OUT OF THE BLUE
Coping with disaster
By Elliott Hester
As was the case with many flight attendants on the morning of
Nov. 12, I received a steady stream of phone calls from worried friends
and family. The first call came from my mother, who breathed a sigh
of relief when I picked up the phone and said hello. "Thank God
you weren't on that airplane," she said. "What airplane?"
I replied, having yet to learn about Flight 587, the Santo Domingo-bound
American Airlines jet that crashed moments after take-off from New
The news hit me like a Tyson punch.
I've worked flights from JFK to Santo Domingo on numerous occasions.
I know the faces of the passengers and understand a bit about the
culture. I've offered "pollo" (chicken) and "carne"
(beef) and "jugo de naranja" (orange juice) so often and
received so many quizzical stares that now, having learned to properly
roll my tongue, I can serve an Airbus full of Dominicans and evoke
only minimal laughter.
I can close my eyes and picture the interior of the airplane. The
overhead bins on most flights are stuffed with toys and diapers and
electronic equipment (items that are too expensive or impossible to
acquire in The Dominican Republic). I know the location of every piece
of emergency equipment. I can work the main-cabin galley with one
hand tied behind my back. And like all Airbus-qualified flight attendants,
I've memorized evacuation commands which proved useless to the crew
of Flight 587.
So when I hung up the phone, flicked on the television and saw images
of disaster a damaged engine laying near a gas station, flames
leaping from the wreckage, (and later) the airplane's tail section
being hoisted from Jamaica Bay I swallowed hard, imagining
what everyone onboard must have endured. Then, like thousands of passengers
and airline crew members around the world, I realized it could have
My friends and relatives soon came to that same conclusion. The phone
rang again. And again. And again and again and again. My sister called
from her home in Barcelona, Spain. An Aunt called from Chicago. A
traveling buddy from Paris. My downstairs neighbor. Newspaper editors
who publish this very column. Then came e-mail inquiries from San
Francisco, London and Sydney, Australia. Dozens of worried people
wanting to know if I was on that plane. I wasn't, of course. But 9
of my colleagues were.
That's when my panic set in.
Having flown the sometimes-not-so-friendly skies for more than 16
years, I've worked with thousands of flight attendants. Like portraits
framed in blackness, random faces began floating 'round my head. Colleagues
born in Puerto Rico, Germany, Venezuela and Detroit. Those who speak
5 languages. Parents. Party animals. Practical jokers. Flight attendants
who complain about the job and the passengers, but could never dream
of abandoning either. There was a sudden rush of voices. Recollections
of galley gatherings 6 miles above the Atlantic. I was sure to know
someone on the crew of Flight 587. Dreadfully sure. So as I punched
the keyboard of my home computer, entered a password and logged on
to the airline computer system, as I entered an access code that might
reveal names of the ill-fated crew, my fingers began to tremble.
I knew the access code wouldn't work. At the first hint of an airplane
disaster, airline management restricts access to flight-related computer
records. Unable to obtain the crew list, I began making telephone
calls of my own. I called flight attendant friends in New York, Miami
and Los Angeles, hoping that someone had news. My calls went unanswered,
however. Most of my friends were probably up there, flying
a fact that heightened my concern.
Unable to get information, I called the temporary hotline set up by
American Airlines. I sat alone in my living room, listening to the
disembodied ringing of the telephone. The air grew heavy. The seconds
floated by like Goodyear Blimps. When someone finally answered, my
voice seemed to belong to someone else. It was small, feathery. The
voice of child who lay crumpled at the bottom of a well. "I'm
trying to find information about the crew of flight 587," I said.
"Are you a family member?"
When I explained that I was an employee and not a relative, the person
said he couldn't provide me with the names of crew members. He did,
however, offer to tell me who WASN'T on the list. I gave him the first
name that popped into my head: an ex-girlfriend, a New York-based
The response couldn't have taken more than 3 or 4 seconds, but it
seemed like an eternity. I saw my ex-girlfriend's face and was buried
in an avalanche of memory. The vacation in St. Johns. Dinners in Manhattan.
Nights in her apartment on the Upper East Side. We met years ago as
crew members on a Caribbean-bound DC-10 aircraft. She manned the purser
position. I worked the lower-lobe galley. Our flight departed New
York and arrived three-and-a-half hours later in of all places
The memory was shattered by a voice from the telephone. "Mr.
Hester?" the voice said. And in that instant I felt a jolt of
trepidation, a great mechanical surge that brought me to my feet as
if by remote hydraulics. "Her name is not on the list."
I hung up the telephone, hung my head, and as my mother had done earlier,
I breathed a sigh of relief. But the following day, when the crew
of American Airlines Flight 587 was finally revealed, I breathed a
sigh of grief. Even though the names were not familiar.