Kevin Tuerff was due to visit San Antonio on Aug. 25, meeting with old friends and new for a casual evening discussion of his new book, a memoir of the days he lived in an emergency shelter relying on the generosity of strangers during a time of terror and turmoil.
Then along came Hurricane Harvey. Again, Tuerff would be sidelined. Again, he would be in a shelter. But this time it was by choice, rushing to the aid of others.
Tuerff was one of the 6,700 airline passengers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland, on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists flew commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center. All planes bound for major cities were immediately grounded, many diverted to the nearest locations. The sudden arrival of the stranded air passengers almost doubled the population of that tiny Canadian town.
Tales of how the people of Gander opened their homes and schools to shelter thousands of bewildered travelers of all ages soon reached far and wide, restoring hope and faith in humanity at a time when that was needed most.
“They wouldn’t let us take our luggage off the plane, so all we had was clothes on our back, much like the people in Austin this week [who fled the hurricane],” Tuerff said in an interview with the Rivard Report on Sept. 3.
“The next day, we wanted fresh underwear and socks, and there was a Walmart there, so we walked down the road, but we didn’t get 25 yards before a car pulls over and asks where we are going. When we told them we were some of the stranded people, just trying to go to Walmart, and they said, ‘Hop in.’”
Tuerff and his partner got a ride to the store, found what they needed, and were offered another ride back to the shelter. Their saviors would not accept payment.
“It happened all over this small town,” he said. “When I went back there recently, I asked the people, ‘Did someone on TV or something tell you to help us and give us a ride?’ They said no, they just did it. We live in such fear all the time, of hitchhikers and such. That was pretty incredible to me.”
It was a small gesture of kindness Tuerff was able to repay last week, after Harvey slammed into the Texas coast, triggering widespread flooding throughout the southeast part of the state and forcing thousands from their homes. Some were evacuated to a Red Cross shelter in Austin where Tuerff volunteered his time.
“The people we took in [at the shelter] were from Victoria, the poorest of the poor,” he said. “They probably lost everything, and they had nothing. It was really humbling, and I was glad to be able to help. I felt obligated to help, because I was a Red Cross client in Gander. They were very busy in 2001.”
They were busy at the Austin shelter too, so Tuerff pitched in, distributing food and helping victims register for federal assistance. He helped an H-E-B pharmacist collect information from evacuees so they could have their prescriptions filled at no cost. And, yes, he helped them get socks.
“They all had wet clothes, and while there were lots of supplies, they had no socks,” he said. “So I put the word out on Facebook, and within an hour and half, my friends had delivered 200 pairs of socks.”
The owner of an environmental marketing firm in Austin, Tuerff had been in Europe on vacation, flying home from Paris on 9/11. Two hours from the airport, the plane banked suddenly, and the pilot informed passengers and crew there had been a terrorist attack.
It would be several more hours before they learned what had happened in New York and Washington, D.C., and even longer before the anxious travelers could connect with family and friends back home to say they were okay.
That’s when Tuerff took the only paper he could find, a menu from the airplane’s seat pocket, and began to write. He started with, “The world changed today, for the worst.”
He was right. But Tuerff also changed during his days in Gander, in ways he couldn’t know at the time.
“It made me want to be a better person, and really to inspire others to act with that kind of kindness to strangers,” he said. “I was a good person, but so heavily involved in growing my company, I didn’t have much time for friends, family, or church. Even though I’m a gay Catholic, most of my friends who are gay had left the Church, but I’m still active today.”
Tuerff recently sold his business, took time out for a spiritual retreat, and wrote a book, Channel of Peace. The title comes from the “Prayer of Saint Francis.” He had forgotten, until recently, that those were the words, in hymnal form, running through his head following 9/11.
Now the hymn is a centerpiece of “Come From Away,” a Broadway musical inspired by the Gander story. Actor Chad Kimball portrays Tuerff.
“The first time I saw it was at Sheridan College in Toronto … I was blown away,” Tuerff said. “It starts with my character singing the ‘Prayer of Saint Francis.’ I never told anyone that was going through my head. The [show writers] had interviewed me, but I didn’t remember it. So that took the wind out of me because I had never told anybody.”
People who see the show tell him how happy they are that the song is so prominent. The words in the prayer also appear in Jewish and Hindu prayers of peace. “This is what we need here and now,” Tuerff said.
So he’s heartened to see what happened in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.
“All it takes is some willpower,” he said. “There, people jumped right in to help people who didn’t look like them or had the same background or political beliefs. Nobody asked what party you belonged to before the boat rescued you.
“But why do we have to wait for a natural disaster to treat each other this way?”
Tuerff himself never waited. In the years after 9/11, he returned to Gander and asked how he could help, how he could repay a debt. The mayor and others answered: Go help others in need.
Borrowing a page from the novel Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Tuerff instituted Pay It Forward Day 9/11 at his company, giving everyone a day off each Sept. 11, plus $100 to perform three random acts of kindness for someone else.
The event spread to other businesses, schools, and churches across Austin, then the nation, and even into Canada. What began in Gander in 2001 had a ripple effect, one that continues today.
Last year, during that spiritual retreat, he came to understand another way he could pay his debt forward: by aiding immigrants and refugees.
“I was really an American refugee on 9/11,” he said. “I realized we had a lot in common – no food, clothing, shelter, or information. We weren’t seeking asylum, of course, but we shared these other things.
“There are more than 25 million refugees living outside of their countries right now. … We have to realize these are all people who want what everybody wants – basic human needs [satisfied] – but we’re all the same, we all like to eat, to laugh, to enjoy our families.”
Tuerff now lives four blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan and works through his church, St. Francis Xavier, to help refugees.
“There’s a line in the song, ‘Channel of Peace,’ that says, ‘For it is in giving we receive,’” he said. “It is so true. For the person who is doing the good deed, you feel so much better yourself … It’s a way to break out of a rut and be happy.”
This article was originally published on Sept. 6, 2017.