Reincarnated As A Mother

Monday, October 10, 2011

Like Yesterday

It's hard for me to fathom that we are coming up on the 20 year anniversary of when our news
helicopter crashed, killing three of my co-workers (and dear friends).
I went back to North Carolina last week to commemorate the anniversary.
I'll warn you, this will be a looong post.

But before I tell you what happened, I need to as they say, "set the stage".
I had been working in Las Vegas when I got the offer to go report for the ABC- owned station
in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina.
One of my close friends-- Diane had just been laid off from her job in middle management at Caesar's Palace.
And since she was having a difficult time finding a job in her field in Vegas, I invited her to drive
across country with me, live with me and try to find a job in N.C.  If it didn't work out, she could always go back.
And it was a bonus for me, in that I had zero friends in Carolina.
My first two days on the job at WTVD-TV, were spent in the office learning their computer system.
My third day on the job, I was sent via helicopter across the state to Winston Salem to interview Darryl Gates
(the LA Police Chief-- his first appearance since the Rodney King beating).
On the ride over and back, Chopper Jim and I talked and talked.
When I told him, my friend had moved with me and that she was tall and blond, he seemed intrigued.
I didn't think much of it until the next day.
I was once again, sent to the heli-port to meet Chopper Jim.
This time, we were going in the opposite direction-- to the beach to do a story on a bank president
whose wife and son had been kidnapped, held for ransom and released.
As Jim and I waited at the airport for my photographer to show up, Jim told me to call up Diane and
invite her to come with us to the beach-- the only caveat-- I couldn't tell anyone that we were taking
a "civilian" with us on the news chopper.
Well, of course, Diane was game.
She met us and off we all went.
Now for those of you who have never worked in the business--- let me explain that a trip to the beach
has nothing to do with fun-- it is all work. 
While the photographer and I worked our tails off-- shooting video, interviews, writing, editing and doing
live shots for several shows--- Jim and Diane were strolling the beach, watching the waves crash, the sun set and
sharing fresh caught seafood at some fabulous restaurant.
I think you get the picture.
If not, let me put two and two together-- they were falling in L.O.V.E.
Fast forward several months.... and they were not only in love, but engaged and a week away from their wedding--
on, you guessed it, the beach..
That all changed on a Friday night.
Jim had flown down to the coast to cover the N.C. high school championship football game.
Diane and I were at home.
She was sewing some beads on a black gown.
Our company black-tie party was the next night.
She kept waiting for Jim to call her and finally fell asleep.
At 3:15 on Saturday morning, the phone rang.
Thankfully, I answered it.
It was one of my bosses telling me the chopper had crashed and that Chopper Jim, Bart-- one of my favorite photographers and Rick, one of our Satellite engineers had all been killed.
I remember Bonnie asking me over and over again if I could handle breaking the news to Diane.
The initial shock quickly wore off and I remember losing it downstairs on the kitchen floor-- while stuffing my fist
into my mouth to keep my sobs from waking her up.
I felt like I needed to get some reinforcements on the way before I went to Diane.
I called the Bishop from my church--- and somehow communicated what had happened to get him heading towards our home.
And then I went and woke up Diane to tell her the news that would change her life forever.
Looking back, it was surreal.
I clearly remember her going through all the stages of grief right before my eyes.
I don't remember the order but she moved from denial to hysteria, anger to utter despair.
It was awful, no strike that-- horrific to watch her fall apart and have no way of providing any comfort.
Almost immediately, we were surrounded by friends and neighbors-- offering hugs, shoulders and food that
no one felt like eating.
I remember Diane and I spending much of the day over at Bart's house.
It became the gathering place-- where we all shared pictures and stories and buckets of tears.
In short, the helicopter had been serviced the day before this last, fateful flight.
About 30 miles outside of Raleigh, the ball bearings in the rotors seized-- causing the rotors to stop and the chopper
to fall from the sky.
Knowing Jim, he did everything possible to save the guys.
He tried an auto rotation and landed hard-- too hard on his side.
The force of the crash killed all three of the guys instantly.
But here's the miracle part-- Bart, who was 6 foot 6 was sitting in the back seat on the opposite side from Jim.
The crash tore his seat off of its bolts and pushed him into the front passenger seat-- tearing that seat off of its mooring and pushing Tony, our sports guy, through the windshield of the helicopter.
Somehow, Tony survived a fall- the equivalent of falling from a 150 story building-- and being propelled through the
window about 30 to 50 feet.
He walked about a mile -- toward a light in the woods-- a home, where the poor, frightened woman made a very bloody stranger sit out on the cold porch until the Sheriff arrived.  (She felt so awful later)!
Oh, there are so many details I could tell you-- but let me just tell you this-- all four of the guys on
board that night were engaged to be married.
Chopper Jim had-- just that day, picked up the engagement pictures from the photographer.
Diane had not even seen them yet.
And even though the helicopter was broken into a million pieces and there was jet fuel everywhere, those
photographs were recovered in perfect condition-- not a spot or a scratch.

The next week consisted of cancelling a wedding while planning a funeral.
Losing the love of her life, left Diane pretty much comatose.
I think we both felt like those nearly spent wind up toys that move only because there is some simple mechanism doing all of the compelling.
I remember we had 3 funerals and a memorial service for all three of the guys in three days.
You can't go through something like this without forever being connected to your friends and co-workers.
I like to say, we had our souls seared together.
So now you might understand why last week, Diane and I left our families and met up to fly to North Carolina.

We spent one morning visiting the crash site.
Neither of us had ever been.
And 20 years later, it looks very different from the scenes we watched on the news coverage.
It used to be out in the middle of nowhere--- now there is a subdivision right next to it.
 This is Ed Crump  (his desk was next to mine and he was Bart's best friend) telling us where he thinks
the helicopter crashed. 
Diane is in the background.  That's Karen (shielding her eyes).  She was Bart's fiancee.
And Janet in the front was our Operations Manager.  She was the first one called at the station and was
at the crash scene that night/morning.
Saturday night, we all met in an upstairs room of a Raleigh restaurant.
We set up a memory table...
In all, I'd say probably 40 people came that night... a few, like Diane shared some thoughts and memories.
 This is Bart's mom, Mary Lou.  The picture she is holding is of Bart's dog, Zack sprawled out at the base of Bart's grave.
She said after they had buried Bart and gotten a marker, Karen (Bart's fiancee) brought Zack up with her.
Even though he'd never been to the cemetery before, the dog hopped out of the car and made a bee-line straight to
Bart's grave.  Pretty amazing story.
 I tell ya, I love all of these people dearly.
This is Lisa-- she was engaged to Rick, the Satellite Operator.
We were all at a Halloween party at Bart's house when Rick proposed to Lisa-- in front of us and with a news
camera rolling.  We treasure that video!
 This is Ed-- Bart's best friend and one heckova story teller.
He had us all laughing and crying and laughing again.

Here is Janet-- who was a rock throughout all of this.  She was the one
who got the first awful phone call and then somehow pulled it together
to get everyone notified and start the painful task of having our station
cover "its own" for the news.  (Which by the way, out of all the years I was
in TV-- that day's newscasts were probably the best I've ever seen).
On the right, is Bonnie, our assignment editor-- and newsroom mom.
She is the one who called me at 3:15 a.m.
 This is Dave.
We worked together an awful lot after the crash and are very close.
He was roommates with Bart, best friends with Rick and the photographer
who shot the crash scene that night/morning.
I can't imagine....

And here's Tony Debo-- our sports anchor who survived the crash.
It was a big deal for him to come that night-- he still struggles with being the only one to live.
That's Lisa-- his fiancee at the time and now his wife.
She is as beautiful inside as outside.  And I swear she looks the same as she did on her wedding day-- except her
hair is shorter!
 And finally, this is my old boss, Lee Meredith.  He's the guy who had enough faith in some crime
reporter from Vegas to bring her to Carolina.  He's one of the good guys in TV and was a calming
influence during such a tragic time.
He read a letter from our old station's president (his boss)-- who couldn't be there for medical reasons.
Tim Bennett left WTVD about the same time I did (in fact, I give him and Oprah full credit or blame for my marriage to Byron-- another long story for another day)!  Anyway, Lee read a letter from Tim that perfectly captured how we were all
feeling and why we were there.
The crash taught us about tragedy.
But it also taught us more than nearly anything else could-- about how to live life and how to pull together and be a family.
I can tell you I grew old that day.
I lost some dear friends-- some of the most amazing men to grace this earth.
But looking back, I gained a life-long relationship with a group of friends that even with the passage of 20 years, I feel more love for and from-- than ever.


CarolF said...

Tears...that is just tragic. I had no knowledge of that story. So many good people on this earth and so many things--good and horrific--happen to them. I am so glad you are there for your friends, Lonni. My best wishes to those so closely affected by the accident.

Stacy said...

Even though I knew the basics of the crash, still very hard to read. I'm glad you did the post. I didn't realize how close Diane's planned wedding was. Dear Gussy!