How heroes reclaimed the sky
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

By Denis Hamill
NY Daily News Columnist

Flight attendant Mary McKenna

Let's not forget the people of the airline industry on Sept. 11.

"Reclaiming the Sky," by Tom Murphy, is more than a book about these unsung heroes.

"I think it's a story for anybody who wants to learn how to live in this post-9/11 era and not be fearful," says Murphy. "I think the terrorists came to kill as many as they could that day, but also to destroy us indirectly by getting us to turn inward. Away from each other. To retreat into ourselves and into our fears."

But he says the stories in his book illustrate that the people who are doing best since 9/11 are those who refuted the terrorists by coming out of themselves for others. "That's how we reclaimed the sky after 9/11," Murphy says. "That's how we all can reclaim our happiness."

Murphy, a former editor of The Bayside Times, an excellent Queens weekly, says every penny of the profits from his book, which hits bookstore shelves this week, will go to charities directly related to 9/11, or to the airline industry, in which he's worked for 20 years. Murphy has also launched a Web site,, where people go to vent and swap stories.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Murphy was supposed to be at a meeting at the Port Authority aviation unit headquarters on the 65th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.

The meeting was canceled.

So Murphy, who'd run a customer service training program at Newark Liberty International Airport for 10 years, caught a plane out of town, and he remembers seeing the sun gleaming off the twin towers.

Minutes later, those towers would be attacked by two jumbo jets hijacked by fanatical Wahhabi terrorists. In the first row of United 175 sat Marianne MacFarlane and Jesus Sanchez, United Airlines employees Murphy had trained. That plane exploded into the south tower. American Flight 11 made its fatal impact into the north tower, where Murphy kept a desk.

In the smoldering days following Sept. 11, Murphy found himself haunted by a lingering fog of dread. He watched others in the industry go back to work, launching the wounded nation back into the scary sky. He wanted to know how these unsung heroes managed to find the fortitude.

His questions and their answers and personal stories became "Reclaiming the Sky," the story about these gutsy people who helped us reclaim our country.

"I was stuck," Murphy says. "Mark Hussey, who runs the station in Boston, told me that every day for the workers there was a tug between remembering and moving on. I think the key, though, is how to move forward instead of on. Moving forward is when we embrace the loss. And so I set out to learn how to do that."

Murphy talked to flight attendants, customer service reps, pilots and others in the aviation industry who literally rose to the crucial task after that fateful day and every day since.

"When Tom Murphy called me, I told him the most crucial thing we all had to do was talk about what was troubling us," says Queens-raised Mary McKenna, an American Airlines flight attendant with 30 years of flying, who also happens to be a licensed psychotherapist. "I'd had a hard time because I knew people who died on 9/11 and in Flight 587 that went down a month later in Rockaway.

"I told Tom the main thing was not to bury the feelings. That you needed to embrace the feelings and share them with others. A lot of us in this industry were like the walking wounded after 9/11. The ones who dealt with their feelings openly and outwardly did much better than those who buried them."

It's why McKenna liked the A&E TV movie "Flight 93" better than "United 93," the feature film version. "The TV movie dealt more with emotions, the phone calls between families, the essence of what the loss meant on a human level," says McKenna, who recently took a 35% pay cut to help save American Airlines.

"That's what Tom Murphy has done so wonderfully in 'Reclaiming the Sky.' This is the story of the human beings in the airline industry since that terrible day."

In a grim post-9/11 time of layoffs, cutbacks, bankruptcies and terror plots like the recent one in London, the men and women of the airline industry manage to keep our planes in the sky, which keeps our economy aloft and our 21st century society connected.

"I learned that whether it was by creating a garden, a scholarship fund or a toy drive in honor of the lost, you healed by doing something that took you out of self," says Murphy. "I had no idea when I started that this book and this Web site would be how I learned to cope, how I would reclaim the sky."

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