Come from Away: the true tale

As the Broadway hit comes to town, the inside story of the town that took care of 6,500 passengers stranded by the terrorist attacks of 9/11

[Editors’ note: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff, founder/CEO of Austin’s EnviroMedia marketing company, was returning from a vacation in France with his boyfriend. As their transatlantic flight approached New York City, the plane suddenly turned north. Half an hour later it landed in Newfoundland, a large Canadian island in the North Atlantic ocean. For the next 11 hours, Tuerff, his boyfriend (called Evan here), and 248 other passengers remained aboard the plane – one of 38 forced to land at the Newfoundland airport – as they learned the horrifying news of the terrorist attack on New York. As night fell, they were finally allowed to disembark. They were stranded in the small town of Gander.

What happened next would change Tuerff’s life forever — including becoming one of the subjects of the hit musical Come from Away, which opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday, March 3, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Portland/New York producers Corey and Jessica Brunish are among the producers of the Broadway production.

There’s another Portland connection. “Portland was introduced to this story in 2009, two years before I met the writers of the musical,” Tuerff remembers. “That’s when EnviroMedia had an office in the White Stag building and we brought our Pay it Forward 9/11 effort to the Pacific Northwest.” He visited the city often over the next few years. Now living in New York City, Tuerff is a public speaker, CEO of the marketing and public relations firm Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC, and author of the new book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 about his life-changing Gander experience. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3, Where Am I and Who Are These Nice People.]

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By KEVIN TUERFF

After finally stepping off the plane, walking down the stairway onto the tarmac, I felt a great sense of relief. It was around 9 p.m. It was dark and the air temperature felt cool, considering I was wearing shorts. I turned my camera on, capturing the airport’s Gander sign. I spoke into the microphone, “We’re free, we’re free! After I-don’t-know-how-many hours on that awful plane, we’re free. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going.”

I turned the camera to Evan. He said, “We’re in Gander, and all I know is they better have CNN here.”

Inside the airport, security was very serious and tight, and there were just two Canadian immigration and customs authorities available to check passports. The airport staff would work nonstop around the clock for days to deplane the 6,500 stranded passengers. We were among the first. After the immigration screening, we entered the main terminal, which was barely bigger than a high school auditorium. And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party! There were dozens of volunteers present. Some were wearing their Salvation Army or Red Cross uniforms and sat at ten-foot-long tables. Their job was to make sure every stranded passenger was documented and taken care of. Most of them were older adults, perhaps looking a bit Irish, like me. There were dozens of volunteers at tables set up with food that had everything from home-baked cookies and squares to buckets of KFC fried chicken.

First National Tour of “Come from Away.” The Broadway touring company opens in Portland at Keller Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Portland Opera’s Broadway Across America series. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2018

The Air France flight crew had distributed all the food they had, so we weren’t hungry. Thinking we might be headed to a tent camp, Evan and I grabbed lots of food and drinks, unsure of when we might be fortunate enough to have these items again. We were told to immediately head outside to a waiting school bus that would take us to our shelter.

Just then, I spotted a pay phone (remember those?) inside the terminal. I grabbed it and dialed an international collect call to my parents in Nashville, Tennessee. I knew they’d have been sitting nervously by the phone waiting to hear from me.

I heard the operator dial the number, and then I heard my mom’s voice say, “Hello?” The operator said, “I have an international collect call from Kevin, will you accept the charges?” She did.

“Hello?” I said. Dad picked up another phone at home so he could join in. “It’s so great to hear your voice,” he said.

When I heard their voices I immediately started to cry.

Mom also choked up, but said, “It’s okay, it’s okay to cry.”

“I’m in Iceland or Nova Scotia,” I said, confusing the details all over again amid the flood of unexpected relief.

My dad quickly said, “No, we’ve been tracking you. We know where you are. You’re in Gander.”

“Is that Iceland?” I asked.

“No, you’re on an island called Newfoundland in Canada,” my dad pronounced it New-found-land. I would soon find out it’s pronounced Newfinland.

“What in the hell is going on?” I asked. “We haven’t seen any TV.”

“Four planes were hijacked and crashed into buildings, exploding like bombs. New York and Washington are in complete chaos,” Dad replied. “It’s unbelievable.”

Almost as soon as I began talking to my parents, a local volunteer told me I needed to hang up the phone or I would miss my bus to the shelter.

“Mom, Dad, I have to go,” I said. “I love you.”

Immediately after I got off the phone, the volunteers must have realized they would never get the passengers off the planes promptly if everyone tried to call home at airport pay phones. As Evan and I moved along, I saw them tape a fake sign on the pay phones that said “out of order.” I felt bad for the passengers behind me in line. For some, it would be another twenty-four hours or more before they could deplane in Canada.

We loaded onto a school bus and off we went into the darkness.

The town of Gander managed a massive volunteer effort in a matter of a few hours. At midday, the town council declared a state of emergency and Mayor Claude Elliott went on local TV and radio to urge everyone in this town of 10,000 to help out their unexpected 6,500 guests.

The people of Gander heeded Mayor Elliott, often deciding to do something before they heard the mayor’s call to action.

Diane Davis, a teacher at Gander Academy, remembers driving down to see the planes at the airport that afternoon. She recalls, “Traffic was bumper to bumper past the end of one runway. Police directed cars of curious locals past. Planes, huge passenger planes, were nose to tail or side by side, with some of their wing tips overlapping. Some planes had open doors, which indicated its passengers were still aboard, with police cruisers circling the taxiways.”

After seeing the magnitude of how many people were stranded, Diane thought she could do something, so she went to the town hall to volunteer. Soon, she’d be co-managing a school-turned-shelter with more than seven hundred people sleeping on the floors.

The power company sent employees to pick up groceries to distribute to schools that were turning into refugee shelters. The company paid for all the expenses. But that was just the start.

At 7 p.m., Nellie Moss and her husband Mac were at home watching the news when he got the call from the town emergency operations center that 272 airline passengers would be sent to the College of the North Atlantic, across the street from the power company where Nellie worked. Mac was the top administrator at the college.

“Mac told me, ‘Well, we have to look for bedding, pillows, whatever,’” Nellie remembers.

Nellie called her friends, and they called their friends, and then their friends did the same, creating a snowball effect. “In an hour or less, I had my car filled with bedding and I was on my way to the college. I remember taking everything in my house — everything except what was on my bed.”

Mac recalls, “I got the call from the Gander emergency communications center that we should expect the flight of 272 Air France passengers to arrive in just 90 minutes. Somewhat panicked, he called on his team leaders: “Team 1, Commercial Cooking — Go immediately to the grocery stores and gather up enough food, water, cereal, fruit, juice, snack food, energy bars, etc., to get us through the night, morning breakfast, and lunch the next day. Get enough food for three hundred people! Team 2, Electronics — Start stringing cable to set up two TVs in the cafeteria. Set up a microphone for a PA system. Team 3— Gut out the cafeteria of all non-essential furniture and set up tables and chairs for the arriving guests, plus another line for tea and snacks. Teams 4 and 5 — Gut out all available classrooms, stack desks and chairs, sweep the floors, and make the space ready for sleeping areas. Team 6 — Registration. Set up tables at the front entrance to intercept the passengers and gather names, address etc. Call the radio stations to announce that the campus will be closed to students until further notice. Team 7, Nursing — Intercept passengers on arrival and see if anyone immediately needs medication for diabetes, blood pressure, etc., or to see if anyone is in medical distress.”

Reflecting back on those marathon days, he added, “We had 148 volunteers at the college, and we were all busy.”

Before long, thanks to the work of people like Nellie, Mac, and Diane, all public buildings, churches, and schools in Gander had been converted to shelters. Gander’s three hotels were emptied out so that the airline pilots and crew from the thirty-eight planes could stay there to rest. Supermarkets and fast-food restaurants donated all the food they could, and no one asked who was paying the bill.

Kevin Tuerff (right, in plaid flannel shirt) with actor Andrew Samonsky, who plays him in the Broadway national touring company of “Come from Away.”

The driver of our school bus told the passengers he was taking us to the Gander campus of the College of the North Atlantic. He spoke with a thick accent that sounded like had we landed in Ireland, not Canada. The ride from the airport to the college was less than fifteen minutes, but it felt much longer. Once the driver announced our destination, he gave no further commentary about where we were nor information about what to expect when we got there. It might have been helpful to know Gander had a Walmart, Subway, and KFC, all of which we discovered later. It was a tiny town, but it was hardly a third-world country.

After getting off the school bus around 9:30 p.m., we walked through the dark to the doors of the community college. There were no students — only the arriving passengers from the Air France flight and dozens of local volunteers, who funneled us into the cafeteria, where they had plenty of food and drinks, plus they had what we really wanted, TV news. At one end of the cafeteria was a TV tuned to a French-speaking news network, and at the other end was a TV tuned to CNN in English.

The Salvation Army and Red Cross did an amazing job that first night. Within an hour of our Air France plane arriving, the Salvation Army showed up with a Ziploc bag for each passenger, each filled with a feminine sanitary napkin, tooth-brush, and toothpaste. Residents stopped by the college with donations of food and bedding continually throughout the night. It was like we had landed at a free buffet with cod au gratin (fish and cheese casserole), doughnuts, hot dogs, soft drinks, and more.

The college had three nurses on staff. It was their job to intercept passengers as they checked in, to identify whether any refugee had medical needs. There were a lot of diabetics and people with high blood pressure. They had all their medications in their checked bags, which had all been left on the plane. If a passenger had an issue, the nurses went to local pharmacists, who were working around the clock, and brought back everything requested. Passengers asked how much they should pay, but were told it was free.

Around midnight, I spotted a teenage boy walking through the front door, carrying a double-sized air mattress and two pillows. I was bone tired and I knew falling asleep on that air mattress would feel so much better than the tile floor. I nearly ran over to meet him.

Until that time, I had never been in a situation in my life where I needed a hand from a stranger. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford a hotel room — there were no rooms. I was always a problem solver, but at this moment, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help me with my basic needs. In the Bible, it’s written, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). This welcome was happening. The people of Gander seemed to need little encouragement.

As the teenager handed me his bedding, a lump of gratitude rose in my throat. I said, “Thank you.”

“No problem, b’y,” the young man said in his accent before turning and walking back out the door.

I was tired, so having secured comfortable bedding, I went to find Evan, but he wasn’t ready for sleep. He was glued to the TV, watching the images of the planes hit the World Trade Center again and again. Evan was sitting in the cafeteria, surrounded by quite a few other passengers. By this time, it was clear that thousands of people, including many first responders, had been killed. We were in shock, coming to understand later than the rest of the world what had happened on this horrific day.

We comforted ourselves with the buffet line in the cafeteria. At one point, I turned on the camera to capture Evan chomping on a hot dog with mustard oozing out of it. I jokingly (and incorrectly stating our location) said to the camera, “Wow, we had to come all the way to Nova Scotia to get a hot dog.”

But we were shaken. Underneath our laughter, our nerves were on edge. So we turned to other comfort: our stash of Grey Goose vodka.

I commandeered a space in a classroom, blowing up the double air mattress. I wondered how other passengers would feel about two men sleeping together on the same air mattress. While Evan and I had been out of the closet for several years, I didn’t know what to expect in a small town in another country. Evan and I finally went to sleep around 2:30 a.m. The wonderful air mattress had a leak in it, so soon after lying on it, we heard the air flowing out until we lay on the cold tile floor and pulled the sheet across us. Shortly thereafter, someone in the room vomited, perhaps from all the free booze on the airplane. The stench was awful, so we hauled our air mattress, sheets, and pillows to another classroom.

As we settled in to sleep, I was happy Evan was with me on this trip. It was exhausting and scary, and being a solo traveler would’ve been hard.

While Evan and I slept, the town of Gander was on the move. Unbeknownst to me, thousands of Gander residents were working to help us. Many, including Mayor Elliott, went without sleep for several days. At times, it seemed like all ten thousand men, women, and children in town were volunteering in some capacity at one or all of the several shelters set up for the “plane people.” Retail clerks and pharmacists worked around the clock. High school media teacher and part-time Rogers TV reporter Brian Mosher logged twenty-seven straight hours helping passengers, by cooking breakfast at Gander Collegiate, the local high school. Just as he was trying to go to bed at 9 a.m. on September 12th, he was called to the TV station. He went on the air immediately, playing a key role conveying to locals what the needs were at different shelters. Brian was amazed by how quickly people responded to specific requests for food, toiletries, and clothing. He worked three live shows per day for the next four days, running back and forth between the school and the station. “Sleep was basically short catnaps, and there weren’t many of those,” he said. Telephone company workers set up temporary phone banks. Everyone with a kitchen started cooking.

After Gander was filled to capacity with refugees, even smaller towns nearby like Gambo, Lewisporte, and Appleton stepped up to help. Local bus drivers who were on strike left the picket lines to help transport passengers thirty miles or more each way during the emergency.

Mac and Nellie Moss lived one house down from her sister Sue and her husband Ron Walsh, who were also a part of the volunteer effort. Sue was the first to put her bedding into Nellie’s car. Years later Sue would tell me, “We wrote our names on our pillows, hoping we’d get them back after this was over.” After all the refugees had left, Sue Walsh and the other people who had donated bedding went back to the school and everything they had loaned was there. “We washed everything, put it on the line, and all was good,” Sue remembers. “Some people said, ‘Well, I don’t want mine back. I’ll throw it out because some stranger used it.’ But I thought, ‘Some poor stranger had to sleep on my bedding.’”

Ron volunteered at Gander Collegiate. They asked him to arrive at 4 a.m. since their first plane was only deplaning in the middle of the night. When he arrived, there were some other men there from the Lions Club. They asked him to help scrub the floors so everything would be clean when the plane people arrived. Next, they asked him to help make breakfast. Ron’s job was to make toast. Classes at the college were cancelled until further notice, so he didn’t have to worry about sleeping late on the floor while students arrived for class.

Sue was working at the Gander Credit Union that same day. She remembers how a come from away Irish couple came in for a currency exchange. They had saved up to take a large group of kids to Disney World. Their shelter was a Salvation Army camp about thirty minutes from Gander. They told her that the kids weren’t disappointed at all at being diverted to Newfoundland; in fact, they were having fun. “The kids saw a bear and they thought they really were visiting Disney World,” Sue said.

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Excerpted from Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, by Kevin Tuerff; House of Anansi Press. Reprinted with permission. Twenty-five percent of net proceeds from sales of the book go to the Gander Refugee Outreach Project.

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The National Touring Company of Come from Away performs Tuesday-Sunday, Feb. 26-March 3, at Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

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