West End musical tells story of Briton who fell in love with an American during 9/11 atrocity

West End musical tells story of Briton who fell in love with an American during 9/11 atrocity

Most big blockbuster disaster movies have a romance running alongside the impending doom. Even when the world seems to be ending, and terror and trage

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Most big blockbuster disaster movies have a romance running alongside the impending doom. Even when the world seems to be ending, and terror and tragedy are everywhere, romance will blossom.

And however dire the conditions, it won’t stop the heroine starting every day with a full face of make-up.

It’s not real life, though, is it? Well, sometimes, it is.

Nick and Diane Marson actually did wonder if the world was ending on the day they met. Little wonder that after the first flurry of attraction, and after they went their separate ways, they both questioned how ‘real’ their romance had been.

‘Emotions were so heightened. Everything was so surreal that afterwards, when we were thinking: “Could we make a go of this?”, there was a doubt there. You are thinking: “What if the person I met, in those exceptional circumstances, isn’t the real person?” ’ admits Nick.

They both liken their courtship to a holiday romance, ‘but with an awful backdrop’.

Nick and Diane Marson, are the couple who met and married when their plane was stranded in Newfoundland during 9/11. Their story has inspired the West End romantic musical Come From Away (pictured) at the Phoenix Theatre in London

Nick and Diane Marson, are the couple who met and married when their plane was stranded in Newfoundland during 9/11. Their story has inspired the West End romantic musical Come From Away (pictured) at the Phoenix Theatre in London

Nick and Diane Marson, are the couple who met and married when their plane was stranded in Newfoundland during 9/11. Their story has inspired the West End romantic musical Come From Away (pictured) at the Phoenix Theatre in London

That awful backdrop was the events of September 11, 2001 when the pair, both complete strangers, stepped on the same plane at Gatwick, heading for Houston, Texas.

Nick, an oil executive from the Cotswolds, was on business. Diane, a buyer for a department store in Texas, was heading home after visiting her son and his family in England.

Nick was 53; Diane had just turned 60. Both were divorcees and neither was looking for romance. They weren’t even sitting near each other on the Continental Airways flight. Nick was at the back and Diane was up front.

Four hours into the flight, the captain announced that there was a problem. Due to ‘issues’ with American air space, the flight would not be continuing to Texas, but would be going to Newfoundland instead. Cue lots of tutting and muttered cursing, as plans were scuppered and inconveniences piled up. ‘I had a vague idea where Newfoundland was,’ admits Nick. ‘But I had to check on a map.’

Looking back, however, both remember a distinct change of atmosphere on the plane as it headed away from American airspace.

Nick, an oil executive from the Cotswolds, was on business when he met Diane, a buyer for a department store in Texas, who was heading home after visiting her son and his family in England

Nick, an oil executive from the Cotswolds, was on business when he met Diane, a buyer for a department store in Texas, who was heading home after visiting her son and his family in England

Nick, an oil executive from the Cotswolds, was on business when he met Diane, a buyer for a department store in Texas, who was heading home after visiting her son and his family in England

‘I remember one flight attendant looking so nervous that I questioned whether she had the right temperament for the job. I realised after that that she was walking up and down the plane looking for suspicious characters, thinking we could be next,’ says Nick.

Diane was oblivious. ‘I was thinking it was probably a computer glitch that had brought the system down,’ she says

Nick and Diane, like everyone else on the plane, were clueless as to the events that were folding in the States. Four passenger airliners had been hijacked by terrorists, two of which were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. The terrible events of that day were to leave 2,996 people dead, and 6,000 injured.

They were also to maroon 7,000 passengers — including Nick and Diane — on Newfoundland, an island off the coast of Canada, as American airspace was cleared.

The town of Gander, where they landed, has a population of just 10,000. Nick remembers landing at the town’s airport, and being greeted by a remarkable sight: 38 jumbo jets, all lined up ‘like sardines’.

Despite being woefully ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of visitors, disembarking their planes with only their hand luggage, the locals coped.

The mayor of Gander declared a state of emergency and local residents swung into action. They opened their schools, bars, even homes to the newcomers, providing them with everything from toothbrushes to mobile phones. They also collected every barbecue in the town for a mass hospitality evening.

They arranged get-togethers, sing-alongs even, in the local bars. It was, everyone would agree, the perfect conditions for a romantic drama.

For five days, Nick and Diane were plunged into this bizarre alternative existence. It wasn’t hell on earth by any means. ‘That made it difficult to cope with in some ways, after,’ says Nick. ‘It was actually enjoyable, which is hard when you remember why we were there.’

Nick and Diane hadn’t met on the flight. They first exchanged words in a queue for bedding, with Nick’s opening gambit to the woman who would become his wife being about the pungent smell of mothballs. Hardly textbook romance.

They then ended up sleeping next to each other in army-issue cot beds. They laugh when they recall how Diane always insisted on wearing a full face of make-up, despite everything, just like the heroine in a disaster movie.

‘I had my make-up bag with me, and every day I’d get up early, before Nick was awake, and put it on. I wore the same clothes for four days — I only had the clothes I stood up in — but the make-up was my way of staying normal, I guess; of holding onto the normal.’

Over the course of the next five days, as the scale of the atrocity became clear, they clung together — sometimes literally, for instance when TV screens were erected so news could be broken to the visitors about what was unfolding at Ground Zero — to the point where locals assumed that they were man and wife.

When the mayor discovered that they weren’t, he offered to marry them. Diane said: “Why not?” Nick was a bit surprised by this jokey aside, ‘but in a good way’, he says.

They passed the time, playing silly games organised by the locals and going for long, contemplative walks. The mood was part-mourning (one woman spent the time waiting for news about her son, who was a firefighter in New York), part-party.

When the planes that had been grounded that day finally took off, that could have been the end of the story. Yet the pair kept in touch via email and telephone. Their ‘end of the world’ romance became more rounded, more real. By October, Nick had told his bosses in London that he needed to return to the States to check on his ‘project’. He points theatrically to Diane.

When the planes that had been grounded that day finally took off, that could have been the end of their love story. But they kept in touch via email and telephone. Their romance became more rounded and by October Nick had told his bosses in London that he needed to return to the States to check on his ‘project'. He proposed and prepared to move across the Atlantic

When the planes that had been grounded that day finally took off, that could have been the end of their love story. But they kept in touch via email and telephone. Their romance became more rounded and by October Nick had told his bosses in London that he needed to return to the States to check on his ‘project'. He proposed and prepared to move across the Atlantic

When the planes that had been grounded that day finally took off, that could have been the end of their love story. But they kept in touch via email and telephone. Their romance became more rounded and by October Nick had told his bosses in London that he needed to return to the States to check on his ‘project’. He proposed and prepared to move across the Atlantic

‘My colleagues didn’t know at first, but as time went on I think they suspected.’ He proposed, and prepared to move across the Atlantic.

Diane sold her small house — the one she had reckoned was just fine for a single divorcee with no plans to remarry — and bought a bigger one.

‘I hadn’t told my children at first, not until I knew it was serious. But when Nick came over to visit, they met him.’ Nick nods. ‘They had to vet me.’ He clearly passed the test.

On September 7, almost a year after the awful events of that day, Nick and Diane married. And for their honeymoon, they returned to Gander where the locals would throw them the party to end all parties.

And now 17 years on, the happy couple are still canoodling on the sofa. It’s the most heart-warming of tales, and one which is now being told on stages all over the world.

No blockbuster movie this time, but their story — fleetingly told in a documentary — touched a couple of drama students some years back. The pair, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, then wrote a musical based on those five days in Gander.

The news simply baffled Nick and Diane. ‘To be honest, I thought: “Well, good luck with that,” ’ says Nick. ‘It didn’t seem musical material to us at all. And it was a college project. It never occurred to us that anything would become of it. In fact, I remember thinking they’d be on welfare the next year.’

Well, no. Come From Away opened in Canada in 2013, and by 2017 it was a Broadway show, playing to packed audiences and receiving rave reviews. The show opened in London’s West End two weeks ago, with Nick and Diane in the audience. There have been standing ovations every night.

It’s a stunning show, utterly life-affirming, somehow. Why do they think it has touched so many?

‘Because while 9/11 was about the worst of humanity; what happened in Gander over those five days was about the best of humanity. Those people opened their town and their hearts to us. It’s a story of human kindness.’

There was not a happy ending for everyone that day. The lady who spent the five days fretting about her son discovered, when she returned to New York, that he had perished when the twin towers came down.

Nick sat next to her at one performance. ‘I just reached over and put my hand on her arm. It was incredibly emotional for everyone.’

Today, their account of their extraordinary courtship is by turns moving and hilarious. ‘It’s hard to explain, but in that environment, when you really don’t know if you are on the brink of another world war or if you are even going to be here tomorrow, you skip the surface chat,’ says Nick. To Diane’s great surprise, she found it easier than expected to let her hair down.

‘There was an odd freedom in being in that environment,’ she says. ‘We all have our set roles in life — mother, grandmother, whatever — and we play them. But I wasn’t a grandmother there. There were no roles.’

There’s a foot-stomping riot of a scene in the show where the visitors party hard with the locals, and throw themselves into local rituals involving rum and kissing a cod (yes, really). They were made honorary locals by this ‘screeching-in’ ceremony. Did they realise at the time they were on the verge of something life-changing, in terms of their relationship?

‘I think I did,’ says Nick. ‘I knew there was something special about this lady. I couldn’t stop looking at her.’

During one outing to Dover Fault, a beauty spot, Nick took his camera, supposedly to get some landscape shots. He found himself going out of his way to get pictures not of the scenery but of Diane.

‘I thought: “I don’t know if I will ever see her again. I want to remember how she looked.” ’

Neither truly thought they could be a proper item, but on a rickety bus journey back to the airport, something changed. Diane was emotional; Nick leaned in to comfort her. He insists he was not going in for a kiss. ‘Well, I was, but I was going to kiss her forehead.’

Diane laughs again. Whatever, their lips locked and that was it. They canoodled, they confirm, all the way back to the UK.

‘There’s a scene in the show where the stewardess is bringing towels for everyone and she goes: “Hot towels? Hot towels?” all the way down the plane. When she gets to us, she says: “Cold towels?” That’s exactly as it happened.’

Nick had suggested that they live in the UK, but Diane — who has three children and five grandchildren — insisted that the weather was better in Texas.

Their honeymoon on Gander was quite the event. ‘We told the people we were coming back and that we’d love to have a party, which we would pay for, but would they help us organise it? Yet, when we got there, they’d organised everything: food, flowers, a huge meal. They wouldn’t let us pay for a thing.’

They have been back many times to Newfoundland, and talk of their second ‘Newfie family’.

Each anniversary of the date they met is difficult, though. ‘We’ve had survivor’s guilt. It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with. We met because this awful thing happened,’ says Nick.’

They are a wonderful couple — unassuming, hilarious, a perfect match. Nick ribs his wife constantly about the age difference between them, but do they think they would have been together had they met in different circumstances?

‘No, I don’t,’ says Diane. ‘It was a unique situation: 3,000 people had died, and there was this sense of “that could have been us”. It focuses the mind.

I remember thinking: “How long do I have left? A year? Six years?” I hadn’t been looking for love, but in that situation you do think: “Maybe I want to be happy.” You want to grab … life.’

Come From Away is running at the Phoenix Theatre in London (comefromaway.com).

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