This is how I remember it:
My father had taken us along on a business trip to Florida that summer, and we had stayed on through the Fourth of July weekend, driving a rental car down the length of the state. In five days, we had traveled from Disney World in Orlando to the beaches of Miami to Key West, where all four of us—my father, my mother, my brother, and I—posed for a snapshot in front of a sign proclaiming that we were at the southernmost point in the United States. We were supposed to drive back up to Miami by the end of the week, drop off our rental car, and leave on a Pan Am flight on Friday, July 9.
But billboards and local television along the way had relentlessly advertised Shamu and SeaWorld in Orlando, which we had skipped in favor of Disney World. But as I watched the friendly looking killer whale jump up to grab fish from his trainer’s hands and slide onto a ramp, wagging his tail as members of the audience petted his large, slick head, I knew I had to go. I enlisted my five-year-old brother, Kelley, into the effort, and soon we were whining a daily mantra: “We want to go to Seeeea World! We want to see Shamuuu!”
Uncharacteristically, my father relented. “It wouldn’t hurt to stay through the weekend,” he said to Mom. Kelley and I looked at each other in disbelief. It was unusual for my strong-willed, mercurial father to change his plans based on our whims. I didn’t want to openly celebrate or thank him, for fear that I might break the spell. Kelley kept quiet, too, as if we were holding our collective breath. From the phone in our Miami hotel room, Dad extended our car rental and changed our outbound flight from Miami to another Pan Am flight a couple of days later out of Orlando. We drove from Miami to Orlando on the day of our originally scheduled flight and spent the night there. The next morning, Kelley and I were extra quiet as we got ready.
“Are we really going to see Shamu?” my brother whispered to me.
I took a deep breath, to muster the courage to ask Mom and Dad.
But they were staring at the television news, murmuring to each other. Images of emergency crews among charred, smoking wreckage—unrecognizable as an airplane, were it not for the blue and white Pan Am logo discernible on a broken piece of the tail—filled the screen. Diagrams of a plane taking off used giant red arrows to show how wind shear had forced the aircraft back down to the ground, into houses. There were no survivors on board. A baby girl was found alive under all the rubble of the homes. The flight had originated from Miami. Its destination: Las Vegas, where we would have caught a connection to San Francisco, our home.
“Miami—we were supposed to be on that flight,” I heard my dad say to my mom in Mandarin. “We’re very lucky.”
I stared at the television. I wasn’t thinking about Shamu anymore. “What about the baby?” I asked desperately. I pictured a lone, intact crib in the middle of the charred wreckage, a little baby in pink footie pajamas, squalling. “Who will take care of her?”
My parents looked at me, surprised I was listening.
“We’re very lucky,” my mom repeated, eyes intent on me. That was all they said. My brother stayed quiet, too young to understand.
“Shamu saved us,” I whispered to him. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen to that baby.”
We did go to SeaWorld that day, and Shamu did everything the ads promised: He jumped up and caught a fish from his trainer’s hand as the trainer stood on a tall platform. He swam up close to one side of his pool, splashing us with a cascade of water. And though I waved my hand as high in the air as I could, I was not chosen to stand on the side of the pool and receive a kiss on the cheek from Shamu, his rubbery-looking whale lips pressed against the volunteer’s cheek as she flinched and wrinkled her nose.
I had a hard knot in my stomach when our Pan Am flight took off from Orlando the next day. My parents acted as if nothing were amiss, so I just gripped the armrests tight, after reading the emergency-procedures card five times, and didn’t say anything. We never brought up the crash again. Over time, I recalled few details except that we had left from Orlando instead of Miami, that the Pan Am plane had crashed into houses on the ground just after takeoff, that a wind shear had been blamed, and that a single baby on the ground survived.
Twenty-nine years later, writing about my childhood, I tried to find out the details of the plane crash for the first time. I searched for “Miami Pan Am crash” and found it right away. It was 1982, the year I was eight going on nine. Pan Am Flight 759 originated in Miami on the morning of July 9, stopped in New Orleans, and crashed just after it took off again. A storm-induced wind shear brought it down on houses next to the runway. In one of the destroyed houses, a surviving girl was found in a crib under a mattress. They called her the Miracle Baby of Flight 759.
All of the pieces matched up with my sparse but vivid memories. I found the passenger manifest on one website and fought chills as I identified where my family’s names would have been. I copied down information about the memorial from another site.
But there was one problem: No one else in my family recalled this. I asked my father, who looked back at me, puzzled, and said, “What? I don’t remember that.” And then, ever practical, he added, “I can’t imagine I would book a flight that stopped so many times en route to San Francisco in the first place.” My mother shook her head: “I don’t remember that. Ask your father. He would know.” My brother, too young at the time, didn’t remember anything.
“Are you sure?” I asked Mom and Dad again, and then again a couple of days later. “But I remember it so clearly. You said we were lucky.”
“Well, we were lucky then,” Mom said, emphasizing the then. And we both knew she wasn’t talking about the plane crash. I didn’t press further.
Now what? Somehow I had internalized all of these obscure facts, but no one could confirm that we had actually been booked on Flight 759. Pan Am didn’t even exist anymore.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church lies at the far end of a series of strip-mall-lined boulevards near the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, Louisiana. To get there, you have to cross three sets of train tracks and pass the shuttered Louisiana Toy Train Museum and the green, purple, and gold Mardi Gras Museum. The low-slung, 1970s-era church building hugs a small grass courtyard. In that courtyard, a tower made of four white-painted concrete pillars supports a horizontal bar, from which hangs a trinity of bells. The pillars nestle in a garden of daylilies, in the center of which a small Jesus statue raises his outstretched palms toward the sky. Surrounding the garden is a low, semicircular wall inlaid with hand-painted tiles, each bearing the name of one of the 154 victims.
I visited the Flight 759 memorial in October 2011, just a few months after I had first looked up the crash on the Internet and found the memorial’s address. I was in New Orleans for a conference and knew I had to see it on my way out of town. The New Orleans-based cab driver who took me got hopelessly lost in the suburban sprawl, circling among the endless car dealerships, Subway sandwich shops, and one store with a lawn full of giant air-pump-inflated Halloween balloons in the shapes of ghosts, mummies, and pumpkins, which we kept passing. The driver seemed puzzled that I wanted to go to an obscure suburban Catholic church near the airport instead of the airport itself. I did not explain.
Kenner, a New Orleans bedroom community of about sixty thousand, had once been sugarcane plantations owned by William Kenner and his four sons. The airport was built in the 1940s. In the 1950s, swampland that made up half of the city was drained, filled, and subdivided, and the area was transformed into a suburb with wide thoroughfares flanked by neat lines of bungalows. It was a community planned with the postwar idealism about family life that built so many similar suburbs across the country.
When we finally arrived at the church, the cabbie, relieved, drove away, and I was the only person in sight. The quiet was heavy, like the muggy late-summer air. I didn’t have much time before I had to catch my flight back home.
I stepped into the lawn, right next to a Do Not Play in the Grass sign alongside the memorial. The sun-warmed blades tickled my sandaled feet. There were two rows of square tiles on the wall. The hand-painted turquoise script on the tiles was imperfect, neat but not always even, the y’s and g’s coming down in straight lines, brushstrokes visible.
The very first tile read, Sacred to the memory. The one below it said, of the victims. The next one, to the right: of Flight 759; the fourth: July 9, 1982. Then, there was a tile for each name, many of them in couples or groups—the Bruns, the Bulajics, the Caseys . . . families, just like mine. How few of them had traveled alone, died alone? How many had been parents who left behind orphaned children? On some of the tiles, the names were illegible; the ceramic had chipped or the paint had worn away. There was something very real about this, nothing like the sanitized reverence evoked by the national memorials I frequented in my current hometown of Washington, DC. Unlike the brushed-metal nameplates on the granite benches of the Pentagon Memorial, or the mirrored and endless expanse of casualties engraved on the Vietnam wall, these hand-lettered names seemed to have been painted by someone who had known the deceased. I’ve since learned that when the memorial was refurbished around the date of the thirtieth anniversary of the crash, in 2012, polished and engraved tiles were placed over the original ones. It’s a lovely renovation, but I still like the humbler memorial I visited.
On that one, I traced the alphabetically ordered names: after the Caseys were the Cunnings, Joshua and Judith. My family, the Chuangs, would have been between them. Four of us: Angie, Kelley, Ling, Tien-Yuh. I imagined our tiles, painted in that turquoise paint and simple script. I pictured my own name, the two g’s with their straight tails.
A breeze shook the daylilies in the garden. The plants were post-bloom, their long, blade-like leaves reaching skyward in an echo of the Christ statue’s outstretched arms. Perspiration beaded up on the back of my neck. I had just stared at the alternate ending to a story that had lain in the recesses of my psyche since I was eight.
“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” These oft-quoted words of Gabriel García Márquez were on my mind. Of course, I wanted to know if the brush with death, the twist of fate, had really happened. I wasn’t willing to let go of the possibility that it might have. But, arriving at the memorial alone, surrounded by the silence of the 154 tiles with painted names—not my name—I began to let go of the idea of truth. Did I think a memorial would help me understand what really happened or whose memory was more flawed, mine or my family’s? No. I came because I needed to know what I remembered, how I remembered, and, though Marquez had not said it, why I remembered.
In the first of the Final Destination horror films, a teenage boy has a premonition that the plane he has just boarded will explode in midair, and he manages to get himself and a handful of friends off the flight. The plane does indeed take off and then blow up, and in the days that follow, the survivors die, one by one, in horrific freak accidents—until it becomes clear that Death is chasing each of them to take care of what the explosion did not.
What I did not realize at the time of the crash was that the summer of 1982 would not be marked by the fact that my family and I had cheated death. I would look back on it instead as a sort of high point for my family, a time when, as my mother said, we were lucky. It was, in particular, a very good time for my father. The conference in Orlando was important—it must have marked a peak in his engineering career. Mom had just started taking classes at the local community college while we were at school; a year later, she started working part-time. After arriving to a completely new country as an immigrant bride and, soon after, becoming a mother, she was finally coming into her own. She and Dad were clearly at ease with each other—shuttling us around Disney World, watching us make sand castles on the beach, packing lunches from supermarkets for our road trips. Mom popped orange sections into Dad’s mouth as he drove the rental car.
On those warm Florida evenings, when the fierce sun retreated, we all hopped into the hotel pool, Mom and Kelley in the shallow area and Dad and me on a mission. He was teaching me to swim. We spent hours in the pool, as the moon rose over us, reflecting in the blue water—which was nothing like the blue of the warm salt water that lapped on the beaches in Miami, but no matter. Our fingers and toes looked like raisins, and my hair bore the metallic smell of chlorine no matter how well I shampooed it. Though his uncorrected vision was terrible, Dad did not wear his thick, horn-rimmed glasses in the pool, and for once, he looked suddenly approachable instead of severe. At the start of the trip, I was barely dog paddling. By the end, just over a week later, I could make it all the way across the short side of the pool in a serviceable crawl, side breathing a few times to boot. Dad, who was a good swimmer (he had learned in the Taiwanese army), was ebullient, proud, and full of praise. His good mood, bolstered by having taught his daughter to swim, swayed him to yield to our SeaWorld entreaties. Usually, Dad was rigid, insistent on things being done his way and on his schedule. But this need for control, marked by explosions of anger we referred to as his “temper,” was blissfully absent on this trip.
In the years that followed, Dad’s temper got worse, he and Mom fought more, and to escape the strife at home, Kelley and I delved into our schoolwork and then into our impending adolescence. We didn’t know we were seeing the beginnings of my father’s bipolar disorder. When he had his first depressive episode after he left his engineering job in frustration about his stalled career, we mostly ignored it and pretended Dad was just “resting” after many years of long hours and sleep deprivation. Things got worse, much worse—entire days spent in bed, followed by “home improvement” projects that he worked on at all hours, hardly sleeping, but never finished. Soon, our whole house was a construction zone, with walls torn down to the studs and piles of sheetrock and tools everywhere. I got used to falling asleep to hammering or drilling in the wee hours of the morning. The feeling that our home had been subjected to a series of explosions, that we were constantly tiptoeing around things for fear of stepping on a nail or dislodging some work in progress, mirrored our psychological states. We ignored things that were broken, stepping over them, pretending they weren’t there—or that they were supposed to be that way. We latched on to what illusions of normalcy we could glean (don’t all dads go on these home-improvement kicks?) and never acknowledged to each other anything was wrong.
The first time anyone in our family used the word bipolar (or manic or depressed) in front of each other was after I went to college, took a psychology class, met people who said they had been diagnosed with manic depression (as it was more commonly called then), and returned home on a break. With the perspective gained by distance and a little bit of knowledge, I couldn’t not say it. “Dad, you are not normal!” I yelled at him on the final day of winter break my sophomore year. He was up on the roof, pulling shingles, as I craned my neck and shouted at him. “You have manic depression. You are manic right now. Do you know what bipolar disorder is?” He never stopped yanking at the shingles with his inverted hammer, the fury building behind his thick glasses. “No daughter of mine calls her father crazy!” he yelled, kicking a pile of shingles until they came cascading off the roof onto the deck with a clatter. I jumped. The misshapen nails on the weather-beaten brown shingles were rusted and bent into odd angles, like broken limbs.
My parents didn’t divorce until more than a decade after that. But before the divorce, years passed during which we said nothing to each other about my father’s behavior, about his illness. Because Chinese culture favored Confucian stoicism, because it was too painful to confront, because my mother didn’t say anything so we thought we shouldn’t either. It was in this environment that I also never brought up the plane crash, or even our trip to Florida, which would just underscore the distance between Dad then and now. I had thought no one else in my family mentioned them for the same reasons.
Contemplating the hand-painted, chipped tiles and the 154 names, I imagined the church’s fundraising drive for this memorial, the baskets passed around at Sunday Mass. When the plane crashed, eight members of this community had died in their homes. The rest were most likely from places other than Kenner—maybe New Orleans, maybe Miami, maybe Las Vegas.
Still, the crash had happened here. This congregation and the local community had contributed this land and their resources to make sure there was a place to acknowledge the crash. They had taken it upon themselves to be the stewards of the hand-painted memories of each of the victims, so many of them strangers to Kenner—just as my family and I would have been.
I had come there to see my own name not memorialized—not the life I never led, but the death I never suffered. Perverse, callous even. I had been seen by no one except for the cab driver. I had come and gone invisibly, into this sacred space, which was in turn invisible to the thousands who came through the nearby airport daily.
Could I reconcile my selfish pilgrimage with reverence for the community that had suffered the crash and then created the memorial? What had it been like to have a summer afternoon torn open by an airplane not exactly falling out of the sky but rather careening off course from the runway, on top of your house? In newspaper stories from 1982, some Kenner residents say they heard passengers inside the remains of the plane, screaming as the flames consumed them. Forty local doctors rushed to the scene and then had little to do because nearly everyone was dead.
The Kenner Cab minivan pulled up; I had to get to the airport or miss my flight. My time at the memorial had been short, only about half an hour, but honestly, there wasn’t much to see. It wasn’t what I had expected, but it occurred to me that maybe I had come precisely to grasp how little I understood of the crash and what it meant.
Larry, the cab driver, was every bit as confident, talkative, and chipper as my cabbie from New Orleans had been flummoxed and quietly frustrated. Larry had thinning gray hair, kind eyes, and wore a plaid short-sleeved shirt, with slacks.
“I was just visiting the Flight 759 memorial,” I offered, hoping to elicit a memory, an anecdote, from him.
“Yes, 759. That was a bad year,” he said, then changed the subject. Larry chatted about his prior career as a business consultant, his daughter who taught at Tulane, how much he enjoyed driving cabs. He was not going to talk about the crash.
What had died for the residents of Kenner, Louisiana—even if only the luxury of regarding the familiar roar of jet engines as innocuous background noise? A feeling of safety, the faith that planes don’t just fall out of the sky, randomly destroying homes and families. The plane crashed at 4:09 p.m., a time when families are often apart, children in their after-school hours and parents at work. Most of those who died on the ground were children, close to the age I was at the time.
The airport was approaching, and Larry was expertly sliding into the departures lane. We were running out of time, and he had rarely paused in his constant stream of chatter. I leaned forward, interrupting him.
“What was it like here? When the crash happened,” I said, quietly.
A long pause.
He sighed heavily. “That was awful for a lot of people,” he said, slowly, weighing each word.
We had pulled in front of the terminal, and his eyes were fixed on the receipt he was writing for me. But I knew, regardless, he would have said no more.
In local news stories, surviving neighbors often said they felt guilt that they had been spared when someone next door—like six-year-old Lisa Baye, who had been at a friend’s house when the plane plowed into it—died. The friend, Rachel Schultz, and her mother survived while Rachel’s older sister died. The Miracle Baby was sixteen-month-old Melissa Trahan, whose father lived but whose mother and older sister did not. How does a community make peace with these vagaries? How many times did Lisa Baye’s parents wonder if they shouldn’t have let her go to Rachel’s house that afternoon? Did Rachel grow up wondering why it had been her sister and Lisa who had lost their lives? Did Melissa Trahan’s father ever wish he had made it home from work in time to save his wife and other daughter—or maybe wish that he had died with them?
By the time dusk fell on July 9, the streets of the Morningside subdivision in Kenner were lined with hundreds of black body bags, many containing just parts of bodies discovered amid the endless swaths of mostly unidentifiable rubble. The initial death toll of 153 was upped to 154 when it was discovered that one of the women in the plane was carrying a seven-month-old fetus. In Kenner, the funerals started soon after. The first memorial mass was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Through Larry’s reluctance, in the gravity of the words awful and a lot, I began to know why the congregation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help had taken up the collection for that memorial. Why it mattered to them.
And I also began to understand why remembering Flight 759 mattered to me. I had come to the memorial because, whether true or not, the story about how my family should have been on that flight, but wasn’t, was important to me—it had always been. It not only affirmed my being alive but also said something about my family’s survival. We were meant to exist, to live on, even if mental illness or our own inability to cope with it threatened to drain away all that had made us a family.
But now, having stood, in a sense, among the dead of Flight 759, I wondered if maybe, in some Final Destination-like way, we were supposed to have died. What if we could have simply frozen it all, like a portrait of our family when we were maybe happiest, most loving, and united? All of us splashing around in a Miami hotel pool, or posing with smiles on our faces at the southernmost point of the United States. A sweet Florida orange section, held by my mother’s delicate fingertips and poised in midair, as my father opened his mouth while keeping both hands steady on the wheel. Wouldn’t my father have been happier if he’d never had to experience the decline of his career, his psyche, and, finally, his marriage?
Maybe, like in the movie, we were now slowly dying as a family in another way. In having cheated Death, we still had to fulfill our fates. Perhaps there had been a price paid not to be one of these names painted on the tiles, to be able to stand there, feeling the grass beneath my feet and the hot afternoon sun on my back, to be able to feel a diffuse sadness for these 154 people I never knew. And to sit with the relief—and guilt—that it had been them, not me. Not us.
Whether or not we had really been booked on Flight 759, something died for us that summer of 1982. I would not try to discern how much of my memory had been real, how much imagined. What did matter was that the story of the crash stuck with me for many reasons. We remember out of necessity. And this story was necessary to me, just as remembering was necessary for the residents of Kenner.
I am no longer a nervous flyer like I was for years after that trip to Florida. But, at the start of each flight, I still read the foldout emergency-procedures cards, with their comfortingly neat diagrams of life jackets, emergency exits, and oxygen masks. Ensconced as I was in this parallel universe of orderly line-drawn passengers surviving soundless and bloodless airplane crashes with floating seat cushions and inflatable slides, it seemed impossible that, as I left New Orleans, I might be taxiing down the very same runway from which Flight 759 took off nearly thirty years ago. It was a clear, hot early fall day, and the plane lifted effortlessly off the asphalt, engines roaring as it sailed over the rooftops of Kenner. It seemed impossible that it could be any other way. On that afternoon, we were all lucky once more.