It is always stunning when a national news story within minutes becomes a huge international story that bounces around the world. But it is even more stunning when shortly thereafter the story spins back like a boomerang and hits close to home in a devastatingly hard way. That’s what happened when a news story flashed on the screen of my iPhone on a Sunday in early June.
“Sonic boom heard across Washington DC area.” I saw the headline, but didn’t pay much attention. Little did I know that the next day the equivalent of a sonic boom would reverberate inside my head upon realizing that the events of the previous day over the skies of the US capital had a personal and direct impact on me.
“I just heard horrible news on the radio but not clear what happened. Adina and Aria in a plane crash. OMG. Do you know anything???” The message came for Gillian’s email. She is one of eleven people with whom I meet weekly for a Memoir Writing class that I teach. I met them as students, but they are now dear friends. There is nothing more personal than memoir writing to really get to know someone intimately.
A quick Google news search using Adina’s unusual first name produced a story that sent my head spinning. “East Hampton Broker, 2-year-old Daughter Killed in Mysterious Plane Crash.” I felt sick to my stomach. Adina, the woman who was sitting in my backyard right before leaving on a trip? Adina, who came to a party at my house less than a week ago? Adina, who had been in my Memoir Writing class for a year and a half?
In a moment, I connected the dots. A sonic boom was heard over Washington when the military scrambled six F-16 fighter jets to intercept a private plane that had violated the no-fly zone over the capital. The fear was that it was a terrorist attack. Shortly thereafter, the Cessna ran out of fuel, took a nosedive, and crashed in rural Virginia. Adina, her two-year-old toddler, the babysitter and the pilot died on impact.
The events surrounding Adina’s end left stunned people like me, who had just spent time with her, speechless. Chances are that I was the last person she saw before departing on a short trip that was supposed to be anything but eventful.
“Sorry, I have to take this call,” said Adina when her cell phone rang. We were having a drink in my backyard in East Hampton, just the two of us. The call was from the pilot of a private plane who was going to pick her up the next day to fly to Tennessee. I overheard the details: they were going to meet at the airport in Islip, on Long Island, for a departure around 12:30. John asked Adina to pack light because the plane had limited cargo space.
“A private plane? Wow, you travel in style,” I joked. She explained. She was visiting her very wealthy adoptive parents and they were sending their plane to pick up her up, together with little Aria and Nanny V, as the babysitter was affectionately called. She was going to come back on Sunday.
Adina was at my house to pick up a white sweater she had left behind the day before. She was one of some thirty people who had come to my place for a party, most of them participants in my two Memoir Writing groups. We sat for almost an hour, she retrieved her sweater, and went home to pack.
From all accounts, the outbound flight was smooth and the four days in her family’s country house were joyous and fun. On Sunday afternoon Adina met the private pilot again for the flight home. According to official records, the Cessna took off at 1:17 PM. Trouble started shortly thereafter. A preliminary investigation revealed that fifteen minutes after takeoff John was not responding to radio messages from the control tower. Most likely a malfunction in the pressurization system of the Cessna made him unresponsive due to lack of oxygen. It is a condition known as hypoxia. Hopefully, Adina, Aria, and Nanny V were equally affected.
The plane flew for an hour and a half on autopilot. Once it reached Islip, nobody onboard attempted to land it. It overshot the airport, made a hundred- and eighty-degree turn, and started to fly back toward the point of origin. Once it approached Washington, the Cessna ended up in a no-fly zone with nobody in control of the flight pattern. The extraordinary circumstances prompted the response of the military that scrambled F-16 jets at such speed to cause a sonic boom. One of the military jets got close enough to the Cessna to see John slouched over. No sight of his three passengers. We can only assume that they were equally unresponsive after two hours without oxygen.
I don’t want to think of what happened next. I can only imagine, or maybe not. I would rather focus on Adina’s upcoming memorial service. I wonder who will give the eulogy. Will someone read the immensely moving essay that I made available? She wrote it for my Memoir Writing class just a few months ago. It is Adina’s own eulogy.
“Before I had my daughter. I was sort of okay with dying. I was not overly attached with being alive, let’s put it that way,” wrote Adina in a powerful story that she shared with the writing group. “Now that I have a child, I have a deeper desire to live. I recently told my financial planner that he needs to change all my projections to 105.”
The eulogy continues with a list of words that her closest friends would use to describe her: Loving; caring; honest; genuine; resilient; authentic; generous. “If you ask me, my word would be mother. My daughter is my greatest legacy.”