On September 10, 2001, First Officer Steve Scheibner sat down at his computer to check the American Airline flight log to see if there were any unassigned flights for the next day. As a twenty-year pilot of American, Steve was following his normal routine.
The flight that was available was Flight 11 out of Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles. He was the only pilot available to fly, so he signed on as the pilot.
Once a pilot does this, American Airlines will call the pilot and verbally confirm that he/she is the assigned pilot for the trip. Once that phone call is made, the pilot is guaranteed the trip. Usually that phone call comes within thirty minutes.
That day the phone call never came. It occurred to Steve later that day that he never got a call and the reason was that a pilot named Tom McGinnis also went to the computer. McGinnis saw that Steve’s name was listed in the captain’s slot, but he also noticed that he was within the thirty-minute window, and because he had seniority, he bumped Scheibner off the trip.
September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day on the East Coast. Flight 11 pushed off from the gate on time and took off on time. McGinnis took the Boeing 767 to about 23,000 feet and engaged the autopilot to take the plane the rest of the way to Los Angeles. At that moment, the terrorists went into action.
Back in Boston, Steve Scheibner began to get phone calls when Flight 11 hit the first tower. He began watching the disaster unfold on television like everyone else. Even though he knew the flight number of the plane, it didn’t click with him that this was the plane he had signed up to fly until later that evening when he went to the computer to find out who was on the flight.
When he logged in, everything looked exactly like it did the day before, except instead of his name being in the pilot’s slot, it read, “Sequence Failed Continuity,” a term used to indicate that the trip did not make it to its destination.
At that moment Steve knew he should have been on that flight. He discovered that the pilot that was in his seat was Tom McGinnis. Only a few minutes separated Tom McGinnis from dying and Steve Scheibner from living.
This kind of story was repeated over and over on September 11, 2001. Some people’s lives were spared that day because they changed their flight plans at the last minute, they were late for work, or out of the office. Others died because they were on a flight to do business or see family, had an appointment at the Twin Towers, or running up the stairs of a burning building trying to save others.
Why does tragedy claim some and leave others? For thousands of years one explanation has been that tragedy strikes those who deserve it, that God is judging people for their sins. Eliphaz asked his suffering friend Job, “Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?” (Job 3:7a NIV). The book of Job was written to debunk Eliphaz’s theology of retribution.
While people often reap what they sow, the Psalmist noticed that sometimes the wicked prosper while those who play by the rules suffer (Psalm 73).
Jesus noted two tragedies of his day, one involving people that Pilate killed as they worshipped at the temple, and another where eighteen people died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them. In both cases, Jesus made it clear that the people who died where no worse sinners than any of their neighbors. God’s hand played no role in their deaths.
Jesus used the events to get people to ponder the brevity and the purpose for living. If we get wrapped up in living for ourselves, then it becomes easy deny that death will come to us and to focus only on things of this world. Clearly, events of Jesus’ day and events of our own should be enough to remind us that our lives could end any day. In fact, one day they will.
Because of this, if we live in denial that we will have to be accountable for our actions, such disbelief not only separates us from God in this life, but also in the one to come. There is no greater tragedy than that, not even 9/11.