Military stories from past to present, both wars.

Nothing to Chance, ten years later by Malcolm Andrews

September 10th, 2011 Posted in The SandGram v1.0

Hey Dad, where were you on 9-11?

An innocent question posed by my eight year old daughter.  Hard to believe it’s been ten years since those bastards attacked the United States.  This has really become our generation’s version of “Where were you when JFK was shot” or my Grandparents “Pearl Harbor” moment that will forever be seared into our beings. 

 This is a question I’m sure is being posed all over the United States this weekend by school kids who weren’t born yet or too young to remember.  I was home asleep having returned from a late flight that Monday night.  I woke up to the constant ringing of the phone from my wife alerting me to American 11 hitting the North Tower.  Then watching in disbelief as United 175 hit the South Tower on T.V. not sure if it was some replay or what.  Then driving out to DFW to help move airplanes and answer the phones in “Charlie” operations are all my memories of that day.

I had a discussion with a gentlemen sitting next to me one day about 9-11 and he shared his story of escaping the North Tower and surviving the aftermath of the collapse.  He said “Never forget 9-11! Never forget what those bastards did to us!”  His photos will be at the end of this piece. 

One of my close friends from home and a former roommate was flying that week and he put his thoughts to paper in a long well done piece.  He has given me permission to post this and it’s the first time he has really talked about his 9-11 week.  I think it will give you some insight into life from the other side of the cockpit door on that day.   

Please feel free to post where you were on 9-11 in my comments section, I would like to know.

Semper Fi,

Taco

“Nothing to Chance, ten years later” by Malcolm Andrews

Ten years later and I know more now than ever that nothing happens by chance. I can’t remember when exactly, but sometime early in 2001 I flew American flight 77 out of Dulles to LAX as first officer for Terry, a Washington based captain.  That was the only time we had flown together and it would be several more months before we would run into each other again.  That September, I was finally senior enough to hold a regular schedule and I was awarded a Boston to LAX line for the month.  It was great to finally know where I was going and when…

On September 10th, 2001, I was scheduled to fly American flight 223 from Boston to LAX on a 767-200ER.  My Captain was Chris, a big Cajun guy with a great sense of humor and zest for life.  In my neophyte impression he had seen it all, having experienced the worst of our industry through the wreckage of the once great Eastern Airlines.  In contrast, I had seen nothing but growth and prosperity in our normally frenetic industry.

 We were rescheduled to a later time due to some weather rolling through the Northeast.  I remember driving down 95 listening to NPR on my way to Logan.  The National Press Club was on and Joe Biden was discussing the imprudence of the Bush administration sacrificing standing treaties and committing excessive funding to our strategic missile defense program, when the system was not yet proven and in Biden’s opinion the greater threat to our “new world order” was from terrorism.  The weather had passed through so the drive to the airport gloriously sunny with the sort of light that comes in low from the west and seems to repel the passing weather with steamy golden beams of light. 

 My flight was uneventful.  I met Chris in Operations. We did our flight planning and started getting to know each other.  I learned he had a son at Georgia Tech; he learned that I was a new hire, about to come off of probation, that I had a young family and that I had spent most of my adult life in the Navy. The weather looked good; we got our flight plan and headed out the back door of OPS onto the ramp.  Back in these old days, we could go straight to the plane and didn’t have to go through security if we were flying the plane.  We were trusted, we had a job to do and because we were the guys to get you there safely.  I did my walk around inspection of the jet while Chris briefed the flight attendants and got the cockpit prepped.  I remember watching the fuelers fill our tanks using the high pressure valves under the wing.  I had to linger until they were done as we had an MEL item in our logbook that required me to visually verify that the tank in question was full.  We were good to go, so I rejoined Chris in the cockpit and got ready for departure.

 The weather truly had moved through leaving behind it a high pressure system that ensured we would have good weather.  Chris gave me the choice of which leg I wanted to fly.  Given the choice, I always like to start a trip flying and this was no exception. We departed…I was on the radios on the ground and Chris had to remind me to use the word “Heavy” before our callsign.  I was definitely still a neophyte.  We took off to the west.  Once rolling on the runway, I took the controls of our 767-200 and flew it, quite literally, into the sunset.  The rest of our trip was uneventful, but thankfully it was one of those seven-plus hour flights that speeds by and we wonder where the time went.  Good conversation always makes the time pass and, in this case, I think I stopped laughing only long enough to eat dinner and brief my approach.  Once over Los Angeles, it was the usual mayhem of arrival changes followed by approach and runway changes.  We descended through the marine layer, landed, put the plane to bed and headed to our layover hotel.  Because of the earlier delays, we didn’t get to the hotel until well after eleven that night (which felt more like 2AM on our body clocks).  We were scheduled to fly home to Boston on the red-eye flight 192 on the eleventh, so sleep was essential.  I was lights out by the time I made it to my room that night.

 I cleared the fog from my head around 6AM as my cell phone continued to ring.  Answering the phone I heard voice of my sister-in-law, Hilton, on the line.  She was visiting us in Maine for my son’s birthday on the 12th.  I immediately thought something was wrong at home.  Hilton was crystal clear; she instructed me to turn on the television, that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center, and that I needed to start calling family members to let them know I was alive and well.  My wife, Elizabeth, was out delivering kids to school and had no idea what had happened.  Once she caught the news, she went back to school and had the kids called out of class to let then know Daddy was alive.  I called my grandmother in Dallas, who had not seen the news yet, and let her know I was okay.  I continued to watch the news in disbelief.  Moments after tuning in, I watched the second airplane fly into the south tower, then continued to watch the coverage of flight 77’s impact into the Pentagon.  It wasn’t long before it was released that two of the jets belonged to American Airlines and we learned their flight numbers.

 I dialed up an internet connection on my computer (this was long before the days of free wifi in hotel rooms) and got onto our company web site to find out more flight information.  The information for flights 11 and 77 had been locked up so there was no way to find out who was on each crew.  I checked the bid sheets and figured out who I thought should have been on the flights, but later discovered that several of the crew had picked up the flights off reserve or out of open time. 

 Later that morning we gathered all of the American crewmembers together that were staying in the hotel.  We were joined by the Washington crew of 77 from the day before, a Chicago crew, and a New York crew.  The Captain of the DC crew was Terry.  It was nice to have another familiar face in the room.  The mood was beyond somber.  The flight attendants were mostly tearful.  Most of us did not know how to react.  We started to piece together who some of the missing crews were and that only added to the horror of the day’s events.  Every one of us either knew or had at least flown with someone who had died on one of our flights that day.  The company sent representatives out to the LA layover hotels to help provide some measure of comfort to the crews, but no one had anything to say.  It was too soon for everything to have sunk in. 

 I returned to my room and got in touch with my Navy Reserve squadron.  It was time to count heads and most of us were airline pilots.  Thankfully, everyone was accounted for.  Next, I started looking up fraternity brothers who lived and worked in New York.  Everyone that I could locate was also accounted for.  At least one who had been working in the WTC had decided to come in late that day.  I kept one eye on the news and the other on my internet connection for what seemed like an eternity.  With a small measure of peace of mind, I decided it was time to go for a run. 

Over the next few days, this was how I managed my stress and I would run several times a day.  Sleep did not come easy and the physical exhaustion helped.  It was no surprise that our flight was cancelled that night.   The whole system had been shut down and no airplanes were flying.  Running in LA, one rarely has the sense of being alone, but on September 11th, I had a sense of solitude as I ran.  There were very few cars on the road and, though we were near the airport, there were no airplanes in the sky.  The absence of contrails in the sky and the utter silence on the ground was more surreal than serene…it was utterly eerie.

 That night, all four crews gathered at the Tony Roma’s restaurant across the street from our hotel.  The restaurant staff had arranged for a private room for us.  Ordinarily when aircrews get together, the scene is filled with the spirited flow of a group of people whose camaraderie is constantly reinforced by the synergy of their daily routines.  This time we descended on the bar as though flying a missing man formation.  The routine was normal but the empty seats made everyone and everything seem out of balance, though at the time, no one put those feelings into words.  The wine was flowing as though it were a wake.  It was very cathartic as we all felt an intangible loss and shared in a fellowship that made us feel less isolated and introspective (we had plenty of time for that at the hotel).  We swapped stories and tried to act like things were normal. 

 I discovered that the first officer from the Chicago crew, sitting across the table from me, was Rob.  His father is the author (and pilot) Richard Bach who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  That little book played a critical role in my childhood fascination with flight and my yearning to become a pilot.  When I read the story, I was touched by the beauty of the hero’s pursuit of perfection in his art of flight and the author’s portrayal of solitude and introspection in that pursuit.  It is a story of transformation through the pursuit of perfection in the art of flying.  Later, my flight school roommate, Mitchell gave me another Bach book entitled, Illusions, and made me read it before getting my wings.  Illusions is a wonderful allegorical book about a modern day Messiah who quits the job to pursue what makes him happy.  With this book, Mitchell and Richard Bach had given me a gift of perspective and reflection…we all should have the freedom to do what we love.  As I reflected on the coincidence of this chance meeting with Rob, I focused in on these ideas and what forces had aligned to put me at that table on that day.  Ironically, Richard Bach also wrote a book entitled, Nothing By Chance

 This coincidence…this thought…this reason helped me keep things in perspective when the inevitable questions and doubts began to arise.  Why them? Were we targeted too?  Should it have been me?  Would it have turned out differently if I had been in the cockpit?  All of these thoughts and the accompanying emotions seemed to be driven, not by guilt, but by a sense of responsibility for our brethren.  We needed to feel something and we were all searching for it, but this was new territory and no one knew exactly how to respond.

I have always surrounded myself with music; whether at home, in the car or in my head interspersed with my thoughts, some kind of music is nearly always with me. I have tried to remember what music I listened to during the time I was stuck in LA that week, but I can’t recall listening to music.  Although this may sound a little weird, my mind was filled with a song that week, all the time, everywhere. The children had learned it from our friend and Deacon, Edie, sometime earlier in the year and had sung it repeatedly in a family church service at our little church in Maine. I don’t know what it is called, and perhaps it represents a more overtly spiritual song of fateful resignation than I will ever be comfortable expressing outwardly.  Nonetheless, it became my silent mantra that week as I worked through my thoughts and experience.  It was only loud and a conscious thought when I was out on my runs.  I drummed the cadence of the song with every painful plodding step… “this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it…” It’s crazy but my feelings as I write those words now, ten years later, gave me a chill and welled up in my eyes.  That’s as far as it goes, every time I think of it, and I still have not cried.  When things seem senseless or inexplicable, I find myself falling back into that mantra and I find solace in it.   

 For the next five days, we were scheduled to fly back to Boston everyday.  Everyday our flight was cancelled because the airspace remained shutdown.  Finally on Saturday, September 15th, we were scheduled and flew flight 222 back to Boston.  The ramp at LAX was virtually barren.  Chris waited on the jetbridge for our passengers while I did the preflight inspection.  He knew his role and it came naturally…as the captain he had to allay our passengers’ fears and help them get on the airplane for the first time since the attacks. This task was made more challenging by the fact that many of our passengers had lost loved ones in the attacks and several were related to our lost crew members. Chris demonstrated true leadership and genuine compassion as he greeted each passenger and spoke to them privately.  They all got on board.  The mother of one of our deceased flight attendants pinned on my lapel a red, white and blue ribbon that she had stitched. 

 The single loop of ribbon was soft and thin. The red ribbon overlaid on top of the white and the blue but each one set smoothly upon the other revealing each colored edge.  The very tips of the ribbon, now slightly frayed, curled upward.  At the center of the vertex of the loop, where the three ribbons cross, there are two tiny white stitches that were put there by a mother’s hand. Tiny, insignificant, white threaded stitches…not showy, just there to hold it together.  The kind of simple, functional, threads that bind families together and remind us of our mothers’ love even when we may take it for granted.  She pinned it to my lapel with my American Airlines service pin.  The pin left a hole in the ribbon that has become as much a memory as the thread and ribbon. 

 They were ready to go and we took off for Boston.  Once overhead LA, we were cleared direct to the initial approach fix for our approach into Boston.  With the exception of the military flights on patrol, there were now other airplanes in the sky.  The radios were so silent that I continually had to call Center for radio checks to verify that they were still working.  Once we reached Albany, NY, we could see the column of smoke still rising up from the remains of the World Trade Center.  Chris and I looked on in disbelief as we saw it live for the first time.  We attempted to joke around about ways to distract our passengers so they would look out the other side of the airplane toward Canada and clear skies…but that did not alleviate the feeling of distress over seeing the billowing smoke.  Soon thereafter, we landed in Boston.  We were the only inbound flight that day (or at least that is how I remember it).  We were greeted by our Chief Pilot and volunteers from the union who were there to make sure we were okay and got any help we might need.  We walked along the ramp in relative silence.  In a place that one can ordinarily not hear themselves think, we could have been heard talking in a whisper.

 I had been gone for what seemed like an eternity and I needed to get home to see Elizabeth and the kids, so I left the airport as quickly as I could.  During my extended stay in LA, I had missed Patrick’s 5th birthday party. Although it was the terrorists’ attacks that prevented me from getting home, I will always feel guilty about missing that day with Patrick. As these thoughts filled my head, I passed under an underpass on Route 1 where someone had hung a large American flag and I began to notice them hanging everywhere along the road.  Something in our spirit had changed while we were away; now we appeared to be united.

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