Jessica Lilly Published

Stranded on 9/11, One Man Was Moved To Start a Pay It Forward Foundation To Encourage Kindness

kevin t view 11-09-2001 Gander airport.jpeg

A non-profit organization is hoping people will mark the 20th anniversary of 9-11 with acts of kindness.

PayitForward 911 is a few days into the 11 days of Kindness and Unity campaign. The organization promotes acts of kinds on Sept. 11 but wanted to expand the project to mark 20 years since planes hit the World Trade Center buildings in New York. The project all started when a man experienced extreme generosity the days after Sept. 11.

U.S. airways were closed for five days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Planes that were flying back to the states on that fateful morning had to find another place to land.

In total, more 7,000 passengers from 90 countries found refuge in Canada’s Gander, Newfoundland. The small province and its 9,000 residents rallied in a radical outpouring of kindness, opening their homes to shelter, clothe and feed their international guests.

Among them was environmental communications executive Kevin Tuerff, whose story of finding kindness and refuge in Canada after his plane was diverted on 9-11 was so compelling that it became part of a Broadway play — “Come From Away.” Tuerff also wrote a book of his story and how it changed his life called “Channel of Peace.”

Tuerff, who spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, was so moved by the hospitality on 9-11, that in 2002, he began an annual tradition to “pay it forward” and return the kindness he had been shown.

After 9-11 happened, some people were angry and many times felt helpless as the nation weathered a significant blow of terrorism on its own shores. Tuerff says this notion — to practice random acts of kindness on a tough day — has helped to give people hope.

“It doesn’t change the history of what happened on that terrible day,” Tuerff said. “But it gives them something positive to do. Because that’s what Gander was on that horrific day. The people of Newfoundland, Canada, were a shining example of humanity.

“They made the decision to let us off the planes and come into the community. And then we became like refugees — we needed food, we needed clothing, shelter, information. And they provided all of that with love and kindness.”

Kevin Tuerff-Gander shelter 2001.jpeg

Kevin Tuerff (2001) at a community college in Gander, Canada, in the classroom where he slept on the floor with strangers, wearing clothes found at the local Wal-Mart.

When he returned home to Texas, Tuerff wondered if there would be a community that would do the same for thousands of stranded passengers.

“What they did with the radical hospitality towards everyone was so inclusive,” Tuerff said, “and so that meant that there were people who were getting off the plane such as Muslims from Arab countries, for example. I don’t think that would have happened here in Texas, people would have said, ‘Yeah, we’ll let some of you in, but not all of you.’ But these people, they took a risk. Because they said they believe in the Golden Rule. They said “treat others like you want to be treated.”

Tuerff’s non-profit PayitForward 911 is asking businesses, schools, houses of worship, along with nonprofits and civic groups to get involved this year.

The organization started a campaign called 11 days of Kindness and Unity. Tuerff says they are hoping that people pay it forward with kind gestures for 11 days, leading up to Sept. 11.

“It doesn’t have to cost money,” Tuerff points out. “You can open the door for a stranger or let someone cut in front of you in traffic. Those are things that are free.”