Kevin Tuerff, the real-life Kevin T. in Come From Away, talks about the musical and his experiences in Gander following 9/11

-Brenda Hillegas (pictured with Kevin Tuerff at BroadwayCon in 2022)

Kevin Tuerff was one of the thousands of people stranded in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 after the terrorist attacks on our country forced many planes to be rerouted to the small Canadian town. When Tuerff returned to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he met the husband/wife writing team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff who informed him that they were working on creating a musical based on the kindness Gander’s residents and the care that was provided for those 38 planes full of strangers from all over the world. Tuerff’s true story ended up inspiring one of the characters in the show and Come From Away became a Tony-winning hit Broadway musical that went on to tour all over the world. Tuerff decided he, too, wanted to tell the story of those days in Gander. I picked up his memoir, Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, at BroadwayCon last summer and briefly talked to him about the show’s 2022-2023 season stop in Philadelphia.

Now, as The Kimmel Cultural Campus gets ready to bring Come From Away back to Philadelphia (Feb. 7th to 12th), I had another chance to speak with Kevin Tuerff about the book, the musical, and how we can all spread kindness with his Pay it Forward 9/11 campaign.

The North American Tour of Come From Away / Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

Q: Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. You were on a plane that was being redirected to Gander. What was going through your head at that time and when you found out what was happening?
A: My partner Kevin J. and I were flying home from Paris to Austin via NYC on the morning of 9/11. I’m a frequent flier so- just as the line my character says on stage- there was a sudden drop in elevation over the Atlantic Ocean, and I knew that wasn’t normal. I could see our plane on the ceiling’s GPS monitor and it showed our Air France flight had suddenly turned sharp right, and now it appeared we were flying to the North Pole. As I shared in my memoir, Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, several minutes later, the pilot spoke in broken French-English, saying “Due to a terrorist attack in the United States, we will be landing in Gander.” It would be many hours after we landed, and were stuck on the tarmac (15 total), before we learned exactly what happened. Even after we heard the news, we couldn’t SEE the images. It seemed impossible to learn that the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon was attacked.

Q: When you learned that the story of Gander on 9/11 and the days that followed was being workshopped as a musical, what were your initial thoughts? Why do you think the story fits so well into a musical format?
A: I first met the writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein when I returned to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I went back to finally thank the people I met at the College of the North Atlantic in Gander (our refugee shelter). After a speaking event for the students in their cafeteria, I conducted several TV interviews. After they left, the husband and wife couple approached, asking if they could interview me for a potential musical they were writing. What?! I loved musicals, but thought this was an impossible idea. The Newfoundland style of music is similar to an Irish folk/rock style. It’s great at storytelling. And this is just what the world needs to hear, a true story of kindness and compassion.

Q: You’re one of the real-life people featured in Come From Away. How did it feel to learn that out of everyone stranded in Gander, your story would be one of the few highlighted in the musical?
A: Surreal. I gave the writers at least three interviews, plus I shared my personal digital video I took from my experience in Gander. I received a call two years later that they wrote a musical, “and you’re in it.” It didn’t occur to me they would need to tell the story of passengers in order to share the heroic story of Gander’s compassion. When someone tells you that you’re going to be in a musical, you go. So I booked a flight to watch the initial college production at Sheridan College near Toronto, Canada. I wept and laughed throughout the entire show. After the performance, Michael Rubinoff, the originating producer, surprised the cast and audience by inviting the “real Kevin T” to come forward and testify to the story’s authenticity. What an emotional roller coaster it’s been since then, seeing my story performed with “Kevin T” actors in London, Toronto, Melbourne, Broadway and across North America. 

Q: You wrote Channel of Peace about your time in Gander and your life once you returned home. Why was it important to tell this story?
A: I started telling people about my experience in Gander as soon as I finally returned home to Austin (seven days later than planned). The experience in Gander blew me away. I wondered if people would do the same if our population nearly doubled. The Austin Business Journal first wrote about this “positive story” about the 9/11 attacks in late September. I wrote my memoir, Channel of Peace after Come From Away’s opening on the West coast tour. The producers told me audiences wondered “why have we never heard about this?” and told them “we want more stories about this.” I wrote Channel of Peace, the title based on the Prayer of St. Francis song which my character sings in the show. My book tells my first-hand account as an American refugee, and how this influenced my career and spiritual life.

Q: Can you tell our readers about Pay It Forward 9/11 and some of the ways they can spread kindness each day?
A: The annual Pay it Forward 9/11 campaign is encouraging individuals, companies, schools and houses of worship to unify during the 11 Days of Kindness & Unity campaign (Sept. 1-11) leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, a National Day of Service and Remembrance. Everyone may register their commitment on the website and perform three random acts of kindness for strangers. Each act recognizes the life of a 9/11 victim and may inspire a ripple effect of kindness and unity. Suggestions for actions include: buying a cup of coffee for the stranger behind you in line; providing free lunch to firefighters or healthcare workers; encouraging local schools to join 11 Days of Kindness and Unity by having teachers explain both the tragic history of the 9/11 attacks, and also the positive stories of 9/11, like Gander, plus  how “united we stand” was the common phrase in 2002, in a time before hashtags. 

Q: You’ve seen Come From Away multiple times- is there a certain scene or song that really resonates with you and your experiences personally?
A: Indeed, I never thought when I was stranded in Newfoundland 20 years ago, I would get to re-witness this beautiful story more than 60 times in many cities in four different countries. I weep each time the interfaith “Prayer” song begins because I never expected to have a song about peace as an earworm from that period, and then I never expected our world would become so divided. The story of Newfoundland compassion makes me wonder, ‘why does it take a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or a pandemic for each of us to act with compassion?” The people of Newfoundland, Canada are a beacon for how humanity is intended to live, caring for each other, despite our differences.

Q: Come From Away will be in Philly soon and there will be so many people seeing it for the first time. What do you hope they take away from this story?
A: Is Philly tired of the “city of brotherly love” comparisons? We could all use a reminder from this tiny town in Canada that we are all the same. How do we respond to strangers in Philly (and all US) when our heads are buried in our cell phones? It’s in our DNA that humans are meant to live in community with each other, and that we help each other. I am certain Philadelphians who witness Come From Away will leave with their faith restored in humanity. And I hope they will consider joining the annual 11 Days of Kindness and Unity (Sept 1st-11th)  in 2023. We’d love to see this ripple effect grow via our website,

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