After 9/11, flight attendant still feels at home up in the sky
By Monica Hesse,
Fifth in a series.
On the 3,605th day after Dannye Drake-Ivey could have died, she baked cookies. She baked them in the little galley kitchen of the passenger jet flying from Paris to New York’s JFK and served them warm to first class. Then she wrapped the leftovers in aluminum foil, shoved them into her tote bag, jumped into a taxi after the plane landed, sped to La Guardia, and now, moving swiftly, just in time, gets to Gate 19 for the commuter shuttle home to Washington, where her favorite agent is working and the gates are about to close.
“Hey, girl! Cookies!” she sings out, depositing the package and gliding onto the gangway, blond hair streaming like a sail. “I brought you coookies!”
Dannye lives in the sky. She lives between Paris and New York, above the clouds over Washington. The sky is an abstract thing for most people; for Dannye, it is as familiar as a spare bedroom. She knows how to hold her American Airlines badge in front of her chin when she passes through security. She knows how to hang her navy blazer on a tray table hook so it won’t wrinkle, and she can, she explains, “rock a three-tiered dessert cart like nobody’s business.” Ten years ago, when the Earth changed, the sky changed, too. Her spare bedroom was hijacked, and Dannye’s small piece of the sky was almost taken away. In a parallel universe, she was on that flight. Almost, but not.
She heaves her carry-on bag into an overhead bin; she knows how to do this in a fluid swoop even though she is 5-foot-3 and whip-thin, with perfect nails and wearing heels. She is relentless forward motion, forward and upward, above it all. Speed and altitude are what she is made of.
The plane takes off. The wheels tuck up. Dannye smooths her hair and silently prays what she has always prayed, on every flight home, for the past 3,605 days.
“Thank you, Lord, for your many blessings. Safe flight to Washington, please.”
• • •
What could have happened:
Ten years ago, Dannye’s sons were 6 and 9 and went to a school in Oakton that hung onto one relic of old farm-community schedule: On Mondays, they got out at noon. Dannye liked working Flight 77, a morning run from Dulles international airport to Los Angeles. To spend more time with Brad and Kevin, she preferred to work it on Tuesdays. For the second week of September 2001, she saw that she had been slotted for Monday instead. She tried to switch. She called Michele Heidenberger, and she called Renee May, colleagues who had been assigned to the flight. She left messages. She thought about calling Kenneth and Jennifer Lewis, the couple who completed the crew, but didn’t. When married couples flew together, they usually requested to for a reason, and Dannye didn’t want to mess up their plans. Renee could have said yes. Michele could have said yes.
What did happen:
Michele didn’t call back. Renee didn’t call back. Dannye found other arrangements for Brad and Kevin after school. She flew to L.A. on Monday, Sept. 10, and on Tuesday, she woke up early and was lying in her hotel room, flipping through a National Enquirer that a passenger had left on the plane, when another flight attendant called from his room and told her to turn on the television.
Renee, Michele, Ken and Jen. Gone, all of them, on the flight that had made it through West Virginia before turning and crashing into the Pentagon. Dannye. Still there.
At one point she remembers wandering down to the hotel lobby, where a stricken desk attendant asked if there was anything she could do for the airline employees upstairs. They could use a crew room, Dannye said, a place where they could sit together. They could use food. “Coffee,” she said, her mind latching onto the small comforts that she offered to others in the air, the rote routines that can help people feel normal. “We could use coffee.”
• • •
“Sometimes life sucks. It really is that simple.”
Dannye sits in her back yard in Vienna, 3,595 days after she could have died, in the gazebo that she and Jim redid a few years ago. She listens to cheers from a swim meet at the pool down the street. “It must be relay time,” she says. Her sons used to swim; events can be gauged by the loudness of cheers. Jim meanders onto the porch.
“Babe?” he asks. “Where did we put the cleaner?”
“The little one?”
“We already used that one.”
She sends him inside to look for another bottle of carpet cleaner. Their cat is old and is starting to confuse the closet and the litterbox. “That closet,” Dannye says determinedly, “is going to get cleaned no matter what.”
She always wanted to be a flight attendant. Her mother was one, back when that meant linen tablecloths and bud vases with roses. Dannye joined American Airlines in 1984 at age 24 and has never wanted to work anywhere else. It’s her family. “There are not many jobs that get into your blood that way. I’m a flight attendant as much as I’m a wife and mother.”
The first week she got back from L.A. was filled with memorial services — a different one every day, a haze of sadness and photographs and that Faith Hill song “Breathe,” which she couldn’t listen to for months afterward. “We went back,” she says, “to a job that had changed overnight. . . . We didn’t know there were people who wanted to hurt us. We didn’t know you could use a plane like that.” When she was a girl, dreaming of living in the sky, she didn’t imagine it would be a job “where I thought I would have to look at passengers and figure out if any of them would try to hurt me.”
She returned to work and found herself taking inventory of the equipment, planning what she would use to defend herself if a passenger attacked. A cart? A fire extinguisher?
Two months later, she was driving in her car when the radio mentioned a plane crash. American Airlines Flight 587, which ended up in a neighborhood in Queens after taking off from JFK. Suddenly she was driving and sobbing, smacking the steering wheel until the palms of her hands hurt. She had to get away from the grief. She had to get above it. In 2002, she applied for a transfer that would base her out of New York and take her across the ocean. Now she flies only internationally. Zurich. Barcelona. The French make the best mustard she has ever tasted.
Sometimes she thinks that finding meaning in any of this horrible madness would be impossible. “I don’t know why some people are here and other people are not. There must be a reason. My kids need me, but Michele’s kids needed her, too.”
Sometimes she thinks that she was spared for a purpose, but she hasn’t found that purpose yet. Maybe there’s no purpose, other than to be utterly, unbelievably grateful, and to stay in flight.
Sometimes life sucks, and in the middle of that, the closet needs to be cleaned.
• • •
In the 1930s, at the beginning of the profession, the selection process for flight attendants screened for temperament and physical perfection. Women were to weigh no more than 118 pounds and had to be registered nurses. In 1936, an injured flying hostess named Nellie Granger dragged two adult passengers off a crashed Sun Racer, then hiked 11 miles to the nearest house for help. She was asked later if she would give up her job. She said, “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
When Dannye’s younger son was born with a heart defect, she discharged herself from the hospital and started dialing insurance companies. She said, “I don’t want any problems from you, MetLife. I will give you every bit of information you need for this surgery now and I don’t want any problems from you later.”
So maybe this is why Dannye is tough, she speculates. Maybe it’s flight attendants. Maybe it’s her, or the combination of a tough woman and a tough profession.
On the 3,607th day that Dannye has continued to fly, the back-yard barbecue has ballooned. Jim’s cousins from Iowa are visiting, his brother also decided to stop by, and some kids from the neighborhood have taken over the rec room downstairs. What started as a guest list of 12 has grown to more than 20, laughing conversations lit by tiki torches. Dannye sets brownies and pie out on a folding table, then goes to check on the basement.
“Kevin? Brad?” she calls. “Five minutes?” The boys, dark-haired and long-limbed, bound up the stairs.
“Mom is pretty cool,” says Brad, now 16. “Kind of crazy.”
“She’s more laid-back than other parents,” Kevin adds. “She doesn’t freak out.”
They never asked her not to go back to work. “I always knew she would,” Kevin says. “It’s what she always wanted to do.”
“They could have come to me about anything,” Dannye says, sitting on the other couch, watching her sons. “They know that.”
While Dannye was in Los Angeles 10 years ago, Kevin and Brad were home with their grandparents — Jim was in Tennessee for work and there were no flights out. The boys and their grandparents manned the homefront.
“The neighbors kept coming by,” Kevin says. They knew what his mom did for a living. “They thought — you know.”
Dannye sends them back downstairs and goes into the kitchen, where Jim is cleaning up. “You know what they remembered?” she asks, telling him about Brad and Kevin and the neighbors and their knocking. She never knew that’s what they remembered.
• • •
It’s almost 4 o’clock. The flight is descending. The tray tables are up. A business crowd like this should be able to deplane in 90 seconds, Dannye assesses. One of those things she knows.
The New York shuttle can fly a few different routes into Washington. Today it snakes into Reagan National Airport from the north, first passing over the gravestones and the manicured green of Arlington Cemetery. The weather is hot and the sky is a brilliant blue, the way it was 3,605 days ago.
And then, suddenly, outside the right window, a big, low-slung building with five sides.
“Seventy-seven hit right there,” Dannye says, pointing to a corner of the Pentagon. You can’t see anything anymore, of course. “Right there, 2 o’clock.”
A pause. A breath.
Whenever she is on the flight that comes in this way, “I look out, and I remember my friends.”
In her seat, she is quiet. An object of motion, momentarily at rest. She stays that way, still, as the jet flies beyond the Pentagon toward the runway of Reagan National and safely lands. Then she’s out of her seat — the tote bag, the jacket, the overhead carry-on — moving swiftly again.
First in the series: 9/11 widow still trying to find her new normal
Second in the series: Twin misses his other half
Third in the series: Brought together by catastrophe
Fourth in the series: After 9/11, security guard on high alert at golf course
Sixth in the series: After loss, working to fill the void
Seventh in the series: The wounded man
Eighth in the series: Living with ‘if only’
Ninth in the series: The skeptic who was there