aboard one of the 38 planes diverted to Canada’s Northeastern coast. They were returning home from a dream vacation abroad and approaching New York’s JFK airport, when the airspace around New York City was abruptly closed and the pilot was instructed to land in Gander.
After 17 hours sitting on the runway, the Knubels spent four days immersed in the local community. The area’s population virtually doubled overnight as citizens welcomed nearly 7,000 stranded passengers from across the globe.
Phyllis Knubel shared the incredible story of the couple's adventures in an interview with Blumenthal Performing Arts back in 2019, ahead of the Charlotte premiere of Come From Away in January of 2020 (the couple was able to attend Opening Night!). Sadly, Phyllis passed away unexpectedly of a heart-related ailment in December 2020.
(Jim Knubel waving the Flag of Newfoundland during bows on Opening Night of the Charlotte premiere of Come From Away at Belk Theater in January 2020. He later gifted that flag to the touring company.)
Jim Knubel took some time recently to reminisce about their time in Gander, the friendships they made, and how these experiences changed his life.
He will be attending Opening Night of the return engagement of COME FROM AWAY, accompanied by two special guests: his fiancé, and his good friend Carole Findlay—who is flying in from Canada for the occasion.
Findlay, who lives in New Brunswick province, has never seen the musical before. She was also stranded in Gander on 9/11, and she helped change the Knubels’ lives with her kindness.
It was Findlay who found them.
She stopped by Lakewood Academy—one of the local schools that had been transformed into a makeshift refugee center for the thousands of “Plane People”—to see how she could help. A Red Cross Representative directed her to the couple, because Phyllis had a bad hip that made it difficult for her to get up and down from the gym floor.
Findlay invited them to come “home” with her so they could use the shower, wash their clothes, and get some rest.
Except it wasn’t actually her house.
Findlay was staying with her friends, Gordon and Allison Head. She and Gordon knew each from working part-time together as counselors at a nearby youth camp. The Heads were both at work when she brought back the Knubels but she was sure her friends wouldn’t mind.
(Gordon and Allison Head and Carole Findlay at Gander International Airport)
Uncertain times lead to strange encounters
It didn’t take long for them to get to know each other…
“Gee, why don’t you take off your clothes?” Knubel recalls Findlay saying.
Jim and Phyllis Knubel had been traveling for days in their same outfits by then and had nothing clean to change into since all of their luggage was stuck at the airport.
Findlay gave them each robes to change into and went into another room to start a load of laundry.
That’s when they met someone else.
“I’m sitting in Gordon’s living room in this pink bathrobe and this woman comes through the front door and she looks at me,” Knubel says, “and then she steps out and looks at the door to make sure she’s in the right house. And then she looks at me again and realizes that I’m wearing her bathrobe.”
That was Gordon’s sister, who lived in the downstairs apartment of the split level home.
How friendship and kindness changed him
From the very beginning, Knubel says he was amazed by two things the people of Gander offered. Their incredible organization at addressing the immediate needs of thousands of refugees and their remarkable hospitality.
“It was a very emotional event,” Knubel says. “It was traumatic… you can get really depressed when something that dark and evil and horrible happens. And It was Carole, Gordon and Allison—their generosity and what wonderful people they are—and what they did for us that helped me through the whole thing.
“People want to focus on the horror of the day, and we don’t ever want to forget that. But out of that, I was able to meet some great people and it helped me to be a better person, I think.”
After his experience, Knubel says he reconnected with his Episcopal faith and became more involved in his community. He’s now an elder at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in York and says he believes he has a better connection with God and other people, too.
(Phyllis and Jim Knubel with company members of Come From Away at the Opening Night Cast Party at Mert's Heart and Soul in January 2020)
“I’m not saying that’s all 9/11 but it kind of made me think we’re here for a purpose,” he says.
He has stayed in close contact with his Canadian friends. They have visited each other several times over the intervening years and always speak on the anniversary of 9/11. He also enjoys following their adventures on Facebook.
A lot has changed since they first met. Back in 2001, Gordon and Allison Head were not yet married. (Phyllis and Jim Knubel actually gave them a trip to New York as a special wedding present.) The Heads recently celebrated their 20th anniversary and they now have two children—one of whom will soon graduate high school.
(Photo from the group's second reunion trip in St. John, Newfoundland. Left to right -- David Rogers, Carol Findlay, Phyllis Knubel, Jim Knubel, Allison and Gordon Head)
Knubel hoped the Heads would also be able to come to Charlotte for the show but with work and school schedules, it wasn’t possible.
“I would love to see them,” Knubel says. He is thrilled Findlay will be able to come. It’s her first time visiting Charlotte.
About the production
Onstage, Knubel will also see some familiar faces. The characters in COME FROM AWAY are amalgams of real stories and actual people like pilot Beverly Bass, the first woman to become a captain for American Airlines, and Derm Flynn, former mayor of Appleton, one of the small towns near Gander.
Knubel met Flynn both in Canada and in New York City, when he came for a special event marking the anniversary of 9/11.
He also has Flynn’s autograph in one of his treasured items, a copy of the book, “The Day the World Came to Town,” by journalist Jim DeFede about the events that transpired in Gander.
Gordon ran around getting the book signed for the Knubels before he and Allison came to New York for their honeymoon, Knubel says. It’s signed by other officials, too, including the mayors of Gander and Glenwood, an ambassador and even the Canadian Prime Minister.
Knubel says the musical is faithful to the way things actually unfolded. “It’s a great show and it’s accurate,” he says. “Everything in that show happened.”
And its conception as a musical helps capture the emotion of the events, he says.
“I’m not sure you would’ve necessarily gotten that with another type of play.”
From school bus drivers coming off strike so they could help stranded passengers to the induction ceremony known as a “screech-in” or “kissing the cod,” where newcomers down a potent local alcohol and, well—kiss a fish—it’s all authentic.
“I was very fortunate in not being inducted in that, but it is true,” says Knubel, who has sampled the drink and says it tastes like a bitter rum.
There is one celebration that Knubel remembers well that you won’t see in the show, however. Right before they got word their flight was ready to take off, Gordon and Allison prepared a traditional Canadian Thanksgiving meal for their Come From Aways—complete with turkey, root vegetables and plenty of local moose.
Come From Away
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