Mrs Harris and 12 other people portrayed in the musical are enjoying an all-expenses paid trip to Victoria, including seeing koalas at the zoo and the Great Ocean Road.
‘‘I’d be lying if I said I was not enjoying the places I’m seeing and people we’re meeting,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s been absolutely fantastic.’’
Come from Away tells the story of how locals in Gander fed and housed 6700 strangers – ‘‘the plane people’’ – from 38 aircraft when they were grounded there for five days after the 9/11 terror attacks.
On the 10th anniversary in 2011, Mrs Harris was among locals the musical’s writers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, interviewed in Gander.
‘‘We were thinking this was going to be, like, a high school or college type musical, and it was, ‘good luck to ya, hope you do well’,” Mrs Harris said.
‘‘We didn’t think it would go this far.’’
Out of thousands, Mrs Harris’s story was one of just a handful chosen to go in the musical.
In 2001 she was manager of Gander’s SPCA shelter and was told there were no animals in the grounded planes’ holds.
But her husband Doug, who worked at Gander airport, didn’t believe it.
Manifests they obtained showed there were 12 dogs, five cats and a pair of endangered bonobo apes.
Mrs Harris and two colleagues entered often cramped holds of 12 planes, sometimes moving luggage, to retrieve pets, from an anxious rottweiler to an epileptic cat.
They fed and walked them for five days in an airport cargo area until the jets took off again.
Kellie Rode, who plays Mrs Harris in the Melbourne production, says Mrs Harris is ‘‘a truly selfless superhero. She’s not someone who seeks attention or thanks, or reward, for the good that she does”.
“She is an inherently good person, with a giant heart. Which is a delight to play. She’s inspirational as a human.’’
But Mrs Harris gets embarrassed at such talk. ‘‘I have a love for animals and these animals needed somebody to take care of them,’’ she said.
The scale of the musical’s success didn’t hit until, just before it opened on Broadway, the cast came to Gander and performed a concert version in the ice hockey arena, that had acted as the food fridge in 2001.
Mrs Harris was apprehensive how locals, for example their distinct accent, would be portrayed.
Instead, she was ‘‘completely blown away’’ by the emotional stories, such as an American passenger whose firefighter son was missing at 9/11 ground zero. There were lighthearted bits such as detailing the local dish of ‘‘cod au gratin’’ – fish and cheese – and an initiation rite called ‘‘Screech In’’ for newcomers to town, involving kissing a fish and skolling rum.
She loves what the musical has to say. ‘‘It’s just kindness. Everybody can do this. If you’ve got somebody who’s in need of something and you’re able to help, help them. Just be kind.’’
A charity preview will be held on Wednesday night in which $40 from every ticket will go to Guide Dogs Victoria.
Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.