March 15, 2010

My visit to Gate 32 at Boston's Logan Airport

Part of my work-related activity involves crisscrossing the country conducting parish seminars and speaking at conferences on Catholic themes. This past week, I was speaking at multiple parishes within the Archdiocese of Boston and returned home last night.

The weather in Boston the last few days was raw, rainy, dreary. This is why, perhaps, as I waited a few hours in the American Airlines terminal at Boston Logan Airport for my (weather-delayed) flight home, my mind turned to somber things.

Pondering the fact that, at 7:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, American Flight 11 pulled back from gate B32 and commenced its journey into death, I realized that though I had flown in and out of that airport many times over the years, I hadn't stopped to think of its historical importance as one of the starting points of the terror attacks on the United States that terrible morning. (The doomed United Flight 175 also departed that morning at 7:58 from Gate C19).

I approached a cluster of idle TSA workers standing near the security checkpoint and asked which gate Flight 11 had departed from on 9-11. Without hesitating, they pointed out the window to an American flag in the distance, fluttering in the stiff, rainy wind atop a departure ramp way down at the far end of terminal. Thanking them, I headed in that direction, passing through throngs of passengers and airport workers toward an historical monument it seemed nobody else was conscious of.

Surely, many others in the airport knew the significance of Gate 32 — American Airlines gate agents, pilots, flight attendants, TSA folks — but as I made my way toward the end of the terminal, I felt as if I might be the only one, at least at that moment, to be preoccupied with the grim memory of what happened in that place on September 11th. I realized that Gate 32 will forever be to Boston what the Sixth Floor is to Dallas.

I tried to imagine myself there that morning, seeing the five murderers walking toward Gate 32, their minds brimming with hatred for America and Americans. A line from "Riders on the Storm," The Doors' anthem of doom, came to mind as I tried to envision the hijackers going about their deadly errand:
There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin' like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If ya give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road, yeah
When I got to Gate 32, I was not surprised to see how completely ordinary it was. People were coming and going, a gate agent stood at the counter typing on the computer. It could have been any other nondescript gate at any other nondescript airport.

In the years since 9-11, untold numbers of passengers and flight crews have passed through that very doorway and over that very jet-bridge within which the killers and those they killed walked that fateful morning. Do they feel anything different? Do they realize where they are?

There is no commemorative plaque or sign to signify what happened there, just the understandable, real-world obliviousness of all those anonymous passengers, endlessly arriving from and departing to points unknown.

Just that and a forlorn yet defiant American flag snapping in the wind and rain.

Post Script: I have been a loyal frequent flyer with American Airlines since 1988, logging over 2 million miles with them. Sometimes, as I settle into my seat for a flight, I wonder if I might ever have flown in the particular 767 aircraft which was Flight 11 on 9-11. Was I ever aboard a flight served by any of the pilots or flight attendants who perished that day? It's possible. I hope so. I have prayed for them and their passengers many times since.


  1. I would say that was a "GOD" moment for you! thanks for sharing it with us.

    In Christ, Bro Jer

  2. Wow...just wow.

    Peace to you and safe travels for you always.

  3. Thank you for sharing and caring..we must never forget. God Bless

  4. Being a retired AA employee, I think it would be appropriate to send this story to Gerard Arpey (CEO of AMR corp). There should definitely be some commemorative plaque or remembrance at this gate.

  5. Thank you for this powerful meditation. I wanted to share with you something I wrote - from the NYC perspective. God be with you.

  6. What a sad day for all of us. Yet, like that gate, most Americans have forgotten that day and how life has truly changed. As we ponder gate 32, it makes me wonder when we will go through our own gate into eternal life. It may be today or it may be in another 50 years, some more and some less, but we all have to go through the gate to the other side of eternity.

    Thanks Pat and it was great to spend time with you last week!

  7. Oh man , I imagine the passengers were terrified in shock. did the hijackers even tell them, 'they were going to die?' How would you feel if someone told you that? What would you do? I wonder if boarding that plane at gate 32 that day, had they been given a signal warning somehow? Couldn't they have known something was about to happen before even waking up or boarding that plane ? I wonder . It would seem that only the hijackers knew and God, because He knows everything, but what about the rest ? Didn't they have a feeling? Weren't they listening? Wasn't God even a part of their lives? Oh man , what a horrible ordeal it must have been as well as a horrifying site for the rest of the world to see .

    thanks for the reminder, because we never think it could happen to us. They may not have had time to change or repent but God's Mercy is great and His Justice is equally great.

    Thank you , for such a wonderful post.

  8. Memories of that day still leave me choked with emotion. The malevolence, and the greatness, that manifested that day is still too much to process.

    I'm a Londoner and watched it unfolding on the screen at my local fitness club. We had been watching coverage of the MOBO awards from the night before when someone suddenly ran up and changed the channel.
    It took a while before we understood what we were watching. The few others watching it with me just stared in grim silence, but I recall hearing myself saying "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy" over and over again.

    It was a day marked mostly by stunned silence.
    It was a day when I moved from indifference, to great affection and respect for America.

    Lord have mercy on us all.

  9. What an amazingly poignant picture - the flag on the jet way. It speaks volumes.

  10. Being an Australian, that day still haunts me!

    I don't know what else to say.

    May God bless you and keep you safe on your journey!

  11. Clare -- thank you. I remember the outpouring of affection from the entire globe (except, of course, for certain quarters where, instead, they danced). It meant a lot to me then, and it still does now.

    Yes, Lord have mercy. And as I tell my kids: always be ready, ALWAYS be ready, because you never know if the next minute will be your last.

  12. I occasionally drive down Commerce St in Dallas in my commute home from work, past the sixth floor of the Texas School Depository Bldg. and pass over the white x's on the street marking the locations of where the shots hit their mark back in 1963. I never wonder if I may have crossed paths with Officer Tippet or if Lee Harvey Oswald sat in a theater seat I did when I lived in Oak CLiff and would occasionally go see a movie at the Texas Theater as a kid back in the 50's and early 60's. All that is really irrelevant beyond the lives of the individuals involved in those tragedies. History involves the people of an event in time. It's not six degrees of separation. You could probably imagine what took place at any place you happen to be stranded, waiting for the weather to clear, drinking a beer and letting your mind recall some rock song from your past relevant to your creative daydreaming. You're just tangled up in blue.

  13. Thank you for that perspective, Patrick. We just had a story on our local news last night about a man who had met the pilot from the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania the night before that day, and now he is now heading up a scholarship program in that pilot's name. It was a tragic day, but there was a little good that has come from it, at least.

  14. Hey Patrick, not to burst your bubble or anything, but you really shouldn't be flying on American Airlines right now if you can help it. They are having serious safety issues. When booking airline tickets try to stick with the profitable airlines when ever you can, as they are less likely to take maintenance liberties. (Ie. Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue, Skywest, and West Jet.)

    It’s unfortunate but airline profitability does affect aircraft maintenance. It’s the difference between, “we need to change this part right now” and “we should probably change this part but it can go another couple flights”.

    Here is an article about $787 500 in fines that the FAA just awarded American Airlines.

  15. I loved the picture of the flag and the description as "defiant". Our flag is always beautifully defiant in the face of pure evil yet always graceful. This was a wonderful and touching article.

  16. I'll never forget that day. As a dentist I get started early, was in the middle of a procedure when my wife came to me and said come here, NOW. We were at a stopping point so I left and met her next to the TV in our staff work area, just as the second plane hit the tower. I felt sooooooo eerily Sad. I'll also never forget that it was Also my Patient KE's birthday that day. Our Pastor organized an evening Mass at 7pm. How Poignent what the Gospel was that day! I came expecting Vengence is mine, what I got, for those of you who remember was "love your enemies"

  17. Patrick,
    One of your more poignant blogs yet. Thanks and God Bless.

  18. Hi Patrick, As someone from the Boston area this moved me very deeply. I am not sure if I want a plaque although it would seem fitting. I have wondered too if I'd spoken to any of the flight attendants on flights my family and I took from here to LAX and back in July 2001. It is very sad indeed. I'm glad to know what you shared about the gate but am not sure if I would be able to walk through it to a plane once I saw a plaque. I think that is why the flag waving humbly, nobly and without notice means more to is a beautiful sight and I thank you for sharing it. God bless you and our dear country.

  19. I had a similar experience. I fly out of Boston pretty regularly, and one time I flew out of gate B33 (one over) and saw the American flag as I waited and had a feeling it was there to commemorate what happened (of course confirming it online). On my most recent trip, I actually flew out of gate B32 and had the same feelings and thoughts you did. It's a very sombering experience. Thanks for sharing.