A co-worker stopped me on July 9 and asked “Do you remember where you were 36 years ago today?”
Then he told me. Wow, how could I have forgotten?
I was a young newspaper reporter that day — and about to witness the worst tragedy I would cover.
By that evening, I had just concluded a whirlwind of interviews and looked at some horrendous sights. I had walked through stuff that would turn your stomach.
Beyond the carnage, I entered a building, joining a few television and print reporters up ahead, looking, waiting, seeming to be anticipating something. So was I.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man that I recognized. It was Ty. His nickname was Tub. I hadn’t seen him in years. His younger brother, Mark, and I grew up together. Ty and I shook hands. I didn’t know what to make of him being in this place. This was a sad place, and I feared what he was going to tell me when I asked why he was there.
Even though there were dozens of people walking near us, there was little talk. They all looked a little disheartened. A few appeared to be wiping away tears. I knew why.
Again, I noticed the reporters, but I was focused on my conversation with Ty as we walked into a large meeting room. Once inside, the mood quickly became somber.
Some were sharing embraces. Others were standing, staring into space. Ty was expressionless. There was a time, because of his age and the respect we younger boys gave him, that I thought he was so much taller and bigger than me. Now he wasn’t.
Then the doors shut, and a man stepped up to speak to the gathered crowd. He introduced himself. There were a couple of other people in the room who wore similar emblems on their jackets. And then he said what it seemed everyone in the room knew but had to hear for themselves. It had to be official.
I pulled out my notepad, got my pen and started writing. I was holding my breath, waiting for what this man was going to say. The anticipation of the obvious was consuming me.
Then, he said it. Pan Am Flight 759 had crashed shortly after takeoff from nearby New Orleans International airport and that all 153 passengers and the plane’s crew had died. (Eight had died on the ground.) You could now hear the sobbing. A tall, slender woman near me cried out, “Oh God.” There were hugs and tears. My friend Ty just dropped his head. His mother-in-law was on the plane.
While he was my friend, I could not be there for him at that moment. I was feverishly writing on my notepad. I had to capture everything I heard in the dimly lit room in Metairie. After all, I was a reporter.
I was writing as fast as I could. In a sea of emotion, I was coldly focused on doing my job.
A few minutes passed before a Pan Am staffer noticed me and walked over. I was told nicely that if I was reporter, I would have to leave.
I was calmly walked to the door, and out I went. By then, there were more media camped outside, and some were startled to see that I had been in the room with the families of the dead.
I told them I was kicked out before I could hear much.
Hours later, I would be at my desk in Baton Rouge, sitting at a computer reading those notes and others, trying to write my story about Pan Am Flight 759. For a few minutes though, all I could think about was my friend Ty and that woman’s shrill, sad voice, and the stuff that was difficult to look at.
July 9, 1982 should be a day I always remember.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.