Empty Chairs at Empty Tables* Revisited

Fifteen years ago last week, I was sitting in the Trans World Airlines cafeteria located in Hanger 12, JFK Airport in New York. I was talking to some crew members who had just finished their FAA required Annual Emergency Review. As their instructor for this class, I always enjoyed hearing the in-flight adventures of the cockpit and cabin crews. Later on that day I would be traveling to Oklahoma to attend a FAA safety up-date conference. The crew members who were at these tables were discussing their scheduled flight assignments. Some off to London, some to San Francisco, others to Madrid and at one table; approximately 10 crew members headed to Paris on flight 800. This group of men and women were part of the crew who had been working together for the month of July. The First Officer (Co-Pilot) and a group of the assigned Flight 800 Flight Attendants were making dinner plans in New York City that night. The next day everything changed. TWA 800, a Boeing 747-131, exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 persons on board. 30 were crewmembers; 15 were “deadheading” to Rome to cover another flight.

Two days after the accident, I returned from Oklahoma and was told to report to Hanger 12. The cafeteria temporarily was transformed into an operation center which would handle the incredible public relation workload. I was assigned as family survivor liaison; an assignment I began immediately. As I was leaving the cafeteria to meet with my first family, I looked toward the NE area of the cafeteria where a few days ago at that table, those TWA 800 crewmembers were planning their night. Their next day. Their lives. Two of the flight attendants were husband and wife. Two others were engaged. Those chairs and tables sat empty. In my heart, empty forever. As I started towards the exit, the reality of what happened hit me; the death of one family member is always hard. Imagine 30.

In James (4:13b-14) it is written that “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit. Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow, you are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” On a daily basis, we are consistently making plans for ourselves, our family and our employment. Yet, on each day given to us, we are subject to our ‘last day’.

CS Lewis wrote concerning that last day: “There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen…”

The boarding announcement for our eternal flight home will only be heard by us.

*Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Les Miserables: Boublil/Schonberg, 1985


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