Author tells of aviation workers' courage after Sept. 11 attacks


Bellingham aviation trainer Tom Murphy's book, "Reclaiming the Sky," addresses the healing process of some of the people in the aviation industry whose lives were directly impacted by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Q: How is your Web site and your book helping to connect aviation employees who may not have known each other, or who may not have known that others were having trouble dealing with 9/11?

A: Many of those directly affected by the aviation experience of 9/11 in Boston, New York and Washington. D.C., were colleagues of mine. For fifteen years I had worked with them to develop customer service training programs at their airports. When I went back to talk to them after 9/11, I found a common connection: those who were "doing better" were coming out of self for others. This idea, moving forward by doing for others, became the theme of my story, a story that explores the secret to recovery after enormous loss.

Q: How can people learn from your book and from your Web site how to deal with personal grief, loss and tragedy?

A: My book uses aviation workers affected by 9/11 as the vehicle for telling this story of unsung heroes who turned pain to hope. But the key points, learning how to move forward by doing for others, learning how to take the first step, learning how to put anger aside, can be applied to any loss.

Q: When you were growing up, what shaped your values to point the way to being of service, as one of your "core beliefs"?

A: I grew up in one of those post-World War II, Long Island, New York, neighborhoods - the kind with sapling trees and streets laid out with a slide rule. We had 52 kids on our block. After school we ran out our front doors and didn't come back until the streetlights came on. As such, I carry an optimistic view of life, and I want to see America "reclaim" its confidence after 9/11. I see service - the affirmation of our mutual "connectedness" - as the means for taking back the spirit.

Q: What have you learned from other professionals, in the course of writing your book and in conducting your own workshops, who deal with people in tragic or difficult circumstances?

A: All profits from the book will go to charities. Profits from sales at Village Books will go to Excellence NW. From their workshops I learned that we all have a choice to make after loss; we can stay "inside" and dwell on our grief, or we can look beyond our personal needs to the needs of others. That's how we "reclaim" the sky, I believe. It's amazing how quickly progress follows once we find a purpose and decide to act.

Q: How have you, personally, changed, since writing the book and creating the Web site?

A: We men are taught to tough it out when adversity strikes. But there's a heavy price to pay for silence. Now I don't mind being seen as someone who values emotion, or more specifically someone who recognizes the value in talking about emotional issues.

Q: At one point, your daughter reminds you about your "nervous man," the man who was on the flight you took out of New York's JFK Airport the morning of Sept. 11. That seems to be a pivotal moment for you. What did that comment mean to you?

A: My daughter's comment brought me flat up against myself and the choice I had to make. The experience of staring into the eyes of the "nervous guy" on my plane that morning haunted me - the "what if" quality of who he might have been. Admittedly I was stuck, but I think that's what the terrorists intended, to get us to turn inward, away from life. My daughter is very smart. She knew what to say to get me to pay attention to the action I needed to take.

Q: How do you involve partner agencies such as the American Red Cross, in dealing with major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina?

A: I created www.reclaim to give the healing lessons from the book a broader audience. Currently, I'm in talks with a major university to develop a "Research Center" that will offer a home for this program long term. That's my goal, to see "Reclaiming the Sky" become an ongoing resource to help those recovering from loss, beginning with aviation workers, but applicable to all - victims of hurricanes, wars, whoever has the need.

Q: When we fly, how can we as passengers let airline personnel know that we are empathetic and care about the stress they may be feeling on their jobs?

A: Uncertainty creates anxiety. It's not surprising given the uncertainties of the world that we're all anxious. But those in aviation swallow their fears and go up into the air every day to keep America flying. That's why I call them "quiet heroes," and if my book has given travelers a reason to look at aviation workers with newfound respect, then I have done my job.

Q: What's your "other life" - your writing career and background?

A: At the University of British Columbia, where I received an MFA in Creative Writing (1978), they had an annual CBC Playwriting award for the top play or screenplay. I won for my screenplay, a love story set at the Boston Marathon. That's what I thought I wanted to be, a screenwriter. Still do. Later, I won a 20th Century Fox screenwriting prize in Miami, and a script I wrote two years ago earned an Honorable Mention in the Writers Digest Annual Competition. So I keep scribbling away. Onward and upward. We must always reach for that green light out there.

Reach Margaret Bikman at or 715-2273.

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