Kevin Tuerff serves breakfast to 9-11 volunteers such as Nellie Moss during an event in Gander in 2011 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the town’s actions during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“The world changed today, for the worse. Our flight from Paris to New York missed an international terrorist disaster in New York and Washington (hijacked planes crashed into WTC and Pentagon). We’ve been sitting on our plane now for 12 hours (7 now on the ground). All we can do is wait patiently for news about the tragedy, for a place to try and talk to our families. We’ve been told we may have to sleep here overnight (on board). We are fortunate to be alive. Many on the plane cried when we heard the news. Everyone is shell-shocked. No one can imagine what is next regarding our national security. Who can we trust now? Will this heinous crime start a war? All I can do is pray. P.S. Just learned we will soon depart plane and perhaps spend night in a school here. At least 30 planes here waiting with stranded passengers aboard.”
— American Kevin Tuerff, writing on his in-flight menu aboard a grounded Air France plane at Gander airport, Sept. 11, 2001
Sixteen years ago, Kevin Tuerff spent about four days in Gander, where his life was changed by the kindness of the local people.
This weekend, Tuerff will be back in town. Among other things, he’ll serve a meal to Ganderites, instead of the other way around.
Tuerff was one of nearly 7,000 airline passengers stranded in Gander during the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He and his then-partner, also named Kevin, were on an Air France flight, on their way home to Texas from a European vacation, when the terrorist attacks on New York happened and U.S. air space was closed.
After 28 hours on the plane, both in the air and on the tarmac in Gander — a shocked and confusing time, Tuerff says, with only a few brief announcements from the pilot and a vague message about terrorism in the United States — the two Kevins were brought to the local College of the North Atlantic campus, were they spent three nights sleeping on the floor of the gym.
Someone drove Tuerff to Wal-Mart for new T-shirts and underwear; someone else gave him a ride to a fitness centre so he could get a shower.
“I had never been in a situation where I had to rely on someone else,” Tuerff says. “We were just amazed. It seemed like every single person was doing something to help. I think about the teenage boy who handed me two towels and an inflatable mattress and I get a lump in my throat. On that terrible day, something happened that restored our faith in humanity.”
Tuerff’s experience in Gander changed his life, he says. Back home in Texas on the first anniversary of 9-11, he gave each of the employees at his environmental marketing firm $100 and told them to use it to do kind deeds, then come back at the end of the day to discuss what they had done. He’s been doing that every year since, and founded an organization, Pay It Forward 9-11, to encourage others to do kind acts.
Tuerff, who now lives in New York, is portrayed by actor Chad Kimball in the Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
“It’s a surreal, crazy feeling. Also an honour,” he says of being a character in the Tony Award-winning show. “There were 6,500 stranded passengers, and hopefully their story is told through ours. It makes me so happy that the musical and, through it, Newfoundland, is getting the recognition it deserves.”
Having told the story of his experience in Gander many times over the years, Tuerff decided to write it down. Earlier this year, he published a book with his first-person account of the experience called “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9-11,” hoping it would further his message of the importance of spreading kindness. Tuerff is donating one-quarter of the profits from the book to the Gander Refugee Outreach organization.
“Last summer, I was meeting with the producers of ‘Come From Away,’ and I learned that in all the places the show had been, people were leaving afterwards and saying, ‘I didn’t know this. I wish I knew more.’ I thought, I have more,” Tuerff says.
Tuerff is starting his “Kindness to Strangers” tour in St. John’s tonight, with a reading at the A.C. Hunter Library in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre. He’ll give a presentation to the St. John’s East Rotary Club Friday morning before heading to Gander for a series of book readings, signings and talks over four days.
He’ll visit Lewisporte Aug. 9, Fogo Island Aug. 11, and Grates Cove Aug. 13 before returning to St. John’s for a musical event at The Lantern Aug. 14 and a reading at Chapters Aug. 15. A detailed schedule of Tuerff’s events is available on his website, www.channelofpeacebook.com.
Throughout the tour, Tuerff will give a presentation, “How Kindness Can Heal the Divide,” and will collect stories of kindness from Newfoundlanders for a video feature he plans to share with Americans.
“Our political climate has created a great amount of hatred, Islamophobia and racism,” Tuerff says. “Regardless of whatever political party we’re in, we should be able to relate around kindness. We can make a difference in other people’s lives with very simple acts. It could be the jump-start to the heart we need.”