Twenty Years after 9/11, a Longhorn Reflects on the Unexpected Detour—and the Subsequent Broadway show—that Altered His Life’s Trajectory

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff and his then-partner, also named Kevin, were on an Air France flight bound for New York City. The couple had just wrapped up a European vacation and they were eager to get home. A sudden drop in elevation over the Atlantic Ocean was the first sign that something was amiss. Then came an announcement from the cockpit. 

“Due to a terrorist attack, we will be landing in Gander.” 

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the closure of North American airspace forced hundreds of flights to be rerouted to Canada and its island provinces. Tuerff’s plane was one of 38 commercial flights destined for Gander, a small town on Newfoundland that was about to welcome more than 6,600 passengers and airline crew members. 

“On the GPS map displayed on the TV monitor, it looked like we were flying to the North Pole,” Tuerff, BS ’88, Life Member, says. “When the pilot made the announcement, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Soon, our 747 was sitting on the tarmac with dozens of other planes.” 

Years before international cell phone coverage was commonplace, the passengers had no way of easily contacting friends or family. They took turns trying to use the Airfones in first class, but calls wouldn’t go through. The flight attendants showed movies on the monitors and plied the passengers with vodka as they waited. 

At some point, the pilot shared devastating news: The Pentagon had been hit and the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. The passengers were stunned. Many, including Tuerff’s partner, expressed disbelief. After several hours, Tuerff attempted to call a friend in Amsterdam. His first question: Is it true?  

“He said, ‘Yes. It’s awful. I’m watching it right now on television. It’s true,’” Tuerff says. “I returned to my seat and told everyone within earshot that everything the pilot said was true. For a lot of people, that was really upsetting. A lot of people freaked out.”   

That scene is one of many true-life moments depicted in the 2017 musical Come From Away, which features the stories of the “plane people” stranded in Gander and the community that took them in. The show, a runaway success that earned a Tony award and six nominations and was named a New York Times Critics’ Pick, is set to return Broadway this fall after a hiatus due to COVID-19. Among the cast of characters? Kevin T. and Kevin J

“It’s completely surreal to see my story onstage,” Tuerff says. “All of these actors are younger singing and dancing versions of me. They tell me they’re honored to play the role because it’s quite rare to play a character who’s still alive.” 

Though some scenes are adapted for the stage, the musical retains the heart of Tuerff’s experience. After 15 hours on the Gander tarmac, he was allowed to deplane, without his luggage, and head to a temporary shelter set up at a local community college. 

“This town of 9,000 people, they took a risk,” Tuerff says. “There could have been terrorists on those 38 planes. There were passengers from 95 countries, from all backgrounds, and the residents of Gander welcomed us into their community, into their homes. People let strangers into their houses to take showers and I kept thinking, I don’t know if we would do this back home.” 

The people of Gander were galvanized into action. They began preparing meals in earnest. They filled prescriptions. They provided access to a room full of telephones, turning down reimbursement for the long-distance charges. The phone bill for Tuerff’s plane of 270 passengers alone totaled $13,000 during the four days they stayed in Gander. 

“These were incredible acts of kindness and compassion,” Tuerff says. “Our first night, around midnight, a teenage boy came into the college with two pillows and an inflatable air mattress. I got choked up as he handed one off to me. There wasn’t a stove in Gander that wasn’t cooking for all of us.” 

To Tuerff, the way the town of Gander rose to the occasion illustrates the difference between empathy and compassion. If they had wanted to show empathy, he says, they simply could have sent out some pizza boxes and water to the planes. “But they allowed us into their community and virtually everyone in the town was doing something to help out,” he says. “That’s my favorite definition of compassion, to engage in the suffering of others. It was a truly remarkable experience.” 

Amid a horrific tragedy, those four days in Gander restored Tuerff’s faith in humanity and motivated him to pay it forward. On the first anniversary of 9/11, Tuerff, then principal and cofounder of an environmental media company, closed down the office and handed out $100 bills to his staff. Their directive: to perform random acts of kindness for strangers in honor of the lives lost on 9/11 and spread the good news about their boss’s experience in Gander. 

“We’d be in the conference room sharing stories from the day and we’d have to break out the Kleenex because people were shedding tears of joy over simple stories about buying someone’s coffee, paying to fix someone’s flat tire, or picking up someone’s prescriptions,” Tuerff says. “It changed our staff for the better.” 

Tuerff, now director of communications for the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote a book about his time in Gander titled Channel of Peace. And the Come From Away production adopted his tradition of handing out $100 bills for the cast and crew to distribute in every city they perform. Now a nonprofit organization, Pay It Forward 9/11 set a goal for 20,000 good deeds for the 20th anniversary. 

“Compassion has the power to unite and heal,” Tuerff says. “My hope is that more people will pay it forward this year. It’s easy to have days where you feel like the world is crumbling. But that’s why we have to step back from the news, put down our phones, and look at each other. We must look up and gander at the humanity around us.” 

Credits (from top): Craig Sugden, Sloan Breeden Photography

 
 
 

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