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Interview: Kevin Tuerff, author, character in Come From Away

02 August 2019

‘I received a call saying, “We wrote a musical, and you’re in it!”’

Craig Sugden

Left to right: David Shannon (who plays Kevin T in Come From Away), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J), Kevin Tuerff, Kevin Jung

Left to right: David Shannon (who plays Kevin T in Come From Away), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J), Kevin Tuerff, Kevin Jung

On 11 September 2001, I was flying with my ex-partner — also named Kevin — from Paris into New York City en route to my home in Texas when the terrorist attacks began.

When US airspace was closed abruptly, our Air France flight didn’t have enough fuel to turn around and go back to Europe; so our pilot was ordered to land in Canada. The nearest airport was in Gander, on the island province of Newfoundland and Labrador. This used to be one of the largest airports in the world, as it was a refuelling stop for British and American war planes in the Second World War. In 2001, it usually had six flights land per day, but, after the 9/11 attacks, 38 jumbo jets landed there in just a few hours.

There wasn’t enough room for more than one jumbo jet in the terminal; so my flight, the fourth to land, was told to wait on the tarmac until they decided what to do. I spent 15 hours on that Air France plane that day, about ten hours waiting on the tarmac.

The Gander Town Council declared an emergency, and decided that they would allow all 6579 passengers and crew from 90 countries to come into their small community of 9000. They provided basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter to every person, regardless of background, with virtually every citizen helping the “Come From Aways” who had just arrived. We ended up spending four-and-a-half days in Gander. It was an experience which changed my life.

It was hours after we landed before we heard the full scope of the attacks on America. It was unbelievable. It also explained why an armed guard stood at the foot of each of the planes on the runway. I was more anxious than scared. I knew my family and my colleagues at work would be nervous about my safety, but I had no way to reach them. I owned a mobile phone, but hardly anyone had international coverage then. About 5 p.m., I decided to journal my thoughts on the back of the in-flight menu. There is a photo of this item in my book.

I was overwhelmed by the generosity and compassion of the people in Gander. When I deliver my book talk, I explain that if the locals had empathy for the people on the 38 planes, they could have sent a message like “Thoughts and prayers”, and some boxed pizza out to the planes. But they offered compassionate action. They saw thousands of temporary refugees and said: “Come on in.” They opened every public building, school, church, and many homes to take care of our every need, with no expectation of money.

The Newfoundlanders were engaged in the Golden Rule: treat others how you wish to be treated. I wondered if a small town of 10,000 in the United States, especially my home state of Texas, would do the same, and I wasn’t sure. There were many Muslims from Arab countries aboard some of the flights. There was certainly reason to be wary of additional hijackers, but every person was treated with kindness

The experience prompted me, on the first anniversary of 9/11, to start Pay it Forward 9/11, which encourages random acts of kindness to strangers. After attending an eight-day silent spiritual retreat in 2016, I opened my eyes to the global refugee crisis, and I have personally assisted a family from West Africa as they successfully gained asylum in the United States.

I finally returned to Gander to give my personal thanks on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After a news conference at the College of the North Atlantic, my refugee shelter in 2001, the writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein approached me and asked for an interview. I gladly shared my story, and my digital video footage from my experience.

More than two years had passed when I received a call saying, “We wrote a musical, and you’re in it!”

To see myself played on stage is surreal. I now have five doppelgangers in four countries who portray me as “Kevin T” on stage. While there are some exaggerations in some of the stories, the writers have captured the essence of Newfoundland compassion 100 per cent.

I’ve now seen Come From Away 43 times in five countries since the first production at Sheridan College six years ago. Since I know how the story ends, I only attend the show for post-performance talk-backs with the audience, or when the musical debuts a new production.

My partner Kevin J — who is also portrayed in the musical — and I didn’t break up in Gander, but we did many years later. It doesn’t bother me to watch our relationship fall apart on stage, as it’s done for dramatic effect to balance out the true story of a couple who fell in love while stranded in Newfoundland. Someone who saw the show told me that they appreciate the break-up scene because many people in America were so mentally devastated by the 9/11 attacks, they did end their relationships in the interest of self-compassion.

This musical is selling out, and receives a standing ovation after every single performance. This is in part because of the polarised world that we live in. I’ve now become an ambassador for the international Charter for Compassion, founded by the UK scholar and author Karen Armstrong. My hope is to get audiences to cultivate compassionate action in their own lives and communities. What makes me happiest is helping others.

I used to get angry at politicians who act without compassion for those who are suffering. Now I pray for them.

I wrote Channel of Peace in 2016 after Come From Away made its debut on the West Coast of the US. The producers told me that audiences loved the show, but wanted more stories. I had more stories, including how our Air France flight refused to take us into New York City when airspace reopened, and I spent three awful days after Gander in a dirty hotel with no food.

My last name, Tuerff, is pronounced “Turf”, and it’s German. My heritage is Finnish, German, Irish, and Scottish. I was raised Catholic, and I still practise today, despite the unwelcoming position by some towards LGBT persons. My parents are still married, and I have three brothers and many nephews and nieces.

My first experiences of God came as I was growing up in a Catholic family and attending Catholic elementary school. I have vivid memories of God, especially during my first communion.

I’ve been betrayed a couple times in my business career. Dealing with this took a lot of courage, but my faith and my family got me through.

Young people give me hope for the future — especially young leaders addressing the climate crisis, like Greta Thunberg.

Every day I listen to the UK Jesuits Pray As You Go meditation. I pray for a more compassionate world, and acceptance of LGBT persons by all organised religions and governments.

If I was locked in a place of worship for a few hours, I’d like to be locked in with St Hildegard von Bingen. I recently learned about this remarkable woman from the twelfth century. She was a doctor, poet, singer, healer, and more. Why has her history been hidden? I’m praying to her now in hopes she might offer help to our fragile environment.

Kevin Tuerff was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Come From Away is currently showing at the Phoenix Theatre, London. He is also the author of Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, published by House of Anansi Press.

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