When she first told me the story, I thought, with dark irony suppressed, that Esther Heymann was one of the lucky ones. Her 27-year-old stepdaughter, Elizabeth Wainio, had died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but at least the two women got to say goodbye.
At least they had that.
On that sunny, late-summer, back-to-work morning 15 years ago, Wainio called from United Airlines Flight 93, the one that took off from Newark, N.J., and crashed in a field in southwestern Pennsylvania. Wainio managed to stay on the phone for several minutes before passengers stormed the cockpit to keep the hijackers from using the plane in the fourth attack of the day, possibly on the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
"This is going to be so much worse for you all than for me," Wainio said at one point. Heymann suggested they look at the sky together — Wainio through the plane window, Heymann through the window of her home just outside Baltimore — and, in those final moments, they found some peace together.
Wainio's last words were: "I have to go. They're breaking into the cockpit. I love you."
The Boeing 757 crashed near Shanksville, Pa., killing all 44 people on board.
I remember thinking Heymann was fortunate — so many friends and relatives of 9/11 victims never had a chance to say goodbye to them — but I kept that thought to myself. If there was consolation in that final phone call, it was for Heymann to say, not me.
From time to time, I think of Heymann and her stepdaughter. Just about anything might bring them to mind: Walking through the security check-in at the airport, hearing my son or daughter describe plans for a trip, seeing busy people staring into smartphones as they wait for the lights to change on the way to work. I think of people going about their day, living and working, and how anything can change everything.
I thought of it Tuesday morning, after the horrific bus accident on Frederick Avenue — a yellow school bus striking a No. 10 MTA bus, killing the driver of the school bus and five passengers aboard the No. 10. Another 10 people were injured.
I take the bus frequently, though not the No. 10, and I am very familiar with what the morning commute looks like.
My fellow travelers are headed to work, or they're coming off the midnight shift; They might be headed to a college class, or a doctor's appointment, or they've just come from getting their daily dose of methadone. Some sit quietly. Some nod off. Some read books. Some play games on their smartphones, or they listen to music with earbuds.
Some chat with the person in the next seat. (I once eavesdropped on an extensive discussion — actually, something approaching a mild argument — about the various flavors of International Delight coffee creamers.)
Some passengers stare out the window. Tuesday morning, some of those who died might have seen what was coming. Or maybe not.
It happened in just a few seconds, right? People who have lived years and decades, who have families and furniture, pets and cars, hobbies and relationships, favorite TV shows and books — people like any of us — were gone in seconds.
I know: Happens every day. People die in accidents all the time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 17,775 people died on U.S. roads in the first half of the year. That's close to 100 deaths a day. The country is full of people and cars, trucks, buses and planes. Anything can happen. Anything can change everything.
I know. We all know. We might not, most of us, be able to relate to sudden death with a gun — something that happens with dreary frequency in Baltimore — but we can imagine ourselves just sitting there, along for the ride, someone else at the wheel, and ...
Let's be honest: We try not to think about this stuff until it happens to someone else, and in a way that hits home.
But yesterday, I thought of the people on the MTA bus and wondered if, like Esther Heymann and Lizz Wainio, they had expressed their feelings to the people they care about.
I reflected on regrets: People I lost touch with. They got busy. So did I. Some of them left for good before I had a chance to say farewell.
I don't have any grand advice except to be mindful of what's truly important — only you know what that is — and reflect on it, if only for a few minutes, each day.
And I've never forgotten the request Mike Royko, the late Chicago columnist, made of his readers in 1979, just two weeks after his wife, Carol, died suddenly, at the age of 44: "If there's someone you love but haven't said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now."