Coincidences of War Come Home to Virginia


by Martha Wessells Steger, Contributing Writer

Martha Wessells Steger

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.

Fast-forward 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. "Were 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 alive.

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 survivors.

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 day.     

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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