Continental 1404, Pan Am 103, and thoughts on dodging bullets

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:

Mike Wilson's first post about the Denver plane crash he survived

Mike Wilson's first post about the Denver plane crash he survived

And then, a couple of hours later…

Mike Wilson reflects on a similar bullet he dodged earlier

Mike Wilson reflects on a similar bullet he dodged earlier

…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.


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.

Since then….

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.


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.

10 thoughts on Continental 1404, Pan Am 103, and thoughts on dodging bullets

  1. Amy, thank you so much for writing this post. It really is a wonderful piece. This is part of your life story that people will remember shaped you, and which you will reflect on in that nursing home one day in the very far off future.
    Not to be morbid, but I did enjoy the sentence, “I’ve helped, inspired, frustrated, confused, and annoyed people.” That, my friend, is an epitaph we should all love to have.
    That said, I’m so glad epitaphs are not something we ponder. I’m reminded of bullets dodged myself (a head-on collision that *miraculously* didn’t happen), and take a moment to be grateful for my blessings.
    Then as we all do, I will make some tea and simply get on with today.
    Thanks Amy, for adding a little extra meaning to it.

  2. Thanks, Joanne

    The really weird thing is, I don’t know that dodging this particular bullet “shaped” me much at all. I mean, if that flight hadn’t gotten bombed, or if some other flight that I wasn’t on had… would my life be much different? I dunno. Maybe it did shape me, but it mostly just feels like something that happened, not necessarily more or less significant than any other bullet that anyone else might have dodged…

    Thanks, though. I’m glad this piece was meaningful to you.

    – Amy

  3. I came across this by accident when I googled Diane. I was listening to the radio on my way to work this morning and was reminded that it was the anniversary of Pan Am 103. I was in college at Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia studying nursing & my best friend, Anne Marie, was in the Diagnostic Imagery division. She had spent the night two nights previous studying with Diane’s twin, Denise, and then they took finals. They stayed in the city to celebrate the end of school and Anne Marie stayed over at Denise’s. When Anne Marie woke up in the morning Denise was already awake and told Anne Marie that she couldn’t sleep. She didn’t say she any feelings of doom or anything, just that she was on edge and couldn’t sleep. Anne Marie thought it was because of finals, etc. Denise had made something for them to eat and as they sat down to eat they turned on the TV and learned of the plane crash. Denise knew right away that her twin, Diane, was dead and called her mom to tell her not to go to the airport because Diane was dead. I haven’t seen Denise in many years, but the last I saw her she was not doing well. She has always been in my thoughts over the years and I have always wished that she could find some sort of peace.

  4. Hi Amy,

    I had a college acquaintance who died on that flight as well. I was studying abroad when the crash happened, so I didn’t learn of his death until several years later, when I casually asked a fellow alum, “Hey, where’s David?” And there was this awkward silence, “Didn’t you know?” So I had this weird experience of grieving years later when everyone else had gotten over it. His brother later wrote a book about it. He even posted some old tape recordings of his brother at

    The strange reaction I have had is always feeling like I better do something good with my life to justify the fact that I lived and he died. It’s hard to live up to. I saw a photo of someone at a memorial service in the L.A. Times this morning and it made me start thinking about him all over again. When I look over the list of all the people who died, I think about all the other people who knew them and who are probably reading over the list just like me.

    When I read your piece, it made me think about all the things I have done over the years since 1988. So thanks.

  5. Thank you for that.
    I was a Temple RTF student at the time. Today, as the man who was convicted of the bombing is released for humanitarian reason, I was looking for a written remembrance of the classmates that I never got to welcome home. Thank you again for sharing your story. It meant a lot to me.

  6. Thanks Brenda. I hadn’t heard the news of this prison release. I went looking around, and saw the WSJ Law blog had an excellent post exploring the issue of compassionate release:

    Here’s what I commented there:

    “As someone who lost a college friend on Pan Am 103, and who flew home from London on the same flight the next day, I feel no outrage over Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi’s release to Libya. He’ll be dead soon enough, and not in a pleasant fashion. I see no need to physically torture the man — and I’m fairly certain that dealing with terminal cancer in prison would amount to torture. The penal system should not be about revenge.”

    I expect folks will disagree with me. That’s fine.

    I’m sorry for the loss of your classmates. I remember that day well.

    – Amy Gahran

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