Why does Mary McKenna fly?
Mary, a 30-year LGA- based flight attendant for American Airlines, will tell you right up front - for the "connection" to her colleagues. It was her colleagues who helped Mary, a licensed psychotherapist, deal with her issues of loss not only around 9/11, but around the crash of Flight 587 two months later in New York, where for a second time in two months she lost close friends.
"I couldn’t deal with it," she said. "I couldn’t even stand to drive by the airport, or see a plane in the sky." That’s hard when your job requires you to live at 35,000 feet day after day.
How did Mary recover, which she believes she is doing?
What follows is an interview with Mary in which she tells her story. First a little background: Mary grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She went to St. John’s University, where she majored in Psychology. "Those were the days, the early 70s, when girls weren’t supposed to go to college. I had to fight for that." She started flying because her mom wanted her to. "My mom said only one in a thousand people get chosen to be a flight attendant - she though I had hit the lottery! I was only going to do it for two years, then go back to grad school. It took me nine years to go back to school, to get my license in psychotherapy, and now thirty years later, here I am still!"
9/11 hit her hard. "It hit us all hard," she said. She told this to Denis Hamill, a writer for the NY Daily News, "My friends were on Flight 11 out of Boston. Diane Snyder, a flight attendant, had two kids and a husband she was still crazy in love with after 20 years of marriage. I still can’t believe what happened to Diane."
She was aware of the bravery of Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney, the two flight attendants from Flight 11, who called in on cell phones to report the hijackers. "That was the thing that really got to me," she said. "It seemed that nobody gave aviation people credit for how brave they were that day. I know regular people, travelers, were afraid to fly after 9/11 - but aviation workers went right back up into the air. They did it because it was their duty."
Then came the crash of 587. "I was a mess," she said. She’s better now. You can see that talking to her. How did she get that way, to a point where she feels she can move forward again? "Talking to people did it for me," she said. "What I know, being a psychotherapist, is that you can’t bury your emotions and think you’ll get better. You don’t get better when you keep your feelings inside. You get cancer. Or you’ll turn to alcohol, or prescription drugs for relief. Or maybe you’ll balloon by 70 extra pounds. The emotions will find an outlet someplace. And the important thing is to make sure the outlet is positive. For me, that outlet was talking."
Susie Wallace, a New York based American Airlines flight attendant and Mary’s friend and colleague, took the lead. Susie created a peer support system - a project to provide peer support based on a program designed for firemen by Jeffrey Mitchell - that’s been helpful to many flight attendants who had been struggling. "It helped me to have other flight attendants to talk to," Mary said. "We understood what we were all going through. There was a lot of fear. I know I was feeling it. And it’s important to be able to admit to that. After all there’s lots to be fearful about, but you don’t want fear to run your life. It helped me to have my friends come to me and say, "We’re with you, now get back up on the horse." I’m a licensed psychotherapist, I should have known all this, right? But I refused to confront my emotions. Instead I chose to deny them, but that goes to show you, when you keep your emotions bottled up, they’ll come back around and bite you."
Today, Mary is committed to talking about what she’s feeling, and she encourages others to do the same. She knows the power of "talk," and the strides a person can make when they put aside the image they think they need to carry that says, "I’m not the kind of person who gets hurt."
"You’ve got to respect your body," she said. "If you’re body is rebelling, telling you something’s wrong, then you better believe you’ve got a problem. Finally, I realized that, thanks to my friends. It’s all about respect, respecting yourself enough to want to feel better. And I’m grateful to my friends, my peers, who encouraged me to talk my way through it."
"Our lives touch so many others"
Like Mary McKenna, Drew Pitcher is another flight attendant who "flies" for the "community" aviation offers. On 9/11, he was on a flight out of LaGuardia. His plane made it to Ohio, but the story is the great lengths Drew went to get back to Boston, his American Airlines base, and why that was so important to him.
By Drew Pitcher
American Airlines Flight Attendant / Boston
The morning of 9/11 I got up early to catch a plane home to Ohio to see my folks. Because of the early hour I left the house, not knowing that I had left my phone in the charger by my bed. I parked my car in Chelsea, in the employee lot and decided to leave my Computer in the car, because I didn't think I'd need it I flew from Boston, my base, to LaGuardia to catch another American Eagle to Cleveland, to visit family. We had just taken off from LaGuardia when I saw smoke out the window. Everyone turned to look toward the World Trade Center, when the pilot came on the speaker and announced that reportedly a small plane had struck the North Tower. How could I have known those were my friends and colleagues!
We were diverted to Youngstown, Ohio, and bused to Cleveland. It was a very long ride, with many obstacles before I got to my father's house outside of Cleveland. I did not have my cell phone, so I was in the dark much of that morning and couldn't reach my friends to tell them I was ok, but when I got to my father's house I learned the full story, the horror of everything, and I was devastated.
I needed to get back, I told my father that I was sure that some of my friends had been on Flight 11 and that I needed to get back; but that was impossible, since all airports were closed. I was determined to get back to Boston as quickly as I could, to be there with my colleagues, to help out.
Once the skies reopened I paid for a flight on Continental Airlines to LaGuardia from Cleveland. We got in very late that Saturday night, and I found a chair to sleep in, since there would be no further flights until the morning. Then at about 4am I was awakened as hundreds, it seemed like thousands, of people filled the terminal, bunching up around the counters. When I saw the crowds, I knew I was not going to be getting on a flight that day, so I caught a cab to Penn Station. Then, as I pulled up to the train station, I saw something that brought me to tears. It was an information construction sign, with the yellow flashing lights. Usually those signs say, "Move Right," or something like that, but this one had the words, "God Bless America." flashing on it. Till that point I'd been able to hold it in., but suddenly the tears came rushing out.
I caught a train to Boston, and when I got to my apartment, I called Flight Scheduling in Dallas to let them know that I was at home in Boston and was willing to work. The person on the other end asked if I could be ready to fly that day. That's why I had come back, I told him, that's why I had taken such a long route, so that I could be there to help. I told him that I'd been up for what seemed like days, so all I needed was a little sleep, then I'd be ready. And that's what I did, I went to sleep, and when I woke up I put on my uniform and went into work, so that I could be with my colleagues, to help out.
That's why I fly - to do this job with others who know how important our work is. I have also realized how many lives we touch in our daily work and how much those people mean to me and to those that work with me.
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