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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, September 12, 2001

America's bloodiest day
Airline crews confront deaths of their friends

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Perhaps only the families of those who died are more deeply affected by yesterday's terrorist attacks than the surviving flight attendants and pilots of American and United Airlines.

Their colleagues went to work, just as they do each day, only to be murdered when their workplaces — airplanes — were used as a weapon to kill thousands.

Most airline employees in Hawai'i were too inundated with inquiries or sorrow to talk to reporters.

Even those stuck in Waikiki hotels on what should have been brief layovers requested that hotel management shield them from reporters and allow them the time and space to cope with the tragedy.

Sam Whiting, an American Airlines captain based in Dallas, said in a situation like this, when trying to find out who is safe, crew members "rely on each other because American shuts down lines of communication until the crew's families are notified."

Normally, crew members can see crew lists via computer, but yesterday morning, this source of information was blocked.

"If we can (get the information), that means the media can do it, and they don't want that intrusion," said Whiting. "Our normal lines of communication are pretty much severed."

Even crew members who had printed schedules couldn't be sure who was on the airplanes because trading shifts is common.

Speculations about trading bring no relief, however.

"It doesn't matter who traded their trip, because I'm going to know them, too," said Ann Vickers, a Boston-based flight attendant for American who let a friend take her for a drive to escape the news for a few hours.

"To know that it's your airline is devastating, but when it's your base and your flight, with your friends ..." Her voice trailed off. "I can't even begin to tell you. It becomes very personal."

The phone tree was operating at a blistering pace yesterday. Some crew members and families recorded the news that crew members were safe on their answering machines. Others answered phones not with "hello," but with "he's fine."

Whiting first heard about the hijackings from his sister, a nurse on Long Island, and brother-in-law, an undercover police officer on Long Island who was instructed to put on a uniform and report to Manhattan.

Whiting immediately called people he knew would be concerned about him. But he didn't get to everyone.

"Our phone was just going crazy," he said. "Then our cell phone was going crazy. Then people started knocking on the door because they couldn't get through."

Vickers was astonished by the volume of calls she received.

"You don't realize how many people know and care about you," she said. "I'm kind of overwhelmed by that."

Donald Blum, an O'ahu resident and former Boeing 747 pilot who retired early after 26 years with United, said pilots have set procedures about what to do in the event of a hijacking, which they are not allowed to reveal.

He said he believes — while emphasizing that he doesn't know what happened — that the hijackers stormed the cockpit and killed the pilots, and had some knowledge of how to fly an aircraft.

"No pilot that I have ever known would have been alive and at the controls to put the airplane, themselves, the crew and the passengers in such jeopardy," he said.

Sharon Hancock, a 32-year veteran flight attendant with United, agreed.

"I can't imagine any pilot, even with a gun to his head, would" crash into the World Trade Center, she said. "They would run it into the ground" elsewhere.

Yesterday, many in the airline business were suffering the beginning of survivor's guilt.

"Of course you think, 'It could've been me,' " said Hancock.

All said they still believe air travel was safe, though none relished returning to work immediately.

"Do I want to get on an airplane day after tomorrow? No," said Vickers. "Not because I'm afraid of dying, but because I lost friends. I'm not afraid to get back on an airplane in terms of the aviation part, but I'm emotionally hurt for my colleagues."