Listen: Kevin Tuerff, whose story is told in the musical 'Come From Away' explains how his 9/11 experience inspired him to start a kindness movement that has spread around the world
All of us can remember where we were when we heard about the September 11 terrorist attack. But out of that terrible day has come a good news story that is spreading hope and kindness around the world.
Kevin Tuerff was one of thousands of airline passengers who were diverted to Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, where they received an overwhelming welcome by the small town.
The story has been brought to life on stage in the musical Come From Away. Kevin Teurff – known as the “Real Kevin T” – is one of those real-life “come from aways” depicted in the show.
On September 11, 2001, Kevin was flying back to Texas from Paris, via New York City.
“We were a couple of hours out from New York City, when there was a sudden drop in elevation and a sharp turn to the right,” Kevin said.
“I looked up at the GPS monitor and it looked like we were flying to the North Pole. Finally, the pilot came on the intercom and said, ‘Due to a terrorist attack, we’ll be landing in Gander.’ And I didn’t know if that was Iceland or Canada or where it was.”
“And so we were one of 38 jumbo jets that landed there in this tiny town. A town of 9000 people took in 5700 refugees from 90 different countries. And they gave us food, clothing and shelter. And it was amazing.”
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Listen: Hope listener Penny Wilson explains how they met the “Real Kevin T” and why her daughter, born on September 11, celebrates her birthday by paying it forward.
Kevin told how the people in Gander opened all their public buildings for the visitors to sleep in, how every house had a meal cooking for them and if they had a spare bed they would take the sheets off their bed and bring them down. Businesses even gave away free prescriptions.
In the days before international mobiles, the stranded passengers had no way to make contact with their loved ones.
“This school they turned on their computers and they turned over their phones and they said, ‘Just make a call to wherever you want to’ and they refused to take any money,” he said.
“Their phone bill was $13,000 for that one school alone for our one plane.”
When Kevin returned to Texas, he couldn’t forget the kindness of the people in Gander.
“And what happened was I came home to Texas and I said, ‘Would we do the same?’ Would you let people into your own home to take a shower? Because that’s what people were doing.”
At that time, Kevin was the CEO of marketing firm Enviromedia. To honour the kindness of the people in Gander, he founded a Pay-it-Forward 9/11 movement. On the first anniversary of September 11, he closed his business for the day and gave each of his employees a $100 bill to go out and spend on random acts of kindness in the community.
Today, Pay-it-Forward 9/11 has spread around the world, including to Sydney. Local school student Rebecca Wilson connected with Kevin’s story on a visit to New York.
Rebecca’s birthday is on September 11, and when she learned about the terrible events of that day, she made a commitment to spend each birthday paying it forward.
“For the last three years now, she’s been doing that in Sydney,” Kevin said.
When asked what it’s like to see someone playing himself on stage, Kevin laughed.
“Surreal is the only word for it. They’re all better looking, singing, dancing versions of me.”
Come From Away opens at the Capital Theatre in Sydney in June. You can read about Kevin’s story in his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 and listen to his full interview in the player above.