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The flight not taken

Lauren Gurskis could have been aboard Flight 175; now every moment is precious

By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - In her nightmares, Lauren Gurskis used to imagine herself seated by the cockpit door as the hijackers made their move. Or her husband and young son sitting in a church pew at her own memorial service.

Her worst moments came not at check-in time or cruising altitude, says Gurskis, 38, a Boston-based flight attendant for United Airlines. They came when she was alone in a hotel room, far from the comforts of family and home. A reminder of those troubled times is the photograph she tucks inside her travel bag wherever she goes. The photo is of Amy King and Michael Tarrou, two of Gurskis's co-workers, who took off one bright blue September morning a year ago and never returned.

''I seriously thought I wasn't going to fly again,'' Gurskis says, acknowledging the pain, fear, doubt, and guilt that the past year has visited upon her.

Her story is one of those small footnotes, those beguiling coincidences, that underlie any tragedy of such enormous breadth and magnitude. Eleven years with the airline, Gurskis was scheduled to work Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles on Sept. 11, a route she still regularly flies. In August of last year, however, she switched assignments - trip-traded, as flight attendants call it - so that she could drive her son to his first day of kindergarten.

Her assignment was plugged back into the airline's scheduling computer, where another United flight attendant grabbed it. Gurskis was thus spared the anguish of having personally selected her replacement on Flight 175, which took off from Logan Airport on Sept. 11 and, shortly after 9 a.m., crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower.

Gurskis was amazingly fortunate. She was not, however, spared the knowledge that she could have easily been aboard that plane. Or the personal sense of loss, Gurskis having been close to three of Flight 175's seven crew members. Or the gnawing uncertainty about flying again, period, when every aspect of air travel became a vivid reminder of how baldly the world had changed after Sept. 11.

''I couldn't breathe right,'' Gurskis says. ''I couldn't pack a bag and make myself drive to Logan Airport. How could I walk out and say goodbye to my son? How much fun could flying be again, anyway? How safe could they make it, and how quickly? I just wasn't sure I could put myself back in that position.''

Using a visualization technique to help calm her nerves, she eventually went back to work - with a knot in her stomach. Nine months later, when she thought it was behind her, the knot came back.

''My husband said, `Then don't go,''' Gurskis recalls. ''But I knew if I didn't, I might never go up again.'' More recently, she picked up People magazine aboard one flight and turned to an article about United Flight 93. After a few paragraphs, she stopped reading. Another flight attendant walked up to her and nodded at the magazine. Gurskis burst into tears.

What's different a year later? Everything, according to Gurskis. During each flight she conjurs up a range of scenarios. The mentally unstable passenger who becomes unglued. The criminally minded passenger who lunges for the cockpit. It starts at home, Gurskis says, and stalks her to the cabin door. She never takes anything for granted, never assumes others have done their job. That unattended bag - whose is it? Few bothered asking before. They do now.

The photo of King and Tarrou is brought out from her bedroom. It shows the couple happy and smiling, obviously in love. The world at their feet. Their future together as sun-splashed as this August morning in southern New Hampshire.

''They get to come along wherever I go,'' says Gurskis, her voice turning husky.

Agreeing to tell her story publicly for the first time, Gurskis sits at the dining room table of her house here, situated on a hillside lot not far from Manchester. A nearby bookcase holds pictures of her husband, Bob, a former New Hampshire police officer, and Bo, 6, who enters first grade next week. The family portraits glow with athleticism. Gurskis herself works as a part-time ski instructor in the winter. Her son, despite a couple of severe health crises in early childhood, has turned out to be an avid skier, hockey player, and golfer. He is the couple's only child. ''My miracle,'' she calls him.

For Gurskis, the thorny questions did not end with whether to fly again. In fact, she was back in the air three weeks after 9-11. Nor has she sought counseling offered by the airline, preferring the support of family members and fellow flight attendants. Married crew members - especially those with children - tend to socialize together anyway, she explains. ''It's why a lot of us didn't need therapy after Sept. 11,'' she smiles. ''We were so there for each other.''

What has been harder has been coping with other people's sense of what moral should be drawn from her story. On Sept. 13, the New Hampshire Union Leader published a column headlined, ''How a mother's love saved N.H. woman from a trip on Flight 175.'' The column noted, accurately, why Gurskis had switched assignments. But it went a step further, quoting friends and neighbors - even her husband - to the effect that she had somehow been spared by ''God's will'' and by her love for Bo.

However well-intentioned the column was, Gurskis felt it implied that those who perished were somehow less deserving than she was. And that did not sit well atop the shock and grief she was already dealing with.

Tarrou was a divorced father with a 12-year-old daughter. He and King were planning to be married. Was it also ''God's will,'' Gurskis wondered, that they be taken hostage and murdered? Did his daughter deserve to grow up fatherless any more than Bo deserved to lose his mother? Like the blame leveled against airport security officials or government intelligence agencies, this line of questioning was to Gurskis, a practicing Catholic, both irksome and pointless.

''What I struggled with most,'' she says, sipping a glass of water, ''was people saying that God must have plans for me because I was saved on Sept. 11. Or that I was spared because of my priorities as a mom. Really, it doesn't make me feel any better about what happened.'' She shakes her head. ''To me,'' she says, ''it's too big a responsibility - this notion that God `spared' me somehow. I never got angry about it. But inside I resented it.

''My hope is that I lost these friends for a reason,'' Gurskis says, ''that everyone has their eyes open now. I've got agent friends who gave those terrorists their tickets and shut the doors to those airplanes. How do you think they feel? We all trade jobs. We all go on vacations. We all get sick, have babies, whatever. We're all too close to it to start pointing fingers.''

Having been trained not to racially profile people, she adds, it would have been highly unusual to cast suspicion on the hijackers. ''I may live in New Hampshire, which is pretty white-bread,'' Gurskis says, ''but I'm used to people who look or talk differently from me. It's a whole different world out there now.''

Gurskis grew up in North Attleboro and after a year at UMass-Amherst went to work for Raytheon Corp. while earning a degree from Rivier College, in Nashua. In the late 1980s, she began looking around for another profession. A friend suggested she become a flight attendant, which fit with her people skills and sense of adventure. She was based in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Miami before moving to New Hampshire three years ago.

Sept. 11 was to be the first leg of a three-day trip to the West Coast. Flight attendants bid for their schedules by the month, and Gurskis, who often flies as purser, or head flight attendant, has considerable seniority among Boston-based United flight attendants. She had no problem rescheduling herself on a Sept. 12 flight to Los Angeles.

After dropping her son at school, Gurskis stopped to pick up a friend, Kathy Glauser, who works for American Airlines. They had planned to go to the gym together. Instead, Glauser pulled her inside to watch news reports of the first plane hitting the north tower. The second plane struck the south tower as Gurskis walked inside. Gurskis had no idea at first that it was United 175 out of Logan, the flight she was supposed to be on.

For much of the day Gurskis and Glauser were glued to the TV set, fielding phone calls from worried friends and family members. It wasn't long before Gurskis realized that she not only knew several crew members on the second plane - her flight - but had flown with them the previous week.

Three crew members were reserves whom Gurskis barely knew. Of the other four, only flight attendant Amy Jarret was not well known to Gurskis. Kathryn LaBorie, most likely the crew member who picked up Gurskis's assignment, had flown with Gurskis the first week of September. So had Marchand, King, and Tarrou. The group had dined out together three times on the trip, Gurskis and LaBorie chatting about LaBorie's recent marriage and the faith in God that both women shared. Tarrou, a rock guitarist, had given Gurskis a CD of his music. ''I haven't had the heart to listen to it,'' Gurskis says. ''I know it will be a bad day for me when I do.''

The hardest part wasn't getting back on an airplane, Gurskis says, but being on the road - something she'd never feared until Sept. 11. New security and safety precautions have since been instituted, and Gurskis has already attended the first phase of a self-defense training program. A second session is scheduled for this fall. Still, Gurskis says, ''A one-time course can't make us very useful against highly trained terrorists.'' In the meantime, she has become a vocal proponent for expanded training and certification for all flight attendants.

Unlike most flight attendants, or so she guesses, she does not mind the idea of pilots being allowed to carry firearms on board, providing they undergo rigorous weapons training, she says.

Yet all those are changes that have been made or that have been taking place on the outside. What's happened on the inside is really the deeper story behind Gurskis and Sept. 11. Still wrestling with feelings of guilt and loss, Gerskis says she is uplifted by moments like the recent afternoon she spent with Bo, canoeing and fishing on a neighborhood lake.

''To me,'' Gurskis says, ''it's not about what I could do with my life because I was `saved.' It's about enjoying moments like that with my son. Recognizing what those moments mean, and appreciating them.''

Standing in her driveway at the end of a three-hour interview, Gurskis offers one more reason why she decided to keep flying. ''In a small way, it's my own contribution,'' she says. ''I'm highly trained. I feel like I can handle just about any situation up there. And if I can help people feel better after Sept. 11, that's a lot, I feel.''

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

This story ran on page E2 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.





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