Canada’s 9/11 lesson for the world: Stranded American recalls unfathomable 'compassion' in Gander, Newfoundland, 20 years later

·5-min read

Diane Davis, former teacher at Gander Academy in Newfoundland, was there when the school housed nearly hundreds of stranded passengers after the grounding of U.S. flights on September 11, 2001, following the terrorist attacks.

Looking back 20 years later, Davis is thinking about the first responders, family members of first responders and survivors of 9/11, while also remembering how the community of Gander "came together."

"If someone had have told me three months previous, we're going to do a drill and this is the scenario, I would have put up all kinds of blocks and said that won't work, and yet, it worked," Davis told Yahoo Canada. "People came together and did whatever little thing they could to help a bunch of strangers, and it just turned into a huge wave."

With her story now being featured in the musical Come From Away (the a filmed version is available to watch on AppleTV+), Davis said it's important for everyone to see this story of "kindness," while emotional moments from the story still stick with her.

"For me, the scene of the passengers watching the videos for the first time, and I just get chills talking about it, because it was like seeing it over and over again, through their eyes, and the emotions are always right there," she said with tears in her eyes.

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 16:   The Star talks to Americans based on characters in Come From Away, which is set to re-open in Toronto.
Kevin Tuerff(left) & Kevin Jung: Couple on vacation. Kevin T creates the Pay It Forward Foundation and just published a book
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 16: The Star talks to Americans based on characters in Come From Away, which is set to re-open in Toronto. Kevin Tuerff(left) & Kevin Jung: Couple on vacation. Kevin T creates the Pay It Forward Foundation and just published a book " Channel of Peace". (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

'There was a state of disbelief'

On September 11, 2001 Kevin Tuerff and Kevin Jung were on an Air France flight together that ended up grounding in Gander. Tuerff said he was anxious when the plane landed in the Newfoundland town, particularly when the Air France pilot said they were going to be landing because of a terrorist attack in the U.S.

With no mobile phones or mobile internet available, it was difficult to know what was going on, so it was a lot of "anxious waiting."

"There was a state of disbelief," Tuerff remembered, adding that he was able to get in contact with a friend in Amsterdam who confirmed what was happening in the U.S.

Despite that concern, things changed when the plane passengers met the people of Newfoundland.

"There [were] so many volunteers, so much food," he said. "Every stove in Gander was cooking, [everybody] in town was going to their linen closet and pulling out pillows and sheets and donating them, not knowing if they would get them back."

Tuerff, who has also written a book about his experience, remembers that his flight of 270 people at the local community college in Gander ran up a $13,000 phone bill, but the people in Gander refused to take any money to cover that cost.

Throughout his experience, Tuerff had one question when he returned home to Texas, "would we do the same back where I lived?"

He wasn't confident that would be the case, which prompted him to start a "pay it forward" initiative where he encourages people to do three good deeds for strangers to honour those who died on 9/11 and tell the story of the people of Newfoundland.

"What occurred in Gander was not just kindness — it was compassion. They were engaged in the suffering of others; when they open their borders, their schools, their churches and their homes to people to take a shower, that's to engage in the suffering of others," Tuerff said. "During this pandemic, during these natural disasters, terrorist attacks, the people of Newfoundland, they are compassionate all the time."

"That's the world that I hope that we can move back to, a world that's more united and not divided."

De’Lon Grant, Tony LePage, Sharon Wheatley, Joel Hatch, Jim Walton and Emily Walton in “Come From Away,” premiering September 10, 2021 on Apple TV+.
De’Lon Grant, Tony LePage, Sharon Wheatley, Joel Hatch, Jim Walton and Emily Walton in “Come From Away,” premiering September 10, 2021 on Apple TV+.

'Experience the feeling of being kind'

Tuerff admits he was a bit apprehensive about a role based on his personality appearing Come From Away. It was a discussion that began with co-writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff.

"I did return for the 10th anniversary...and I went back to that community college and told my story to the students that were there in an assembly, in the cafeteria, and afterwards David Heine, Irene Sankoff approached me," Tuerff explained.

"A couple of years went by and then I get a call, 'Hey, remember that interview? Well, we wrote a musical and you're in it.' I naturally wanted to see it, so I did fly from Texas to Sheridan College and I saw it, and I wept the entire time. It was so accurate, such an accurate portrayal of the events."

For Davis, she learned a "big lesson" on one of her trips to New York to see Come From Away. She met a stranger outside the theatre and shared her story, and he invited her home for dinner with his wife, but she turned him down.

"Twenty minutes later I realized, that was a huge mistake to turn him down because we would be friends now, it would have been an amazing evening and I took away his opportunity to be kind," she said. 

"So my big takeaway from 9/11 and from what's happened since is, for myself personally, to get better at saying, 'thank you' when someone offers to do something kind to me so that they experience the feeling of being kind. It can't become a habit or a routine if we don't get a chance to practice it."

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