On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff was returning from a Paris vacation with his then-partner, also Kevin, to their home in Austin, with a layover in New York. Their Air France flight was two hours from landing when a plane crashed into the first World Trade Center building. Then 17 minutes later a plane hit the second tower. Another 20 minutes later, all air space was closed.
Tuerff’s plane switched directions and the flight map on the screens in front of their seats showed they were headed to the North Pole. Really, his plane, and 37 other diverted flights, were headed to a small Canadian town in Newfoundland. Nearly 7,000 strangers descended on Gander, nearly doubling its 10,000 population.
After more than 28 hours on the plane, in-flight and then on the tarmac in Gander, Tuerff and his boyfriend spent three and a half days sleeping on the floor in a school, without any sense of when or how they’d get home. But the inconvenience, the discomfort, the fear is not what Tuerff remembers from those harrowing few days.
He remembers the teenage boy who handed him pillows and an air mattress from home. He remembers the townspeople cooking smorgasbords of food. He remembers the woman who drove him to a workout facility where he could have a shower and the other resident who drove him to a Wal-Mart to buy new underwear.
He remembers kindness.
A year later, Tuerff, the owner of an environmental company, felt compelled to do something that would honor the residents of Gander. So he closed his business on Sept. 11, 2002, and gave each of his 40 employees $100. He told them to spend the money on acts of kindness and then at the end of the day they would come together and discuss what each had done. He’s done it every year since, each time retelling his employees the story of how a town of strangers, on a day of uncertainty and fear, didn’t hesitate to welcome people from a cross section of races and religions.
“The idea was, we could have just closed the office and said go do good deeds, but my thought process was let’s help inspire people to pay it forward,” Tuerff said. “Let’s make that happen and do it on the anniversary and tell the story of, on this terrible tragic day, the goodness of people who stepped up and restored my faith in humanity.”
One employee paid $7 to fix a man’s flat tire. She left $50 and told the mechanic it should cover the next seven flats. One called a school and asked what supplies it needed. Another put $50 on a Starbucks gift card and handed it to a customer in line with the instructions to use it on themselves and then pass the card on. More than nine months later, Tuerff got a call from a friend who had just had her coffee paid for with the gift card. The person who gave it to her said it was for some kind of pay it forward project.
The little-known Sept. 11 story, of the thousands of people from around the world who found themselves stranded and homeless on an island on the tip of North America, is now a musical, “Come From Away,” currently playing at Ford’s Theater in Washington before heading to Broadway next spring.
Tuerff, now 50, is one of the characters portrayed in the show, and after Sunday’s matinee, 15 years to the day since he landed in Newfoundland, he spoke to the audience about his annual pay it forward initiative.
What’s more, the producers of the show gave each of the cast members $100 to pay it forward and on Sunday four of them spoke about what they did with the money.
Q. Smith, who plays a woman stranded in Gander who can’t reach her New York City firefighter son, said she put money on people’s Metro cards, bought a guy his Coke, and purchased magic-marker art from a homeless woman. Rodney Hicks, who plays a black man initially wary of how he’ll be treated in this mostly white town, said he broke the money into fives and visited a variety of stores. He’d jump in line in front of the person at the cash register and pay for whatever they were buying.
“The look of gratitude not only on their faces, but also in their energy, there was a shift that happened. We could feel it,” Hicks said. “It was incredible to change their universe just a little bit with a simple gesture.”
Caesar Samayoa, who plays Tuerff’s boyfriend in the play, said he gave money to employees at different establishments and told them to pay for a customer’s meal and explain to them why.
“It was profound what happened being a part of this, to see the change of demeanor in people who are tired and have been working so hard,” he said. “They’re so grateful they could share this kindness with someone else.”
And Kendra Kassebaum, who played Gander’s news reporter, a flight attendant and other small roles, choked up as she talked about how shocked people were being the beneficiaries of unexpected kindness.
Tuerff was recently going through a box of old keepsakes and found an Air France menu from that day. Waiting on the tarmac, at that point for seven hours, with news coming in drips, and no idea when he was getting off the plane, Tuerff started writing notes on the menu. He began, “The world changed today, for the worst.”
In many ways, he was right, of course. But what he didn’t know in that moment is that in several hours, when he stepped off the plane for a few sleepless nights in Gander, his worldview would change for the better.
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