Posted in Longreads and Essays

Salvation From The Depths

There is a bridge in Washington DC that is named after an unlikely hero, a man who quite literally gave his life to save others.

Thirty-eight years ago, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 Boeing 737-200 crashed onto the 14th Street Bridge and into an icy Potomac River, killing all 73 passengers and crew. Four passengers and one flight attendant were the only survivors.

At least four of those people owed their lives to the “sixth passenger” as he became known.

After the plane crashed and began to sink into the ice-strewn river, six people could be seen clinging to the plane’s tail fin. A US Park Police helicopter arrived on the scene and immediately began trying to rescue the survivors. The helicopter rescued one person and then returned to the tail.

Arland D. Williams Jr. caught the rescue line and instead of wrapping it around himself, he passed it to flight attendant Kelly Duncan. When the helicopter returned to the wreckage a third time, it dropped two lines because the crew feared that the remaining survivors would succumb to hypothermia very soon. Williams caught one of the lines and passed it on to a severely injured Joe Stiley, who also grabbed Priscilla Tirado. Patricia Felch took the other line and was towed to safety along with the others.

When the helicopter returned, Williams and the tail section of the plane were gone. After the bodies from the crash were recovered, the coroner determined that Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning therefore he had been the “sixth passenger,” the one who gave his life for others.

Ninety-one years ago today a man was born who would give his life to rescue his people from the dark depths of racial segregation and discrimination. Fifty-two years after his death, the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is honored and acknowledged through his monument on the National Mall.

I will probably never have a bridge named after me, but I want to be a bridge between people. I may never have to pass a rescue line to another, but I want to daily live my life in service to others who may need a helping hand.

I will probably never have a monument highlighting my deeds, but I can make my life a monument that honors an ordinary hero like Williams and the extraordinary life of Dr. King.

Perhaps I can be the one who keeps someone from slipping beneath the surface into the cold depths of despair.

Originally posted January 15, 2012, dates updated to reflect present.

Posted in Longreads and Essays

Freedom and the Fear of Death: Words from Dr. King

Dr. King once said “Until you conquer the fear of death, you don’t know what freedom is!”

I must admit that I am not free and have not been free for a long while. I have allowed Death to keep its sting. On this anniversary of the assassination of this great man, I am reminded that there is still a long way to go in this country and the world before we achieve the Dream. On this day with this faith I commit myself to change beginning with myself and with my fear of death. In other words, in a paraphrase from Gypsy Smith, “If you want to have revival, draw a circle around yourself and have revival in that circle.”

So I am drawing a circle around myself. I am stepping out of my comfort zone beyond talk into places and experiences that make me uncomfortable into an engagement with people different from me. I am not expecting people to come to me. I am not expecting change to knock on my door. I am going to change. I am opening the door to difference and walking out. I am going to face my own mortality and cease to be afraid of what might happen if my changing causes others to change, to be uncomfortable, and so strike back against that change and me.

Who am I to think that I must not suffer when I do anyway if one person in this world is suffering? Who am I to think that I must not hurt when I do anyway because one person in this world is hurting? Who am I to think that I must ignore death when my brothers and sisters the world over are giving their lives day in and day out because they cannot live as I do?

I do not know where this path will take me, but I do know this:
I am not alone and
I will not be afraid.

January 21, 2008