After 9/11 attack, Americans saw humanity at its best

Countries and people from around the world came to America’s aid after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Sixteen years later, a hit musical on Broadway sheds light on the empathy and support directed to Americans following those attacks.

Come From Away tells the story of 6,600 airline passengers who landed in Newfoundland, Canada, after American airspace was shut down on September 11, 2001. Their arrival in Gander, a town of around 10,000, was part of Operation Yellow Ribbon, Canada’s response to the diversion of aircraft unable to land at their American destinations.

Cast members of play taking selfie onstage (© Walter McBride/WireImage via Getty Images)
The cast of the Broadway musical “Come From Away” performs in New York City. (© Walter McBride/WireImage via Getty Images)

The musical made headlines in March when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended with presidential adviser Ivanka Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. “The world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times,” Trudeau said after seeing the musical.

Renewed purpose

Kevin Tuerff was one of the Americans stranded in Gander in 2001, and his story is one of several told in Come From Away.

Close-up of Kevin Tuerff (© Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Kevin Tuerff (© Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“This is a story about kindness and empathy, and how we treat strangers” said Tuerff, whose account is told in his book Channel of Peace.

“It’s a beautiful story of what the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, did on that horrific day; they showed us the best side of humanity,” Tuerff said.

When Tuerff returned to his home in Texas from Gander, he launched Pay It Forward 9/11 as a way to “reclaim” the day. “I closed my small business of 40 people and gave them each a hundred-dollar bill to go do good deeds for strangers in the community and come back and talk about it,” Tuerff explained. It’s a practice he has continued each year since.

Acts of solidarity

Tuerff’s story is featured in New York’s 9/11 Tribute Museum, where a new exhibition called Seeds of Service recognizes dozens of foundations and organizations for their positive work in response to 9/11.

The museum, like the Broadway musical and the book, serves as a reminder that in the days following the attacks, acts of generosity and empathy came from every corner of the world.

Allies and opponents alike joined in their statements of solidarity.

Pope John Paul II was among the first to send messages to then U.S. President George W. Bush. And despite strained diplomatic relations, Iran and North Korea offered condolences. In addition to Canada, several countries, including Cuba, offered their airspace to aircraft in need of a place to land.

Colorful illustration of African cows (Thomas Gonzalez)
The children’s book “Fourteen Cows for America” tells the story of Kenya’s Maasai tribe, which sought to comfort the U.S. with its gift of sacred cattle. (Thomas Gonzalez)

Private citizens joined governments in offering support:

  • Hungarian firefighters tied black ribbons to their trucks to mourn the victims.
  • Candlelight vigils were held as far and wide as Greenland and Azerbaijan.
  • Hundreds of citizens gathered at the Brussels World Trade Center in Belgium.
  • Switzerland’s national post system sent all letters and small packages to the U.S. free of charge for a day after the attacks.
  • The French newspaper Le Monde ran a front-page editorial titled “Nous sommes tous Américains” (“We are all Americans”).

This article was written by freelance writer Maeve Allsup.