As we approach the 20th anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil, we are reminded of the string of tragedies that occurred that day. Four hijacked planes. Two imploding skyscrapers. The home of the most powerful army on earth went up in flames.
Nearly 3,000 people died that day in plane crashes, collapsing buildings and desperate leaps from burning buildings. Still, such disasters tend to leave only a few people standing out as unlikely survivors.
By September 2001, Steve Scheibner had a solid decade of service with American Airlines; before that, he was a Navy pilot. If you were boarding a cross-country flight, he was the kind of guy you’d want flying it.
And fortunately for him, he still is.
On September 10, 2001, Scheibner logged into American Airlines’ pilot registration system. It was common for assignments to be filled as late as the day before a flight. Scheibner noticed just one available assignment for the following day: an early-morning leg from Boston to Los Angeles. He snagged the open slot and, that afternoon, told his wife he’d be flying to L.A. the next day.
In American Airlines’ system, once an assignment slot was claimed a pilot with seniority has half an hour to override it. It was called “bumping” and, considering the tight time constraint, didn’t happen too often. But much to Scheibner’s chagrin, this time it did: a colleague with slightly more tenure, Tom McGuinness, supplanted Scheibner’s spot.
The next morning, McGuinness and co-pilot John Ogonowski became the first two victims of 9/11 when, at about 8:18am, hijackers led by Mohamed Atta stormed the plane’s cockpit and either killed or incapacitated them. About 28 minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Scheibner’s experience is recounted in a 2011 short film called “In My Seat.”