Flight 93 widower: 20-year path to finding peace

Twenty years ago, Jack Grandcolas lost the love of his life. Lauren Grandcolas was killed on Flight 93, which crashed into a farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.|

PEBBLE BEACH — They would be a young wife’s last words to her husband.

They were simple and reassuring.

“Honey, are you there? Jack? Pick up, sweetie. OK, well, I just wanted to tell you I love you. We’re having a little problem on the plane. ... I’m totally fine. ... I just love you more than anything. Just know that. And, you know, I, I'm, you know, I'm not uncomfortable and I’m OK, for now. ... It’s a little problem. ... It’s a little problem. So I’ll a — I, I just love you. Please tell my family I love them, too. Bye, honey.”

Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas left that brief message on her home answering machine at 9:39 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, while she was on board a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco.

Back home in San Rafael, her husband, Jack, vaguely heard the ring downstairs. He put a pillow over his head and went back to sleep, figuring only a telemarketer would call that early.

When he woke up about 20 minutes later, he looked out the bedroom window at a clear California dawn and saw an opaque apparition, almost angelic. He said his first thought was, “Who do I know who has just passed?”

Twenty-six hundred miles away, United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked by four al-Qaida terrorists as part of an orchestrated attack on the U.S. using commercial airliners, had just crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 33 passengers and seven crew members. Lauren Grandcolas, 38, nearly three months pregnant with her first child, was among them.

For 20 years, Jack Grandcolas has cherished and taken comfort in that short message, a lasting gift from a woman he believes was exceptional and exceptionally brave.

He’s at peace with the fact he didn’t pick up the phone.

“I’m almost glad I didn’t answer,” said Grandcolas, a 30-year resident of the North Bay, who two years ago moved to Pebble Beach to be near family and start a new life with a new wife, a woman who shares many qualities with Lauren.

“I wouldn’t have this precious message from her, which probably says more than anything, because of her composure. I would have been freaking out. It probably would have been tough on her and tough on me.”

He believes that beneath the measured goodbye was an unspoken subtext that has helped him inch through a dark tunnel of grief after losing Lauren and their unborn child in a horrific and public way that would force him to relive that day again and again.

“She wanted me to know she wasn’t frightened or terrified or afraid. Because that would have made me sad or made me worry how bad her last minutes were. I’ve never had to do that because of her bravery and the way she left that message to protect me and to also help me realize, ‘Hey, we’re going to lose our lives, but we’re not going to do it without a fight.’”

Sacred ground

The 58-year-old retired national newspaper advertising executive fervently believes Lauren’s spirit has guided him through countless challenges and decisions over the years. He often asks himself, “What would Lauren do?”

Grandcolas faces his 20th Sept. 11 since her death with all the memories and emotions and repeated “gut punches” that inevitably come with it. He prefers not to call it an anniversary. An anniversary is something to be celebrated.

He will mark the day with 400 dignitaries, friends and members of Families of Flight 93 at an observance at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

Former President George W. Bush is expected to attend.

Forming a grim alliance in the wake of the tragedy, the group, which includes many people with Bay Area ties, collaborated with the local community and the National Park Service to raise millions of dollars to buy the land and establish a memorial on that hole near Shanksville where Flight 93 drilled down.

It’s a place they call “Sacred Ground.”

The centerpiece is a 93-foot Tower of Voices with 40 wind chimes, each with a unique tone to represent each passenger or crew member. Grandcolas hasn’t returned to the site in 17 years; it’s something he vowed not to do until the memorial was completed. On Sept. 11, he will hear Lauren’s chime for the first time.

Fate threw together 40 people on Flight 93.

Within a half-hour from the time the hijackers took over the plane, the passengers hatched a plan, voted on it and mounted an unarmed assault on the cockpit.

Among them was 32-year-old Todd Beamer, who was overheard by a GTE airphone supervisor uttering the battle cry, “Let’s roll.”

The group already knew through cell phone calls with family the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., had been struck and that their own plane was on a suicide mission.

Like many, Grandcolas regards those aboard that flight as national heroes, sacrificing their lives in an act that prevented the plane from reaching its target and timing their assault to when the plane flew over open fields. The 9/11 Commission concluded the hijackers were bound for either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

Countless lives were saved.

“Golly, what a patriotic thing to do,” Grandcolas said. “What an American thing to do. Look at the manifest. It was a melting pot of people young and old, black and white, gay and straight ... that came together and turned the tables on the terrorists.”

That united effort in a common cause is what he wants people to remember today, and why he keeps talking about something that personally is so agonizing.

The terrorist attacks two decades ago that killed nearly 3,000 people pulled Americans together in a way not seen since World War II. The deep political and cultural divisions that have ruptured the country since are painful to Grandcolas, a man who, from the beginning, has searched for meaning in an event that led to 20 years of war and imploded his perfect world in San Rafael with Lauren.

“It’s really a shame that we mortgaged all the goodwill we had, not just around the country, but the world, and 20 years later it has been whittled down to vitriol,” he lamented.

“Common ground seems like a thing of the past, and that is very disheartening.”

He sees the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Trump in January as an affront to what the “the heroes of Flight 93 gave their lives to protect.”

Grandcolas says it’s his hope people will take a moment Sept. 11 to think about the crew and passengers of Flight 93 and the power of unity under a common purpose.

“I’m hoping they use this as an opportunity to pause and reflect (that) if they were sitting on Flight 93, how they would have reacted and maybe think twice before they strike up some vitriolic position on something they don’t agree with somebody on,” he said.

“Because this planet is one planet. We’ve all got to figure it out and get along and stop mentally beating each other up.”

A wife’s legacy

Grandcolas sits in the backyard of the seaside cottage dubbed Seahorse House that he shares with Sarah Grandcolas, a former veterinary assistant for the Marin Humane Society and a painter. Jack met Sarah five years after 9/11 at a mutual friend’s party.

While he talks, she quietly trims the geraniums and brings tea in a flowered mug with a handy pocket for a tea bag. It once belonged to Lauren.

The British-born Sarah, who takes milk with her tea, adopted the cup, chip and all, as her own and has integrated the still-powerful presence of Lauren and her legacy into her life with Jack. It was a package deal.

“You can’t deny something that is that present. It’s a historical event that happened worldwide,” Sarah said. “Sometimes I tell Jack, ‘Wow. It’s unfair that I’m here now when she should have been here, and he says, ‘No, she would want me to be with someone now.’”

When Sarah was recovering from throat cancer five years ago, she wrapped herself in a worn floral comforter of Lauren’s that Grandcolas couldn’t part with and curled up with a book and the cat.

Jack is convinced that Lauren, never one to shrink from a challenge, participated in the planning of the passengers’ uprising that morning.

“She would always jump in,” he said. “She was the middle daughter of a football coach. She was a petite person, but pound for pound she was as tough as any guy I know and probably mentally tougher.”

A marketing executive who held positions at a major accounting firm and Good Housekeeping magazine, Lauren was a hiker, scuba diver and Rollerblader. She brazenly got her hesitant male cohorts to slip boxer shorts over their suits for a pitch meeting with Joe Boxer CEO Nicholas Graham and immediately landed the account.

She chose to skydive on her 30th birthday. She also was a trained EMT. At the time of her death, she had just stepped away from her job at Good Housekeeping to work on a book to empower women to take on new challenges and interests, based on the childhood idea of earning Girl Scout badges for new accomplishments.

Her sisters finished and published the book, “You Can Do it: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls,” in 2005. Jack is buoyed by the young girls who continue to reach out to him to say they are inspired by Lauren’s story.

Jack recalled the many times that Lauren, whom he met at the University of Texas at Austin, rushed in to help.

“We saw her in action when a guy drove his car into a ditch. She jumped in and called 911, directed traffic, took the guy’s pulse and talked to him. A lady got caught in an elevator in downtown San Francisco at a law firm where she worked, and Lauren jumped in and helped her. ... There was a bicyclist in New York who got hit by a car. Lauren jumped in on the scene, got in the middle of the street and directed traffic.”

Jack finds much of what he calls “providence” in the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the circumstances that put Lauren on Flight 93.

She was booked on a later flight, but her ride arrived early, the traffic was clear and she made it to the airport in time to catch an earlier flight, something she never did. She was in New Jersey attending her grandmother’s funeral and decided to extend her stay by a few days to share with family the happy news that she and Jack, after suffering a miscarriage and many years of trying, were awaiting a baby.

She left a first message to Jack on Sept. 11 with the good news she was catching an earlier flight.

At home, Jack turned on the TV to see the devastation unfolding in lower Manhattan. It was only when reports emerged that a plane out of Newark went down in Pennsylvania that he thought to check his machine, blinking with two messages.

He sank to the floor.

“There are stories of several other passengers who weren’t supposed to be on that flight but got on it at the last minute, or who were bumped from a different flight. Maybe they’re the chosen few,” he said, “because they handled it so beautifully with such courage, grace and dignity, all the things America stands for. I wish people would stop for a second and see that’s a beacon; a symbol of who we really are.”

The months after 9/11 left Jack in a dark place. He lost 30 pounds and feared he had cancer. Where he grew up, in Muncie, Indiana, no one talked about depression.

“It’s like, here you are going down the highway of life getting ready to have a family and your business is successful and taking off and suddenly you feel like you woke up on a dusty, rocky path and there’s no clear road. The road you walk is the one you figure out and navigate on your own.”

He eventually turned to counseling. After he met Sarah 15 years ago, he found a therapist who diagnosed him with PTSD and brought him relief from lingering depression. She also helped him realize that while he had dealt with losing Lauren, he had not processed his grief over the unborn child also lost that day.

As part of his healing, Jack is finishing a book dedicated to that child that he will release in April next year, when he or she would have been 20. Addressed in the forward, “Dear Son or Daughter,” it will recount his journey to wholeness, be a tribute to Lauren and, he hopes, help destigmatize mental and emotional illness.

Depression is a brain injury, he said, and should be treated as such.

He’s found happiness with Sarah and his new home. His mother and two siblings live nearby. Moving here has been a dream since he was a boy watching the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at the sunny Pebble Beach Golf Links during snowy days in Indiana.

The devastation of 9/11 has left him far more resilient. Last year, he fell into a backyard fire pit and suffered third-degree burns over most of his back and arms. He was alone and somehow managed to pull himself out — he likes to think with help from Lauren — and drive to the hospital. He spent a month in the ICU burn unit.

“It’s been 20 years. The gut punch is lessened,” Jack said of the annual reminders of the worst day of his life and the requests to talk about it.

“You get hit so many times, it’s like your heels. You just harden. But I’m not hardened in my soul.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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