The Brancatelli File



November 4, 1999 -- You knew right away. You knew immediately there was no hope. You knew they were all dead. All gone. You knew all was lost.

It didn't matter when you first learned about the tragedy of Egyptair Flight 990 over the weekend. Maybe, like me, you had trouble sleeping after a late-night flight on Saturday and you flipped on CNN in the wee small hours of the morning on Sunday. Maybe you heard at a civil hour as you were preparing for church. It could have been when you turned on the car radio en route to your Sunday errands. You might have gone online for E-mail and found the news blinking on a Web site. Maybe you didn't know until you turned on the tube to watch a little football on Sunday afternoon.

But whenever you heard the news, you knew immediately. You didn't need aviation analysts babbling in code. You didn't need news anchors stumbling from live shot to live shot. You didn't need to hear a telephone interview with some Coast Guard ensign talking about some Coast Guard cutter heading to some spot near some island in some ocean. You didn't need any of it.

All you needed to hear was that Egyptair Flight 990 had disappeared from the radar and you knew. They were all dead. All gone. One more flight goes missing over the Atlantic and you knew right away there'd be no miracles. TWA 800. Swissair 111. Now Egyptair 990.

All dead. All gone. That's just the way it is. We fly and, sometimes, some of us die.

Forget thrusters and fuel tanks. Forget the FAA and the NTSB and the men in those windbreakers with the yellow letters emblazoned on the backs. A plane heads out over the North Atlantic and the networks go on the air and you know. They're all dead. They're all gone.

That's just the way it is now. We fly and, sometimes, some of us die.

The texture of this tragedy is unique, of course. The details always are because this, above all, is a human tragedy . This time we knew, right from the beginning, that there were babies on board. In Cairo, at the airport, the wailing of friends and families looked and sounded different than the grief we saw in Paris after TWA 800 and in Switzerland after Swissair 111.

There were the early reports about a phantom diversion to Edwards Air Force Base. There were live shots in the pitch-black night of Los Angeles International, where the flight originated. There were several Muslim elders who explained, with dignity and compassion, that the Koran calls for stoic acceptance of the will of Allah.

There were pictures of the Ramada Plaza Hotel at New York's Kennedy Airport, from where the doomed Boeing 767 departed on its nonstop itinerary to Cairo. You knew things were going to be gruesome when families started converging on the Ramada Plaza. It was where the TWA 800 families and Swissair 111 families met.The Ramada Plaza is where we all go, emotionally at least, when there's a tragedy now.

That's just the way it is. We fly and, sometimes, some of us die.

About three dozen of the 218 passengers and crew boarded the EgyptAir Flight 990 in Los Angeles, but one man got off in New York. That's not supposed to happen. Passengers boarding an international flight are not permitted to disembark at an intermediate domestic destination. But what twist of fate allowed that man to get off the plane before its tragic final segment? And what were the odds that Ed McLoughlin, a consultant on airline-disaster notification, would be that disembarking passenger? Within hours of the crash he somehow avoided, McLoughlin was helping EgyptAir notify families of their losses.

That's just the way it is now. We fly and, sometimes, some of us die. Unless we happen to get off the plane.

In the end, maybe it is the absolute randomness of it all that rattles us. We know the facts: Airline travel is safer than driving. Millions of us fly every day, routinely, without incident. Getting on a plane, for us, is like drinking a cup of coffee or taking a shower. Getting on a plane, for us, is safer than driving to the airport.

Logic tells us, the numbers tell us, that it will never be us. We've got a better chance of being hit by lightning than being involved in an airline accident. It is all so damned safe that we can complain if a flight is late or if the in-flight meal is bad. We can worry about the little stuff because the big one can never happen to us. We know that. We believe that.

But then there's TWA 800 or Swissair 111 or Pan Am 103 or American Flight 1420, and now, EgyptAir 990, and our heart tells us something else. There but for the grace of God we go. Somewhere, in the deepest recesses of our heart, we have a feeling that, some day, maybe, possibly, perhaps

That's just the way it is now. We know it just as well as we know our frequent-flyer account numbers.

We fly and, sometimes, some of us die.

This column originally appeared at

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