The phone rang in the early afternoon of April 4, 1991. I picked it up.
“Maternal-Fetal Medicine, this is Jodee,” I stated.
“Hi Jodee, it’s Judy,” said the voice on the other end, “I finally found you.”
I was only one week into a new job at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia and I hadn’t yet given Judy, my friend and neighbor, my direct number. It took awhile for her to track me down at this very large teaching hospital. Judy picked up my son Jarrod from school everyday. Jarrod was a second grader at Merion Elementary School in Merion, Pennsylvania, which was just a few blocks from our house. Merion was the first stop on the Main Line, not too far from downtown Philadelphia, and about a 20-minute drive from work.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Yes, fine,” she said calmly, but there’s been an accident near the school and they are asking parents to pick up their kids.”
“Can’t you get him for me?” I asked.
“I tried, but they won’t release him to me,” she said.
That’s when I realized that her “calm” was deliberate. She was trying to keep me calm. My heart went straight to my throat. I stood up. Long before Privacy Practices went into effect, I had a room full of high risk pregnant women who could hear me on the phone.
“What happened, Judy?” I asked.
Still calm, “Well, there’s been a plane crash near the school.” Did she say plane? Wait, she said NEAR. I was hanging on her every word.
“Near?” I asked.
“Yes, but close enough that all the children need to be picked up,” she said.
That calmed me a bit. The children are okay, they just need to be picked up, but I still wondered why she couldn’t pick him up. Her daughter was in private school, but they knew Judy. She was my emergency contact. Nothing was making sense. We lived in a suburb, far from the airport. How could there be a plane crash?
Then she said. “Just be careful driving home. I was able to reach David at the hotel, so he may get to the school before you.”
That’s when my stomach wrenched. I knew that she would never have called David, Jarrod’s step-father, at work if this wasn’t something terrible. I hung up just as one of the nurses walked up to my desk. I told her there was a plane crash near my son’s school and took off.
I ran the six blocks to the cheap lot where my car was parked. As I was running, I thought of the news on the radio. That should shed some light on what happened, but part of me was afraid to hear. In Judy’s attempt to keep me calm, I knew she was holding back.
Within seconds of starting the car, I heard that there had been a collision between a helicopter and small plane right above Merion Elementary School and that everyone in the plane and helicopter were dead. Also dead, were two children, students at the school, who were on the playground.
The agonizing 20-minute drive. I didn’t cry. I prayed. I selfishly prayed for it not to be my child dead on the playground. I was thinking of when I last saw my baby. An ordinary Thursday. I drove him to school. Did I tell him I loved him? Yes. I always did. Was it a difficult morning? Mornings weren’t always easy with Jarrod. He didn’t like waking up. Mornings could be rough with getting him ready for school, me ready for work, doing my best to get some food in his belly. The morning was uneventful. Please, not my baby. Please.
I got as close as I could to the school and then just stopped my car in the middle of the road. I jumped out and ran. I felt sick. I could never have imagined what greeted me at the school. It was blocked with police cars, firetrucks, emergency vehicles of every kind, and news crews. There was yellow tape. I saw a mangled plane, just steps from the school. It must have been obvious that I was a mother because when I got to the yellow tape a police officer just lifted it up and let me through. I ran to the side of the building and started to run in the door, but stopped in my tracks. There, standing just beyond the door was my little boy and my husband, hand in hand, backs to me, looking at the helicopter wreckage. I dropped to my knees and let myself cry. Thank you, Thank you.
Senator John Heinz was on that plane. As they approached the airport, the pilot was concerned with the landing gear so they aborted and headed away from the airport. A private helicopter company heard the distress call and offered a “fly by” to do a visual check of the landing gear. Something went wrong and they collided. The plane landed in the front of the school and the helicopter landed in the back.
Two little first grade girls lost their lives and others were injured, including a second grade boy severely burned; all from burning, falling debris. It could have been much worse, though for the parents of those girls, there was nothing worse. At the time of the crash, most of the 500 or so students were either in the cafeteria or elsewhere inside. Only about 50 children, first and second graders, were on the playground. Fifteen minutes later and they would have all been outside. Or, the wreckage could have landed on top of the building with all those children inside.
My second grader explained it this way: We were in the cafeteria and we heard a really loud boom. Then Mr. Gold (the Principal) came on the speaker and told us to leave everything where it was and get in line. He yelled, “NOW!” Then he told the teachers where to take us. We went outside for a long time, but we couldn’t see anything. Then they told us it was safe to go inside and we had to wait in our classroom for our parents. He ended with, What took you so long?
Judy was waiting for us at home. She cried when she saw us. She’d had no idea if Jarrod was okay. She’d heard the explosion, and like everyone in the neighborhood, went to investigate. She couldn’t get close enough because she wasn’t a parent. She had tried. Because of the national news coverage, the phone rang all day and night with family and friends calling, knowing we lived in Lower Merion Township.
This happened on a Thursday. On Friday, there was a meeting with school officials, teachers, psychologists and parents. The consensus was that the sooner the children were back to a regular routine, the better. On Monday, they were back in school. There was very little evidence of the catastrophe. All of the burned grass had been re-sod and the burnt tree limbs were cut down. There was ongoing counseling provided for the children and parents. Some of the children that had been outside were severely traumatized. Jarrod came away from it relatively unscathed. He saw the injured boy in the hallway when they were leaving the cafeteria, but it was very brief.
I went to one counseling session a week or so later. There was a group of about 20 of us. I just wondered if anyone was feeling the same way that I was, which was, My kid is fine. I’m a mess. I was not alone.
Life moved on, but it took awhile for that thing we parents do everyday, dropping our kids off at school, to feel normal again. I felt anxious watching him walk away from me. I also had my little guy collecting debris from the crash that he was finding on the vast, open, grassy schoolyard. He kept bringing home little bits of it. Look mom, I found more debris, which was a new word for him, or I would find it in the pockets of his jacket or jeans.