TOPICS > World

Former Pilot Describes Life After Losing His Wife on 9/11

September 7, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

THOMAS HEIDENBERGER, Husband of Sept. 11 Victim: My name is Thomas Heidenberger. I go by Tom. I’m a recently retired U.S. Airways pilot of 30 years.

And what brings me here is my wife, Michele. Michele was the senior flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that was not just hijacked on September 11, but crashed into the Pentagon. If you saw the tape of the airplane, the way it was flying, it was not a pretty sight.

And, you know, she would be worrying, not so much about herself. She would be worrying about us here on the ground, her family. She would be worrying about trying to take care of the passengers, making them comfortable.

I went back to work, flew my very first trip the first week in October. It was emotional. It was difficult, but it was what I do for a living. It’s what I did.

And, at the same time, it allowed me to make a statement, so to speak, that I will not let the death of my wife, the killing of my wife, or this terrorist act affect the way I go about my business, or I go about my way of life.

If you take off from Washington on this north departure, you essentially visually follow the river. And, right after you’re airborne, you make a turn to the left, and follow the Potomac River. And the first thing you see is the Pentagon.

And I was able to see the reconstruction — first, the demolition of the outer rings of the Pentagon, and the reconstruction and refurbishment of the Pentagon. And, every day, every time I took off to the north, I was reminded of Michele.

She was my best friend. She wasn’t just my best friend or my lover. She was my soul mate, my partner, my partner in life. And, you know, we all need to, in many respects, move on, continue with our lives. I mean, she would want me to do that. But she was a class act.


Bike ride to remember airline crew

If you go back five years ago, to Sept. 11, 2001, the crew members, they were the first combatants, so to speak, in this war on terror. At the same time, if you look at what they did for the passengers, they were their protectors. They are still that, in many respects, today. But, now, do we think of them as such? No. For the most part, they are forgotten.

So, I took it upon myself, organizing this ride, and rode across the country with four other airline pilots for 33 days, one day dedicated to each crew member.

If you can just visualize riding a bike 150, 180 miles every day, in the heat, in the wind, the loneliness, the pain that we went through, the discomfort, if it weren't for somebody watching us -- and it was most likely all 33 wanting us to make sure that we completed the mission.

And, you know, just thinking about it, I'm getting emotional about it now. But I went off on my own. You know, I wanted to quit. I went off on my own, got back on the bike, and started pedaling by myself, and I kept on asking -- sorry -- you know, Michele, I said, get me through this.

Going into Shanksville, I mean, it was tough. I mean, you get a sense of it being a burial ground. You had to have been there. I mean, you had to have been there. I mean, you just -- you know, you can't imagine what it's like.

And this family member, Eric (ph) Felt, his brother was aboard 93. He said, you know, if you had to pick a place to die, this is pretty special.

For him to say that, you know, it brings back, again, the sense of the loss, the sense of the horrificness of it and the sadness of it.

Looking to loved one for strength

You talk about an emotional roller coaster. The hardest thing anyone will ever have to do, in my mind, is to tell their children that their mother has been killed. And you can see the pain, the anguish, the hatred, the hostility that comes out in these children.

And, like the people that died that day, my children, they're innocent. We laid on this floor here, the three of us, just sobbing, the three of us and the dog. I mean, it was not a pretty sight.

But, you know, to paraphrase Michele, you need to get on, or, you need to get over it.

If you look at the kids, how successful they are, it's a tribute to their mom. It's not a tribute to me. It's to their mom. You know, Alice (ph) is working in New York, successful. Sonny-boy (ph) is in college, successful, both well-behaved, not really in trouble. You know, what more could a parent ask for?

A day like today, it's a little warm. But, if you look about, blue sky, crystal clear, low humidity, crisp air, it's just like it was that day five years ago. And, to be quite honest with you, I can almost say I hate days like today. It brings it back. But, at the same time, it's a great day. It's a wonderful day. And a day like this reminds me of what I had, what I have now, and that I need to look forward to the future.