February 1, 2000
Dodging Another One


I broke ALL land/speed records, getting from the bed to the kitchen, when the phone finally rang at 1:10 a.m. 

We didn't bother with amenities. "You're home," I said. Statement, not question.

"We're home," Daughter #1 confirmed. Her voice oozed exhaustion.

I exhaled for the first time all night. "Good. Go to bed. I miss you guys already," I told her. This day had lasted an eternity and a half.

"I miss you too," she said, and we exchanged sleepy relieved 'I love you's' and made plans to call each other the next day. And then we hung up. 

I stood there in the dark kitchen for a minute or two, holding the phone and looking out the window at the nighttime sky. Far overhead, I could see the lights of a passing jet, twinkling northward.

When some of my quivering tension had drained, finally, I quietly crawled back into bed next to the peacefully-snoring Other 50% of the Population ... and sank into fitful "sleep."

Another bullet: dodged.

But just barely.

Intellectually, I know that airline travel is safer than driving to 7-11 for a quart of milk. I've heard the statistics a bazillion times.

"In the last fifteen years or so, the fatal accident rate for passenger aircraft has not significantly changed," according to the Airsafe.com website. "What has changed is the number of flights performed around the world, more than doubling during that same time. While the rate has not changed that much, the increase in flights means that the number of fatal accidents has been on the rise. If one measures safety by the accident rate, things have not changed much. If one measures safety by the number of accidents, media coverage, and public concern, then flying may seem less safe."

I know that Alaska Airlines has a more or less pristine track record when it comes to airline safety. No fatalities since the 70's, Matt Lauer said this morning. I know that whenever I'm making flight arrangements for the Tots or for myself, I invariably go with Alaska. It costs a skosh more than Southwest, usually ... but I feel more *comfy* with Alaska, for reasons I can't quite explain.

(Better in-flight magazine, maybe?)

I ALSO know that lightning rarely strikes twice. The likelihood of two fatal airline accidents -- on the same airline, on the same day, from the same city to the same destination -- is pretty darned close to impossible.

However ... knowing all of this stuff *intellectually* is one thing.

Putting my two very precious daughters onto Alaska Airlines Flight #361 to Seattle -- just hours after Flight #261 went down a few miles away, off the coast of California -- is another thing entirely.

We heard the news about the Alaska Airline crash at dinner last night.

David was paged by an acquaintance, as we were driving across the island. As soon as we got to the restaurant, he went to a phone booth and answered the page. Our plan had been to have a nice, leisurely dinner out, then to take The Daughters to the Oakland Airport in time to make their 9 p.m. flight to Seattle.

He came back to the table with a grim look on his face. 

"There's been a big accident at SFO," he said. "Alaska Airlines, en route to Seattle. It sounds like people have been killed."

You've heard the saying "My blood ran cold?" That's precisely what happened to me at that moment. My blood, which had running at a nice lukewarm 99.2° moments earlier, plummeted to minus 99.2° in seconds flat. It was like being given a Slurpee transfusion.

We ordered dinner, but suddenly nobody seemed terribly hungry. The girls and I picked at our food. "Let's eat fast and get out of here," I said. They nodded in wordless agreement.

A few minutes later ... David's pager went off again.

This time it was my ex-husband, paging us from Seattle. Daughter #1 and I went to the phone booth and tried to call him, but there were minor phone card problems and we couldn't get through. I could just imagine him freaking out on the other end. He'd probably heard the news on TV, and was undoubtedly imagining the worst. 

"Let's finish dinner as quickly as possible and get home," I urged everyone again. 

I wanted to call Seattle and reassure the girls' dad. I also wanted to get online and check the girls' flight status: if their flight was cancelled or re-routed or otherwise affected by the accident, the sooner we knew about it the better.

"Who knows?" David told them. "You might wind up staying another night."

"Of all the nights for this to happen," Daughter #2 commented quietly.  The irony of this happening on her very first airplane trip wasn't lost on her. But otherwise, neither of the girls seemed unduly rattled by the news. I wasn't going to have to give them the ol' "when the horse explodes, you get right back in the saddle and ride again!" speech.  Which made it easier for me to quietly tweak out ... knowing that if anyone would have to be comforted (or sedated -- or SLAPPED back to NORMAL), it would be me, and not either one of my daughters.

The Alaska Airlines website, of course, was totally inaccessible by the time we got back to The Castle. So was the 800 number. So was the Oakland Airport phone number, for that matter.

In other words ... we had no way of checking to see whether or not the girls' flight would be affected. 

"We'll just have to go to the airport and find out," David said.


We turned on the local TV news while we waited. (That was when we got our first *real* information about the crash, including the location of the accident ... the flight number ... the destination ... etc.)

I called Seattle. My ex sounded confused but mostly calm. "I just thought I'd better check and see if everything was OK," he said. "This wasn't their flight, was it?" 

I assured him that no, the plane that went down was the flight just before theirs, and that it would have routed through an entirely different airport, anyway. I promised that I would call him from the airport if they were going to be delayed.

Shortly after that we loaded up the Subaru with suitcases and shopping bags ... and headed off for Oakland International.

I was fully expecting a mob scene at the airport ... all of the re-routed air traffic from SFO diverted to Oakland, maybe. I had visions of mile-long counter lines and four-hour delays and crowds of hysterical passengers and television news crews all over the place. That's why I was so determined to hustle everybody to the airport as quickly as possible.

But in fact it was just the opposite: I have never seen an airport so weirdly, spookily empty.  ("It's just like 'The Langoliers,' " I commented to the girls.) We breezed through the ticket counter without incident ... stopped at a gift shop to pick up some last-minute stuff for Son #Only ... found seats at Gate 8 ... and then sat down to wait.

As it turns out their flight was slightly delayed, by 45 minutes or so. But it wasn't anything like the marathon delay I'd been expecting.

We had an hour and a half to kill.

Daughter #1 settled in next to me with a new magazine. Daughter #2 plunked herself onto the floor in front of us, fixing her broken Walkman and playing with her new plastic "Rave" beads. David lay his head on my shoulder and tried to snooze.

I sat there and pretended to read my book. But it was useless.

The only thing I could think about was ... "What if?"

And, "What are those poor people at SFO going through, right now?" 

And, "Thank GOD it isn't my children."

(And, "I wonder if it's too late to book them on Greyhound ... ??? ")

Amazingly,  I didn't come unglued when they finally got onto the airplane.

In fact, compared to the last two or three times I've put a Tot onto a return flight, I was downright serene. I hugged them and kissed them and fussed with their hair.  I told them I love them. "Call me when you get home," I said. "No matter what. If I don't answer right away, let it ring." I stood right at the door of the terminal, smiling and waving, and watched them walk all the way down the gate to the door of the airplane.

I didn't shed a single tear as David and I walked back through the baggage claim area and out the door and through the parking lot and back to the Subaru.

I was oddly calm, in fact, all the way home.

We talked quietly about the visit. ("What did they say about me?," David wanted to know.)  I looked out the car window, watching the sky ... hoping that maybe I would catch a glimpse of their plane when it took off ... but it was too cloudy and the view was obscured.

When we got home, I put on my p.j.'s and climbed into bed. David puttered around The Castle for awhile. "This apartment is trashed," he announced. "There's girl stuff EVERYWHERE."

"Well, don't start cleaning it now," I ordered him. "Come to bed." 

He obediently put down the armload of soggy bath towels and climbed in next to me. Twenty minutes later, he was sound asleep and snoring like a buzzsaw.

And that, of course, is when it all *hit* me.

All of that quiet, constant terror that a mother harbors in her heart -- the terror we usually try to push to the very back of our mind, for fear it might make us totally insane -- suddenly unloaded all over me as I lay there in the dark.

It's a universal "mom thing." It doesn't matter if our children are sleeping in the next room, or three states away. We all feel that same unspoken fear.

How would I possibly survive the loss of my child?

But of course the fact is that we got lucky again, and nothing bad happened to either of the girls. We dodged another bullet. God smiles again upon this family. All's well that ends well.

This time.

I knew that sleep was impossible. So I did the only thing I could do, under the circumstances. I pulled the comforter over my shoulders, curled up next to David ...

... and waited for the phone to ring.