The Brancatelli File



June 3, 1999 -- In the end, after all the words and all the pictures, it is very simple: Every crash diminishes us.

On a day when a plane goes down and fellow travelers die, all of us who live our lives on the road feel empty. We know that our lives, such as they are, have changed forever--and not for the better. We know that nothing will ever be the same.

Were you in a hotel room yesterday morning? Did you flip on the tube to catch the news and see the horrifying pictures of American Airlines Flight 1420 broken and ablaze in Little Rock? Did you make your way, zombie-like, through the day's meetings and presentations? Did you mindlessly guide your rental car back to the airport and trudge blank-eyed through the terminal. Did you then, in a supreme act of denial, step on another airplane?

Or were you at home, somehow feeling oddly detached from it all? Did you see the pictures and hear the words and shake your head over and over? Was there a knot in your gut? Did your mind--and your eyes--drift to the nearest television set, just to see what was happening in Little Rock?

Every crash diminishes us. Maybe we'd forgotten that. After all, before yesterday, we'd gone almost two years since a plane crashed on U.S. soil. And it's been 18 months since anyone died on a U.S. flag carrier.

But yesterday brought it all back. You couldn't look at the smoking hulk of that American MD-80 and not remember every close call you've ever had. You couldn't watch American's operations guy, Bob Baker, doggedly trying to separate fact from conjecture and not think about all the chaos you've witnessed whenever you waited out a snow storm or heavy weather or a bank of cancellations. You couldn't hear the passengers who survived American Flight 1420 talk about the scramble to escape and not think about how it might have been you.

Every crash diminishes us and we remember that now. And, maybe worst of all, we can't run away.

Leisure travelers can stay home until they think it's "safe" again. Summer vacationers may drive to the Poconos or Mammoth or the Grand Canyon this summer instead of flying to London or Hawaii or Fiji.

But not us. We live our lives on the road. We've got to take our fear, rational and irrational, and our concerns, logical and otherwise, and bury them at the bottom of our carry-on bags. We've got to fly tomorrow because that is what we do. This is how we live.

We've got to lie to our kids and our lovers and our families and tell them that we don't worry about stuff like this. We have to make believe we're invulnerable. We have to get on a plane tomorrow and forget about American 1420 and TWA 800. We've got to forget, all over again, that tumbling United crash in an Iowa cornfield and the Air Florida plane that plowed into the Potomac.

Nine people or more died in Little Rock yesterday and we have to shrug our shoulders. Maybe the pilot made a mistake in Little Rock, but we have to ignore it. We have to pretend we never heard American spokesman John Hotard wonder if "anyone on impact was thrown into the swamp" at the end of the Little Rock runway.

Tomorrow, on our next flight, we may pull the seat belt lower and tighter across our lap. Without even realizing it, we may read the safety card in the seat-back pocket. For a while, we might listen to the flight attendants during the safety announcements. For a flight or two, we may even remember to count the rows as we head down the aisle and look for the emergency exits as we settle into our seats.

Every crash diminishes us and, for a few days, we will think about the 145 passengers and crew who lived and died on American Flight 1420. The images of Little Rock will linger in our mind for a little while.

But next week or next month, or sometime soon, we will forget because we have to forget. We live our lives on the road. We fly because we have to fly and there isn't very much we can do about it.

Every crash diminishes us and we have to make believe it doesn't.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.