An exec's newfound grit
Diverted flier sees employees' devotion, strangers' kindness
By Colin Pope, Austin Business Journal Staff
|Back to 911...
Air France Flight 004 from Paris was close to entering U.S. air space on the morning of Sept. 11 when tragedy struck the World Trade Center.
Kevin Tuerff, president of Austin-based Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia Inc., was one of about 200 people on the Air France flight and would become one of thousands of Austinities to be directly affected by the terrorist attacks.
Throughout the flight, Tuerff had watched a global positioning system monitor track his plane's progress during the previous seven hours. A straight line from Paris to Newark, N.J. -- the plane's destination -- was well-defined when Tuerff noticed his Boeing 747 suddenly had turned sharply to the north.
Soon after, the plane's captain announced in broken French-English that the flight was being diverted to Canada because of terrorist attacks. Conversations of curiosity and concern filled the cabin until the plane landed safely in Gander, Newfoundland.
Once on the ground, Tuerff and the other passengers sat anxiously in their seats as they watched about 40 other jets land at the small airport. It was an eerie scene, Tuerff says. Upon arrival, each plane would squeeze into any available space, where it was met with an armed Canadian guard who made sure no one entered or left.
With little information available, 35-year-old Tuerff and the others were forced to sit on the motionless plane for 10 hours. Some sat quietly. Fear prompted others to cry uncontrollably.
When the jet's doors finally opened, the passengers of Flight 004 were welcomed to a city they never intended to visit. Gander, population 10,000, already had declared a state of emergency to cope with the more than 9,000 stranded passengers who arrived at their small airport.
Without their baggage, Tuerff and others immediately made their way through Canadian customs. At the end, they were given KFC chicken by the Salvation Army and told to board school buses that would take them to a shelter.
"In our case, we were very lucky because we were assigned the College of the North Atlantic, a vocational college with the friendliest people you've ever met," Tuerff says.
In the school cafeteria, Tuerff caught his first glimpse of the devastation on CNN. As the rest of the world had been doing for 12 hours by then, Tuerff stood mystified in front of the TV as replays of the attacks played almost constantly.
Volunteers brought blankets for the unexpected visitors. About 20 people made their beds on the hard floor of each school's classrooms. Tuerff says a bottle of Grey Goose vodka his friend and co-worker picked up at the duty-free shop in Paris helped pass the time and ease the tension.
For those who had slept, Day Two arrived at dawn. The cold floor, loud snores and tragedy at home made the night something you'd like to forget, Tuerff says. Volunteers continued to comfort the displaced with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Culinary students prepared 200 stuffed chicken breasts, and the school's offices were opened to provide free Internet access and international phone calls.
A near-riot broke out late in the afternoon when the pilot and crew announced they might be sent back to Paris the next day, Tuerff says. Without luggage, and knowing another night would be spent in Gander, Tuerff and a friend hitched a ride to a local Wal-Mart where they fought -- literally -- other travelers for the remaining underwear and toiletries.
The third day was as much of an emotional roller coaster, Tuerff says, from watching TV news coverage and being told his flight was on, then off, then delayed.
After two and a half days without a shower, Tuerff carpooled to a nearby Canadian air force base, where showers and towels were provided.
During the ride back to the shelter, Tuerff passed the Gander International Airport.
"We saw the 40 or so planes parked on the runway," he recalls. "It looked and sounded like an airplane graveyard."
Upon his return, Tuerff says, a sense of camaraderie was prevalent throughout the "shelter." Many of the passengers became friends with each other and the locals. Drum circles, nature hikes and international soccer games became common time-killers. Phone numbers were exchanged for a possible reunion.
Travelers were so touched by the school's generosity, they passed around a basket to collect money for a scholarship fund, he says. With the cash in their pockets, stranded passengers were able to raise more than $5,000.
Finally, with only 15 minutes' warning, school buses arrived that evening to return passengers to the plane. Hugs among the visitors and Gander residents were exchanged. Many locals made one last attempt to feed the departing group. One woman begged them not to go.
Security at Gander airport was extremely tight. In a chaotic scene, the captain informed his passengers they had to return to Paris but had the option to stay and attempt to make it to the United States on their own.
"I was very reluctant to fly back to Paris, an ocean away from home," Tuerff says. "Trouble is, if you look at a map, you can't get in or out of Gander easily. [Deciding to stay or go] was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make."
Tuerff then sought counsel from his 20 employees in Austin. Here, the team quickly turned the EnviroMedia conference room into a "war room."
With maps of the United States and Canada spread across a table and pinned to the walls, the employees voted unanimously that Tuerff should try to make it to the U.S. border without the aid of Air France.
"We gave him 20 solid reasons not to go," says Sara Beechner, EnviroMedia's managing director. Some even offered to meet him at the U.S.-Canada border.
Despite their input, Tuerff decided to return to France. If he didn't, it would have taken him about 30 hours by car and ferry to reach Buffalo, NY., from Gander, plus Air France officials erroneously had told him and others the luggage of all those who didn't return with the flight would be burned.
Tuerff reclaimed his luggage. Six hours after he arrived at the airport, he left again for Paris.
Upon arrival, the airline paid for a hotel room near Charles De Gaulle Airport, where Tuerff found his first bed in three days. He spent Saturday shopping for clothes in Paris and returned to the airport Sunday for a chance to catch a flight to Houston. After standing in a line the length of two football fields, he was labeled a "priority standby passenger."
As the names of those who would fill the remaining 70 seats were called, "it was like waiting at the Pearly Gates ... to hear if you made the cut into heaven," Tuerff says. "The crowd would applaud with congratulations while you hauled your bags through the crowd to the front."
Tuerff was one of the blessed. His name was called, and he was whisked off to Houston by Continental Airlines in a relatively uneventful flight to Houston. Forty-five minutes later, he boarded a plane to Austin.
Six days late, Tuerff opened the front door to his home at 11 p.m. Sunday. He returned to work Tuesday, exactly one week after his plane was diverted.
The "war room" once again was a conference room, but Tuerff's entire staff wore red French berets, fake mustaches and exchanged hugs under a "Welcome Back, Ya'll" sign.
Now that he's back, Tuerff says he probably won't hesitate to fly again.
"The biggest thing I've come away with is my respect for Canadians," he says. "They were phenomenal, and I hope ... people here would react in the same way. They shared our pain, and the experience has made me want to sign up as a volunteer for someone like the Red Cross."
- Back to Main 911 Page -