News outlets around the world covered the Jan. 4, 2010,
death of Tsutomu Yamaguchi because of his remarkable coincidence in
surviving the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In truth,
every war involves great coincidences or close calls that leave those who
escape feeling as though they're the luckiest people on the planet.
The Civil War story of Wilmer McLean informs visitors to
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park how his house, unoccupied at
the time, was used on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, for the signing of the
surrender document by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General
Ulysses S. Grant. McLean had moved his family to Appomattox Court House from
Manassas after the May 1861 battle in which his farm became embroiled in the
battle. Because of this coincidence, it has often been said that the Civil
War began and ended in McLean's backyard.
136 years to Sept. 11, 2001, when the forces of coincidence were again at
work in what would be called the beginning of the War on Terror. Many of us
know people who, but for some small happening such as a cancelled meeting
would not have survived Sept. 11.
Charles F. Bryan, the retired president and CEO of the
Virginia Historical Society, tells how his daughter, now Alethea Bryan
Gerding, living in Chapel Hill, N.C., currently enjoys life as a wife and
mother only because her boss called late in the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2001,
cancelling her meeting at the Pentagon scheduled for the next morning. When
American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles hit that section of the
Pentagon around 9:43 a.m. the next day, her former boss and others of her
team members were among the more than 125 people who died there.
My immediate family a daughter working at Statue of
Liberty National Monument, a son working in mid-town Manhattan and my
husband, Tom, and I returning to Richmond via a Newark flight at 8 a.m.
had our own encounter with 9/11. Hurricane Erin had delayed Tom's and my
departure from Bermuda until a late-night flight to Newark on Sept. 10. We
spent the night and were back at Newark airport at 6 a.m. on 9/11 to pick up
our checked luggage for our flight to Richmond. With about 10 planes in
front of us on the tarmac, our plane didn't take off until 8:40, only
minutes after United Airlines Flight 93 bound for San Francisco, which had
also been sitting on the tarmac.
We later learned that because no planes were allowed to
land in Washington, our pilot had landed at our Richmond destination. Once
we landed when the airport was closing for the emergency, we learned of
the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and of the fate of
Flight 93, which had crashed in a field near Shanksville, Penn., when
passengers foiled the terrorists who took control.
At the airport our cell phone showed no service to New
York City. After driving home to Midlothian, we reached our son, Michael,
via landline. He'd been unable to reach his sister, Katy, ever since first
trying when people were running past him black smoke filling the sky of
Lower Manhattan behind them on his way to his Park Avenue office.
"Everything is down in Lower Manhattan," he said.
going to have to wait until Katy contacts one of us." What was unsaid by all
of us was if Katy were able to contact us we had no idea if she were still
Tuesday's were her day off, the mornings when she took the
staff boat to Lower Manhattan from Liberty Island where she lived in a
duplex behind the Statue. She always went to a World Trade Center coffee
shop for coffee, a bagel and the New York Times. She was a trained EMT
training she'd gotten during her years as a biology major at Virginia
Commonwealth University and we knew that if she had survived, she'd be
trying to help.
Around 11 a.m. she called us from Liberty Island to say
only that she was okay, she loved us, and the phone was needed for emergency
purposes. She spent the rest of the day working at the triage center set up
on Ellis Island, and the next three days at Ground Zero with other
volunteers and New York rescue professionals searching for possible
Because of the shutdown in all
transportation crossing the Hudson River on 9/11, Michael was unable to get
home to his family in Montclair, N.J., but was fine overnight in his dark
13th-floor office. All of our immediate family could count ourselves among
the very lucky coincidences in the beginning of a new, strange war. Next
year when the nation commemorates the 10th anniversary of that horrific day,
well give special thanks for the good fortune we feel as a family every
Martha Wessells Steger, a native of Accomack County, is a freelance
writer living in Midlothian
who regularly visits the Eastern Shore.
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