Originally published Sept. 25, 1972
“There goes another siren,” my wife said just as we finished Sunday dinner.
“I don’t want to know about it,” I said, only half in jest. “I don’t need to cover another airplane crash.”
Twice before, since we built a home in South Land Park, I had been to airplane crashes. The first time, I saw it all happen from the back yard. A little plane went roaring down the dirt strip at Jensen Field. Seconds after it passed behind a house and out of view there was an explosion and a huge puff of black smoke.
It took weeks of restless nights to get over that one I was one of the first persons there and I resolved I would never arrive so soon again. Two men were dead.
The next time my son and I were playing basketball at the school. A sudden blast of black smoke rose from the trees in the golf course south of the airport. Then the sirens. I knew what I would find before I got there. But there still was a hope that somehow the people got out all right.
A doctor and a nurse were dead.
Yesterday, I had barely put the sirens from my mind when the phone rang.
“A plane has crashed into the Crossroads. You live near there, don’t you?” asked the voice. “Can you go over there for us?”
In the few minutes it took to drive there, I was telling myself that most of the stores are closed on Sunday and therefore it probably won’t be too bad.
But I had forgotten about the ice cream store – the place I had often sent my own children for birthday parties. It is a fun place for little girls in party dresses and boys with slicked down hair. There are bells and whistles and singing waiters with straw hats.
But a great, ghastly hole had been torn into the party room and black smoke was rushing out. Firemen and policemen were running about in tremendous haste past the wingless jet protruding form inside the building. A few more feet to the right and it would have hit a brick wall. Where it went through there was nothing but wood and glass.
The parking lot was worse than a bad nightmare: Wreckers, fire trucks and more than 10 ambulances. And there were little bodies lying in a row.
They pulled a sick fireman from the smoking hole and put him down on the pavement. He was almost in tears. Right behind him they brought out the small boy he had been clawing his way through the broken was to reach. There was no need to hurry with the boy.
It’s the little things that stick with you. Mercifully, the mind rejects the totality of it all. Little things like a bush that sits smoking in the middle of Freeport Boulevard and the flames that lick around a wooden light standard in the parking lot. They are ignored by men with more important things to do. There is a fire hydrant, ripped apart by the plane, gushing water like an oversized drinking fountain. Airplane parts are everywhere.
A fellow reporter remarks, “At times like this, I wish I were a businessman or something else.” And a policeman with a bullhorn admonished all onlookers – including newsmen – to leave the parking lot and go across the street. I suppose I should have been outraged, First Amendment rights and all that, but I was glad to obey his order.
Later, at home, I tried to explain it to my children. And I was thinking about the other fathers and mothers in our neighborhood who have a chasm ripped into the middle of their lives.
“I wish there was a way,” my son said as he went to bed, “that you could go back in time and do things over again so they would come out all right.”
So do I, son.