Saturday, September 11, 2010

A day like any other

It was a Tuesday morning and I was facilitating a class on Applied Behavioral Science - teaching supervisors of flight attendants how to get the best performance from their teams. We had supervisors from Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco with us.

We were covering a section on managing through irregular operations when someone threw open the classroom door and excitedly blurted out, "Two planes have hit the World Trade Center!" The class turned expectantly to me, thinking this was part of the exercise in dealing with the unexpected. I was confused.

"Come!" the person said, "It's on the TV!" My co-facilitator and I agreed that we wouldn't be able to continue until we sorted this out, so we all filed out, hushed and excited voices hubbubbing about what it could be. We gathered around the TV set in the lounge area of the training center. Then a buzz started somewhere..."it's one of ours"...."it could be one of ours..." "what if it's one of ours???"

A manager came around the corner and went straight to the supervisor from Boston. UA175 from Boston was confirmed as one of the planes. These were HER flight attendants on board, her friends, our colleagues. She was led away, arangements to be made to get her to Boston as soon as possible.

I left the group and went up to the 8th floor of the building, where the managers were. We were all part of the emergency response team and needed to decide who would go where, and when. One facilitator was pacing around, shouting out gibberish about pulling people back into class, using this as a real-life experience in dealing with the unexpected. He was new to the airlines. He didn't understand.

I decided to drive to our Chicago Reservations office, the emergency response team's headquarters in case of... I found a couple other people downstairs who were headed there and off we went. Once there, there was controlled anxiety and we were assigned rooms. "Go into that classroom and sit. We will be with you as soon as possible."

The room I was assigned was where I would spend the next 10 days, in 12 hour shifts once we got through that first day, which was endless. I was in the room assigned to 'handle' Flight 93, which was missing at the time we first went into the room. A director came into the room and confirmed that UA93 had gone down in a field in western Pennsylvania. She had the manifest and they went row by row, assigning us names of passengers. Crew members were being handled by a team from Onboard Service, by those who knew and worked with them.

"Katie, you have Mark Bingham. He was on a companion pass, so we have some information on him. We'll get that to you." Ziad Jarrah and Ahmed Haznawi were assigned, as well. Lauren Grandcolas, Todd Beamer, Nicole Miller, Honor Waino, ...We ran out of people in the room and I was also assigned Kristin White Gould.

We only had names, so we waited. We talked in quiet tones, we shared where we were, what we knew, what we had seen. The room was full of United colleagues, most of whom I'd not met before. We were all there for the same reason. We were going to reach out to the families to tell them that their loved ones were on UA93, that they were gone.

I don't talk about this day, nor the 9 that followed it. I know I was a completely different person when I walked out of that room around midnight on September 11th than I was when I got up that morning. Perhaps I should have taken a picture of who I was that morning to see if she resembled the woman I was that night.

The next 9 days consisted of phone calls with the Bingham and Gould family. My contact with the Binghams was Mark's mother and aunt, both UA flight attendants. Mark had been on his aunt's companion passes. Mark was one of the team who rushed the cockpit and brought down the plane. When I called Mark's mother to tell her he was on the plane, she told me she knew - he had called her. Other's were hearing similar stories and that's when we found out about the phone calls, the actions, the heroes of flight 93. Those of us who had passengers who made the calls heard heartbreaking tales from their families.

Kristin's daughter Allison and I spoke daily, several times a day. I had to ask her detailed questions to, hopefully, identify her mother's body or, in truth, what we might find. We requested DNA evidence from the families - hair dumped out of a shaver, a toothbrush, a hair brush...

Coming to work every day for those 12 hours was living in an alternate universe. The office is right next to O'Hare and there were no airplanes in the sky. My world was helping Allison, helping Mark's mother, father, step-mother, boyfriend and the man who drove him to the airport that morning. Giving them information, getting information, setting up funeral arrangements and just talking with them through this nightmare.

I keep a folder on that time and I haven't opened it in a few years until now. There is a card written by Allison the day after her mother's memorial service, September 29, 2001. Cameron and I flew out for the service and to meet the family I had come to know over the phone.

"I pray God gives you the strength not to dwell on this horrible acident. You have touched every last member of my family. You've been our guardian angel with a soft feather mattress that cushions us and has softened the blow through these past three weeks."

In the last 9 years Allison and I have stayed in touched, we've visited each other a couple of times, but time goes by. She doesn't know she was my guradian angel and we helped each other. That's the two of us in my Facebook profile photo, taken on a trip we did to San Francisco. I call her every September 11th, as well.

I didn't think I could cry over this any more. I was wrong.


  1. Thinking of you and all of our airline family today.

  2. I absolutely have goose bumps over reading this. And a pit in my stomach.

    Thank you, Katie, for sharing.