I had a unique perspective that September Day back in 2001. Working for a Major Airline, the first reports were sketchy and confused. I recall walking out to a flight, on a television screen the sight of the first tower silhouetted in an opel New York sky. Smoke drifted oblique from a ragged scar in the pale tower.
Funny, in the airline business every aircraft incident resonates deeply. The first reports were of a small or commuter plane crashing into the tower. I shrugged and could well imagine such an accident would occupy not only the news, but conversations with coworkers, speculations from mechanics and air controllers, and the occasional morsel of inside information from a friendly FAA official. When the second aircraft struck no one could deny what was unfolding.. Right after a choice expletive I turned to a couple shocked coworkers and said, “We are at war.”
A friend named Mark was married to a flight attendant and had been assigned to one of the flights out of Boston’s Logan airport where the doomed flight originated. I knew her. She was pretty and sweet, and in an environment that can best be described as a cross between a high school locker and prison, Mark was a genuinely decent guy, well-educated enough to do most anything else, but loving the flight benefits and the hard physically exhausting work of a frontline airline worker. More than that, he loved the people he worked beside, as crews bonded in dangerous conditions, tested in all weather extremes as closely as men in battle. Having been in battle, I can attest fully to that.
Then word came of the crash at the Pentagon. Meanwhile Mark paced madly, awaiting calls amid a desperately overwhelmed system about whether his wife was on one of the flights. No one knew what to say to him. How does one console someone for not knowing? Time becomes a madman with a knife. Fate is the madman’s laugh, mocking and cruel all at once.
It wasn’t long after that, a matter of minutes when the FAA announced an unprecidented full ground stop nationwide. Someone came down and said that all the planes parked at gates needed to be checked and the gates needed to be cleared. An argument erupted. The toughest big mouths in the room were the first to remind that they weren’t being paid for that sort of danger. A number of us, in small groups or alone went out the door to that uncertainty. I grabbed a big wrench and recall thinking, ” What the f%$k will this do against people willing to crash planes into buildings?”
I recall when I returned to the room, sweating buckets, numb, Mark was sitting in a chair with his face buried in his hands. My heart sank and I sighed think the worst. For a moment I could imagine his wife and how terrified she must have been as the plane slammed into the tower. An Irish kid named Sean, an IRA courier years before as a boy, came over. Our eyes met for a long moment, sharing the tragedy of the moment. Quiet and not prone to his emotions getting the best of him, Sean shook his head slowly.
I nodded to Mark. “He hear?”
“His wife wasn’t on the flight,” said Sean. “She was supposed to be.”
I only shook my head and threw the wrench on a cabinet.
Fights are about the moment. Whoever perpetrated the attacks had won the fight. What was to come was about retribution and revenge. Some may disagree and call it justice, but then that is fully a matter for hearts and minds to reconcile.