This morning, before I’d even had my tea, I learned via e-mail that at my local airport last night a Continental flight 1404 veered off the runway and crashed, injuring 58. AP reported that local resident Mike Wilson tweeted his experience immediately after he escaped the burning plane.
Two tweets from Wilson especially caught my attention:
And then, a couple of hours later…
…Next I was making breakfast, listening to Colorado Public Radio, which was (of course) reporting on the Denver airport accident. They followed that with a story that stopped me cold for a bit: Witnesses, Families Remember Lockerbie Bombing. Yes, today is the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 — a terrorist attack that killed 259 on the plane and 11 on the ground.
On the evening of Dec. 21, 1988, I was a 22-year-old journalism student packed up and ready to head back home to NJ after spending a semester in London. I’d been at the office Christmas party for the business magazine where I’d been interning. When I entered the house I’d been sharing since August with five other students, my housemates who hadn’t yet departed for home were sitting in the living room, crying. Mindy said, “Diane’s plane crashed”…
|My onetime college housemate, Diane Rencevicz, on the victim’s list of Pan Am flight 103. She was 21 when she died.|
Diane Rencevicz was a fellow Temple University student. She was the quietest heavy metal fan I ever knew, and I didn’t know her well. We merely shared a house for a few months. But I liked her well enough. And I was stunned to think that, at 21, she was suddenly dead.
In fact, she’d died taking exactly the same flight that Linda (my other housemate) and I were slated to take the very next day: Pan Am 103.
The next few days happened in slow motion.
In the morning I visited a local hospital to get tranquilizers for Linda, who was so distraught she could barely speak. I remember dropping my key through the mail slot of the lovely terrace house we’d rented on Moscow Road in Bayswater. Linda and I took a cab to Heathrow airport, where we bid Mindy farewell. While we were waiting at the gate, there was a bomb scare and everyone evacuated briefly to the parking lot. Really bad timing.
Eventually we got on the mostly-empty plane and flew across the ocean to JFK. My legs trembled the whole flight, I kept getting up to pace, and the flight attendants kept making me sit down. I remember their expressions, they’d just lost several friends and had to keep functioning. I didn’t argue with them, and they weren’t angry with me.
My family met me at JFK airport. My mom was crying. Lots of people were crying. I was exhausted. They took me home to NJ. Christmas happened. I attended mass with my family at the Catholic church down the street. The priest mentioned the bombing and I felt numb. Even though I was a news junkie, I avoided the news for weeks.
A few days later, Linda and I attended Diane’s memorial service. There, I was stunned to learn that Diane had an identical twin sister. Maybe I’d known that before, but I’d forgotten. Never in my life did I have such a strong feeling that I was seeing a ghost. That really shook me, more than anything else about that experience.
WHY NOT ME?
I dodged that bullet for the most mundane and human of reasons. Linda is a methodical person, and she made our flight arrangements. I didn’t want to depart for London on my birthday, so we agreed to fly out the next day, on Aug. 22, 1988. We were staying in London for four months. So Linda scheduled our flight home for exactly four months later, on Dec. 22.
And that’s really why I’m here today.
I have very strange, mixed feelings about this experience. Not getting killed in that bombing did not change my life in any dramatic way — except that I continued to live, and I felt more aware of others who don’t get to do that. I became very aware of chance, and randomness. For a while, flying made me very nervous. Then that fear wore away.
Soon after I returned home I was introduced to Stacey, who’d be my closest friend for several years. She introduced me to her ex-boyfriend Tom, whom I married a decade later. I worked for a bad book publishing company in Philly, then a business magazine on the Main Line outside Philly, and then lived very briefly in north Jersey, and then moved to Boulder in 1995.
Some of my sisters and cousins had kids, and one of my nieces now has kids of her own. My brother survived leukemia. My grandmother died. My parents aged, sold the home where I grew up, bought a smaller home nearby, and are doing well.
My career took off in interesting, independent, entrepreneurial directions. It’s been feast or famine, but never boring. I’ve done work I’m proud of, and made some humbling mistakes. I’ve helped, inspired, frustrated, confused, and annoyed people.
I’ve backpacked on the Continental Divide and camped under buttes in the Utah desert. I once got a 2-hour foot massage in a Beijing hutong, I left an Amsterdam Indonesian restaurant at 10:30 pm while it was still daylight, and I grazed breakfast at a farmer’s market in Rome. For a few days I lived blissfully on tapas, tempranillo, and flamenco with a friend in Barcelona.
I have many friends around the country and in several parts of the world. I learned to kickbox, and I learned how to live as a polyamorous person in a monogamous world. I’ve seen my body and mind change, for better and worse. I’ve generally gotten much stronger and more flexible, in almost every way. I’ve laughed a lot. I’ve hurt a lot.
And I just kept breathing. By chance, because Linda was methodical enough to make four months mean exactly four months.
WE ALL DODGE BULLETS
This isn’t the only bullet I’ve dodged. I remember at least two occasions when I was nearly in bad car accidents. And who knows about the near-misses I never even knew about. It just so happens that in my life I dodged one particularly famous bullet that warrants public remembrances in national media. I feel sadness for the people who died in and above Lockerbie that day. And I feel anger for the people who willfully took those lives.
But mostly, it just feels weird. Surreal. All the stuff I’ve experienced and done since that day, my place in the overlapping ripples and flow of life… it could have ended, right there.
And someday it will end. That’s certain.
I just didn’t happen to be on the plane that blew up. That’s all. I dodged that bullet. It doesn’t feel like a miracle, or grace, or even that I was “saved” by chance. It’s just how things happened to go for me. And it reminds me how very different life can become, very quickly.
Each moment is its own world, and one moment does not always determine the next. We have no choice but to roll with that. But we can choose to be aware of the ubiquitous possibility of instant, drastic change.
When I tune into that awareness, my life is much richer. It doesn’t necessarily make more sense, but it feels more meaningful.