By Rachel M. Drummer
Hello! My name is Rachel, and this is my second editorial here at the Theatrical Board. My love for theatre has been in my heart and blood since I was born. Growing up, my cousins and I used to perform plays for the family every Friday night. It all started with my cousin Jackie, whose strong love for theatre made these moments memorable. I am thankful to her for that, and I always will be! In any case, today, I’m lucky to get to tell you about a very special man named Kevin Tuerff, whom I was able to interview. Jump in and enjoy!
On December 20th, I interviewed Kevin Tuerff, who is the author of Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11. Of course, I was nervous, despite having briefly spoken to him before via Twitter and email. After talking to him over the phone and asking questions while typing out his answers, however, I found myself feeling more comfortable with each passing word. Sure, he’s an author and a businessman, and has a number of people playing him all over the world as one of the Come From Away characters, but he’s just like you and me. He is human and I feel lucky to have been able to connect with him!
For Kevin, it all started just before he boarded Air France Flight 004 in Paris, France, when he thought about how it was time for his partner, Kevin J, and himself to go back home to Texas after their European vacation. The pair were on the plane when their pilot, Captain Hollande, broke the news that, due to a terrorist attack, they would be landing in Gander, Newfoundland instead of Texas.
Kevin told me how his partner at the time said that “it was bullshit and that it was impossible for this to happen.” As for himself, however, Kevin told me that he “was in shock and had thought about that, and wondered why anyone would have made that up.”
Kevin (and others) never got to see the images or get the full information of what actually happened across the East Coast of the United States while they were on the plane. It wasn’t until after they were able to disembark for Air France Flight 004 after 15 hours of waiting on the tarmac, and then arriving at the College of the North Atlantic, that they were able to see the images of the Towers, the Pentagon, and the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
When I asked Kevin what his first thought was on the morning of Wednesday, September 12th, his answer actually made me chuckle a little bit. He told me that his first thought was that “the sun was so bright there and that I was so tired, that the College of the North Atlantic didn’t have blinds on the windows.” I guess that sort of hit me as a strange thought, but, after thinking a while about that answer, it made a lot of sense to me. Everything was so dark back home in the US, but there, they were safe and sound on the ground while the sun was too bright. It’s strange to think about, but this answer sort of showed me the two sides of the coin and how everything has two sides, light and dark.
By the time I conducted the interview, I read Kevin’s book once, and I was just over halfway through the audiobook version, read by Kevin himself. I knew much of what he was telling me in the interview, but I just wanted to hear it all from him directly. I needed to hear not only his words, but also his voice, describing what he was really feeling at the time, and how he still feels about it to this day.
Throughout the next five days, Kevin and the other Come From Aways were taken care of by the people of Gander (and the surrounding areas) with warm and welcoming hospitality. Kevin told me his favorite thing about what had happened: spending time with the people of Newfoundland. He told me that “the people were all so friendly and kind to all of these strangers, who dropped into their town. Whether it was getting driven to somewhere to take a shower or given a ride to get some clothes, or uhm, or just even the people who were volunteers at the shelter, but they were all remarkable. It was like they did this type of thing every day.” Kevin says that he is still very close to a number of the people from his plane (and other planes) as well as the Newfoundlanders, and he keeps in close contact with many of them. This is something that made me smile, because even in a time of darkness, there was love and kindness that hasn’t, and won’t ever, diminish.
Following that, I asked him what his least favorite memory was about that time, and he actually replied with something I hadn’t been expecting. I had been expecting him to tell me his least favorite part of it had been that so many people were in such small areas, or that he didn’t get enough privacy, or that he didn’t like wearing his clothes for so many hours, but that didn’t occur. He told me that when they were finally back at the airport in Gander to head back to Texas (via New York), they were told “that they were not going to New York, but that they were going back to Paris because Air France wanted their airplane back.” He said, and I don’t blame him at all, that “all I wanted was to go home, and once more I was stopped from doing that.” Kevin mentioned to me that the worst part of it all was “not knowing how long it would take for them to get back to the States again.”
When I asked Kevin what his overall thoughts about 9/11 and the weeks that followed were, his answer was what I expected. He said, “Me and other passengers on the flight, we openly talked about, what a small town in America, if they would do the same thing that the people of Newfoundland did, and we weren’t sure. And over the last eighteen years, we do see that people do come together in America, during times of natural disasters, and they do help each other in similar ways to what people did in Gander, but now it’s part of my passion to speak out on and ask the question, ‘Why do we have to wait for a terrorist attack or natural disaster to treat people with compassion?’ And in today’s times, it seems like it’s gotten even worse.” After he said that, I thought a moment and nodded in agreement. I, too, thought about whether any area I’ve lived in would or could have done what the people of Gander did. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure they would, despite the fact that I would do it myself if I could.
Then I shifted gears to ask him about Come From Away. I was quite interested in a lot of these particular answers, as these things are not in his book. Rather, these things are more than just words on a page; they’re from the heart. When someone speaks from the heart, it shows how they feel—it changes how people feel around them, and around us all. His answers make my own heart swell, and it makes me want to help others even more.
When I asked him what it was like to see someone else playing him onstage, he took a second and then told me “It’s completely surreal, and now there are four people playing me on stage, and in the middle of next year, there will be five.” When he went on, I couldn’t help but smile. He said, “It’s not something I requested. I’ve simply been telling the story ever since we left there because I was blown away by the town’s compassion and uhm, I had to agree to help the writers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, but it was not with any expectation that a character would be based on me.”
Next, I asked him what his favorite Come From Away song was, and I actually guessed it before he even said it. His answer was “‘Prayer’. Especially because it starts with my true story of the prayer of St. Francis, which did go through my head at that time, and uh, the whole song is a beautiful one which morphs into multi-faith prayers of people who are praying for peace during a time of war. In the musical, it… sort of appears that the exchange happened in Gander, but it really happened when we had gone back to Paris, when they told us not to go back to the airport for days because they were so backlogged. I went into downtown Paris and noticed they were having a mass in French for America at Notre-Dame Cathedral, and so after leaving that mass is when that song was going through my head.” I, too, have had songs in my head at times in my life (read, really often), so I can definitely understand where he was coming from. It actually made me think differently about that song, too. At first (though I love the whole musical), the songs that moved the story were at the top in my mind. But truth is, every song moves the story and characters, and though I still love “Me and the Sky”, “Prayer” is now one of my top favorites, thanks to Kevin.
In Molly’s interview with Monica Burke, who is also involved with Come From Away, Monica mentioned that she sometimes gets flashbacks when she hears the musical, and I was curious if Kevin experiences them, too. He said, “Uhm, yes, I mean, I uhm, flashbacks are like negatives. I definitely have strong memories from my time there, so uhm, it’s remarkable considering it was 18 years ago…” I thought about that for a moment, and though I was slightly confused because I didn’t think flashbacks were either bad or good, I understood why Kevin (or anyone) would think that a flashback would be negative. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be in some cases.
Going off the flashback idea, I asked Kevin if he found any parts of Come From Away hard to watch or listen to, and then asked him to tell me if he felt he could talk about it. I almost instantly regretted asking. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was upset anyone, especially Kevin. I had begun to find that I was extremely comfortable with Kevin and I wanted to be able to talk to him again, which wasn’t something I could do easily if I had upset him. But thankfully, he answered, and didn’t have a problem with me asking him this question. He said, “I really don’t have any parts, you know, I cry every time I see it, and especially now, uhm, it’s because of this musical I have become friends with the real Hannah O'Rourke, who did lose her firefighter son at the World Trade Center, and now I’ve become friends with her whole family. It’s kinda ironic, it’s never really mentioned, but her son’s name was Kevin…”
When Kevin said that, I teared up and sort of felt my heart stop for a second. It didn’t, of course, but just hearing that his name is the same as Hannah’s son’s made me both very sad and happy that Hannah had someone like the real Kevin T in her life, even if it was because of this terrible thing that had happened.
Then, I changed the topic just a little bit and asked Kevin what gave him the idea for his “Pay-It-Forward Movement”, and I sat tight to listen. “Well, I came a year later (to Gander) on the first anniversary of 9/11, and I had such a strong memory about what happened that I wanted to go back and thank everyone there, but they said, ‘No thanks are necessary, your debt is paid in full’. So I decided to borrow the idea from the book and movie, Pay It Forward, in tribute to the people of Newfoundland.” I smiled and nodded. Even though Kevin couldn’t see it, I was sure he felt it in my pause. What I didn’t tell him though, was that it’s thanks to him that I started to save up 2 dollars a week from last September 11th to make 100 dollars, so that I can join the Pay-It-Forward Movement!
To end this interview, I asked a question that came as an afterthought. I decided I should end my editorial with this excerpt from the interview:
Me: “Is there anything else you want people to see/hear about?”
Kevin: “What happened on 9/11 changed how Americans look at strangers and immigrants and refugees. And, I believe that we are a nation of immigrants, just like Canada, and that we should help those people in need, just like the people of Gander did for me. Everyone’s afraid, afraid of strangers, afraid of the caravan, afraid of people who don’t look or act like us, and it’s ridiculous.”
Read Rachel’s first editorial for the Board on Come From Away here.
(Image from House of Anansi Press)