Flight 93 widower: 20-year path to finding peace
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.’”
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.