When Kevin Tuerff and his partner boarded their flight from France to New York City on September 11, 2001, they had no idea that a few hours later the world and their lives would change forever. After U.S. airspace closed following the terrorist attacks, Kevin, who had been experiencing doubts about organized religion, found himself in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, with thousands of other refugees or “come from aways.”
Channel of Peace is a beautiful account of how the people of Gander rallied with boundless acts of generosity and compassion for the “plane people,” renewing Kevin’s spirituality and inspiring him to organize an annual and growing “giving back” day. His story, along with others, has reached thousands of people when it was incorporated into the Broadway musical Come From Away.
In Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, you will find an unforgettable, uplifting tale of goodwill, the strength of the human spirit, and hope.
|Publisher:||Greenleaf Book Group, LLC|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.20(d)|
About the Author
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Channel of Peace
Strandaed in Gander on 9/11
By Kevin Tuerff
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2017 Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC
All rights reserved.
September 11th: Stuck on the Tarmac
Returning to America from vacationing in France, my plane's altitude suddenly dropped and we turned sharply to the north. Our transatlantic flight from Paris was scheduled to arrive mid-morning in New York on September 11, 2001. Apparently US airspace was closed and all planes were told to land at the nearest airport. Thirty minutes later, our plane with 250 people aboard would land on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, I was confused and annoyed by the diversion. But the change in direction was providential. Being stranded on 9/11 planted a seed of kindness in me that grew and blossomed over the next fifteen years.
Our family moved often as I grew up, so it's no surprise that I enjoy traveling. My parents were high school sweethearts from Gary, Indiana, who married after my father graduated from college. Soon they moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for Dad's first job in the insurance business, and my birthplace. Dad's career bounced me from Indiana to Atlanta, to Nashville and to Louisville, and finally — in fifth grade — to Houston. The majority of my childhood was spent growing up with my three brothers in suburban northwest Houston, where I graduated high school. My next move would take me to Austin, Texas, where I graduated from the University of Texas. After graduating, my friends at the University Catholic Center helped me come out of the closet as gay at age twenty-two.
One of the priests at my church formed a gay men's support group. It made me feel that I wasn't alone and that my sexual orientation didn't mean I should abandon my Catholic faith. I met several men in the group who I have remained friends with for more than twenty-five years. In the early 1990s, our group members were more than members; they became active leaders in the church. Sadly, in 1993, Pope John Paul II wrote a directive to Catholics from the Vatican that proclaimed "the intrinsic evil of the homosexual condition."
By the mid-1990s, hope for expanding support groups for gay Catholics to other churches was completely lost. Local bishops and priests were toeing the Vatican line. Soon, a young college student who attended my church called home to her conservative parents and told them about our group. Her parents reportedly called the Bishop of Austin. I was told that the Bishop called over to the pastor at my church and immediately squashed the gay support group. This political action not only broke up a group of friends united by religion, but it poked a hole in our faith. Most of my friends abandoned the Catholic Church. I tried to stay involved after the group disbanded, but ultimately I stopped attending Mass.
The energy I put into my faith and my local church was shifted into starting a company that promoted good. In 1997, I cofounded and led the nation's first marketing agency focused solely on improving public health and the environment. Starting a new business was scary and exhausting because of the pressure to continually keep new clients coming in the door, making sure employees would always have food on the table with a monthly paycheck. I didn't have time for volunteering with charities, or connecting with friends and neighbors. I worked seven days a week. It paid off. Our firm won the "Don't Mess with Texas" litter prevention campaign with a staff of four, beating out national ad agencies. I wanted to prove that I could be good at doing good, despite what church leaders or others in society thought of me because of my sexual orientation.
In 2001, my longtime partner Evan and I decided to take a much-needed vacation to Europe. I traveled so much for work that I had enough frequent flier miles for two free round-trip tickets to Europe in late summer.
We had a great time, except for Air France losing our luggage for the first two days of our trip. We went to the store and bought cheap T-shirts. We spent our time discovering the South of France, Amsterdam, and Brussels. On our last day, we took the bullet train from Brussels to Paris, staying the final night at a nice hotel near Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
Our flight left early on the morning of September 11, 2001, so we decided to spend a few hours in Paris with a taxi driver serving as our personal tour guide. I had a new Sony mini-DV camera, so I was taking a lot of video throughout our trip. We drove by most of the major monuments, getting out of the car to walk up to some of them. I narrated as we walked, "Here we are, walking toward the Eiffel Tower on September 10th, I believe."
Late the next morning, we transferred from the airport hotel to Charles de Gaulle Airport. The security at the Paris airport was more attentive than at US airports. France had suffered airport terrorist attacks for many years before 2001, so this didn't bother me. Security officials with guard dogs stopped and asked us questions before we could check in at the Air France ticket counter. Air France Flight 004 would fly from Paris to New York. From there, we would transfer to Continental Airlines and fly home to Austin, Texas.
Evan's favorite cocktail was vodka with club soda. His favorite vodka was Grey Goose, which says "a product of France" right on the label. Throughout our vacation in France, Evan tried in vain to order a Grey Goose cocktail. It took us a while to realize that the French only drink wine. We wondered if Grey Goose was truly made in France. Then, as we were about to depart Paris, Evan stepped into a duty-free shop inside the airport. He emerged with a big grin on his face and two large bottles of Grey Goose.
At the gate, our passports were checked repeatedly, but we were allowed to board. Sitting in our economy-class seats, our flight was normal for several hours. Back then, economy class actually had decent meals on international flights. We were served shrimp salad with melon and mint, chicken with Poitoustyle sauce and rice, Rondele cheese, and Charentes-style tartlets with wine. They also served free liquor. I ordered a gin and tonic. The flight was smooth and easy. I had never seen the movie Shrek, and the airline played that movie on an overhead TV if you purchased a headset. I bought a headset for what I thought would be a two-hour distraction.
* * *
Air France 004 was due into New York/Newark International Airport around 11 a.m. The United States is roughly west of France. At some point after the movie, I looked up at the TV monitor, which was showing a live GPS map. Our plane had changed direction, from west to north. It looked like we were now flying to the North Pole. I wondered, maybe the GPS has gone haywire?
Several minutes later, our Air France captain came on the public address system and said something in French. I heard the words "terrorist activity" in English. I looked up at the GPS screen, but the map was flashing back and forth between English and French. The French translation for the Canadian province of Newfoundland is Terre-Neuve. I recognized this word on the screen, but I wasn't quite putting the situation together yet.
Okay, we're flying a weird route over Terre-Neuve, I thought. Then the captain came on the PA, in broken English, saying, "Due to a terrorist attack in the United States, we will be landing in Gander."
That's it. Huh? Where are we landing, and why?
I asked Evan if he had heard what the captain said. He wasn't paying attention. We were enjoying free drinks as we flew across the Atlantic, so what was happening didn't immediately sink in. When we were told to put our tray tables up for landing in Gander, it was time to sober up.
I later found out, from fellow passenger Sue Riccardelli (who was flying home to New Jersey), that after the announcement a flight attendant said something to another who looked as if she might faint.
As soon as we were low enough to see land, I took out my camera and snapped a photo. Outside my window were huge green trees — and no civilization.
Gander served as a British Air Force base during World War II and is now a small commercial airport. Newfoundland was under British dominion from 1907 to 1949 and then become a province of Canada. Labrador was added to the province in December 2001, when it officially became Newfoundland and Labrador. After we landed, we were told we would be staying there for quite a while and perhaps diverting to Montreal or Toronto later that day. We received no specific news about what had caused our diversion beyond what the captain had said. So we waited patiently as the flight attendants continued to ply us with free drinks.
Around noon, I looked out my window over the wing and saw dozens of wide-body aircraft landing behind us, one after another. I noticed familiar planes: the red and blue of Delta, American, and Continental; and the unfamiliar: the green shamrock of Aer Lingus, El Al, and Hungarian Airways. Soon a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (CMP) officer with an automatic rifle was stationed on the tarmac below the cockpit of each plane. But these officers weren't like what I expected: They weren't on horses and didn't wear red jackets. Is it possible a hijacker is on our plane, or another one might be sitting on the runway in Gander?
Over the course of September 11, 2001, thirty-eight jumbo jets landed at Gander, causing quite a challenge for local air traffic controllers. These thirty-eight were a part of the 122 East Coast planes diverted from the North Atlantic to maritime provinces in Canada. The Gander Airport generally saw fewer than a dozen small commercial planes daily. There are no gates with jetways (walkways from plane to terminal) at the Gander Airport. They had a few trucks that drove stairs up to aircraft for deplaning onto the tarmac.
Even so, Gander had a long runway. When it was built, almost all transatlantic planes needed to stop there temporarily for refueling. Later, innovations with large jets would allow larger fuel tanks to fly farther. During World War II, the US military paid Canada to expand their facilities to accommodate air force planes making trips to Europe. Over time, this caused some problems when other planes refueled there. A plane traveling from Russia to Cuba once landed in Gander and allowed passengers to stretch their feet in the terminal. Soon, some Russians had jumped the fence in an effort to escape from Communism by claiming political asylum in Canada.
On our Air France plane, the passengers waited patiently in our seats until it was clear we weren't going anywhere. No truck with a stairway ever arrived. Evan and I would stand and walk up and down the aisles of the aircraft. Other passengers generally stayed quiet in their seats.
Five hours after we landed, the French-speaking captain came over the PA system again. This time, he provided what little information he had. "What we know now is that two aircraft were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. Both towers have fallen. The Pentagon was also attacked by a hijacked aircraft."
Evan was smart and knew his history. "That's impossible," he said. "In 1945, someone flew a B-25 airplane into the Empire State Building and the building survived just fine. The twin towers can't fall."
"Who could make that up?" I said.
We didn't understand that the planes were jumbo jets recently loaded with tons of gallons of fuel for cross-country flights. The fuel had turned each one into a giant bomb. Evan was always a skeptic. I tended to trust authorities. Could it be true?
My mind was spinning, trying to imagine all the chaos in New York City and Washington, DC. How many people were killed on the airplanes? How many others were killed and wounded? Was it a surprise attack like Pearl Harbor, and if it was, who did it? Was our military elevating our threat level? Were missile silos being opened up, ready to aim and fire? Or was the Pentagon rendered useless by this attack? Were attacks taking place in several countries or just in the United States? How long would this go on? Were we sure our plane didn't have a hijacker on it?
I looked out my window at another plane landing and prayed an "Our Father." Praying helped. I soon felt calm, even safe, on our plane, even though I didn't have any reason to believe our plane was free of terrorists. I sensed we'd be okay in Gander.CHAPTER 2
September 11th: The Terrible News
As anxious as we were, Evan and I and many other passengers couldn't see live TV images, hear radio, read a website, or even call anyone to verify the news we'd been told. It was clear there was a crisis in the US, but without seeing TV or reading anything, it was difficult to imagine.
The idea of airplanes purposefully crashing into buildings seemed absurd. I couldn't picture it in my mind. I wondered if there were additional planes headed for landmark buildings across the US.
Around 3 p.m., a woman sitting in the row behind us was starting to have an argument with her husband. After five hours on the tarmac, she wanted off the plane and didn't understand why we weren't being told more details about what was happening in America and whether or not we were going home. She wanted a phone to call her young children in the US, but that wasn't happening. She kept getting louder. Everyone around her could hear her anxiety and frustration. Her husband tried to quiet her, but that only made her cry harder. Evan turned around and asked if she needed some medication to ease her nerves. The husband declined.
Evan and I agreed that our friends and family would be worried because we were scheduled to fly into New York City that morning. My flip phone was useless for international calls. On our plane, the only passengers making contact with anyone overseas by phone were sitting in first class. Their seats came with satellite phones that were activated by credit card. After hours of hearing a few, uninformative updates from the captain, I walked up to first class and found a man with an empty seat next to him. He was happy to let me sit there and use the phone. I tried calling my parents in Nashville, Tennessee. I tried also calling my office in Austin, Texas. No luck, the calls never connected. I tried calling friends in other time zones. As I swiped my credit card over and over again, I kept hearing the message "All circuits are busy." The country's phone system was overwhelmed.
Later, I would learn that virtually everyone in America was calling everyone they knew to make sure they were okay. I returned to my seat.
Around 5 p.m., I took out my frustration by journaling on the Air France flight menu:
9-11-01-Gander, Canada, Canadian Air Force Base
The world changed today, for the worse. Our flight from Paris to New York missed an international terrorist disaster in New York and Washington. (Hijacked planes crashed into WTC & Pentagon.)
We've been sitting on our plane now for 12 hours (7 now on the ground). All we can do is wait patiently for news about the tragedy, for a place to try to talk to our families.
We've been told we may have to sleep here overnight (on board). We are fortunate to be alive. Many on the plane cried when we heard the news. Everyone is shell-shocked.
No one can imagine what is next regarding our national security. Who can we trust now? Will this heinous crime start a war? All I can do is pray.
P.S. Just learned we will soon depart plane and perhaps spend night in a school here. At least 30 planes here waiting with stranded passengers aboard.
Around 6:30 p.m. in Gander, it was getting dark outside my window. I walked back up to first class with the idea of calling Europe, instead of the United States. It worked. I reached my high school friend Todd, who lived in Amsterdam, around 11 p.m. Netherlands time. We had just visited Todd a few days earlier on our vacation. That afternoon Todd was walking around Amsterdam with a friend from New York when they heard about the attacks. They decided to go to her house to watch the news. When I reached him, I asked, "Is it true what they're saying?"
"It's horrible," he replied. "I'm watching it live on TV now."
Todd explained that terrorists had hijacked the planes and ultimately destroyed both towers of the World Trade Center, killing thousands. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon, and yet another — which may have been headed to the White House or the Capitol — crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Early estimates of the dead were nearly 10,000. We didn't know about the plane in Pennsylvania. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was more scared than I could remember, and so was Todd.
I told Todd how I was stuck on the airplane and I couldn't reach anyone in America to let them know I was safe. I asked him to try to call my parents in Nashville and my office in Austin. I also gave him the names and phone number of Evan's parents.
Excerpted from Channel of Peace by Kevin Tuerff. Copyright © 2017 Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PROLOGUE It All Starts With Kindness,
1 September 11th: Stuck on the Tarmac,
2 September 11th: The Terrible News,
3 September 11–12th: Where Am I and Who are These Nice People?,
4 September 13th: We Stink and We Want to Go Home,
5 September 14th: Déjà Vu — Back in France,
6 One Year Later — Pay It Forward 9/11,
7 Ten Years Later — The Return to Gander,
8 What Now? Kindness and Refugees,
9 10 Tips for Encouraging Kindness,
EPILOGUE When Your 9/11 Story Becomes a Broadway Musical,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
What People are Saying About This
“Kevin Tuerff's first-hand account takes us inside a 9/11 story that's largely unknown and which helps restore our faith that human beings need not always be divided by our differences.” Wade Goodwyn, NPR
“Kevin Tuerff tells a delightful and heartwarming story that takes us from one of the darkest days seen by America and the world to a bright, safe, love-filled place that truly exists right here on earth. It is a story filled with hope for a better tomorrow.” Jeanette Gutierrez, 9/11 Survivor
“The message of this book is very important, because our world is divided by increasing hatred and intolerance. Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 is a beautiful story about how a seed of love can be planted within someone and years later grow into a beautiful, flowering tree.” Mayor Claude Elliott, Town of Gander, Newfoundland