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Sept. 11: One year after

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  Wearing the patriotic ribbon for which she was scorned by one Boston columnist, Virginia Buckingham testifies in October before the Legislature's Transportation Committee. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

My side of the story |   Continued

t had been five days since I had spoken to the governor. On September 21, I was summoned to attend Swift's daily security meeting, because federal authorities had alerted her and Menino to a potential terrorist threat against Boston. Swift asked me to stay after the meeting ended. She said she knew that there was nothing Massport could have done to stop the hijackings. "But you also know politics," she continued, "and I can't guarantee you how this is going to turn out. The only way that I can sleep at night is that I know you understand how the media works." This would be the last time I talked to the governor before I resigned.

I have since reflected on how I would have advised the governor had I been her chief of staff, not head of Massport. The fact that politics sometimes demands change for the sake of change was no surprise to me. I had been a practitioner of Boston's tough politics for a decade, and as one reporter told me, "There are plenty of people walking around Boston Common with one kneecap to prove it." I like to think that I would have seen that this tragedy was bigger than politics and urged unblinking leadership in the face of the withering criticism. But whether I would have recommended the same course Swift followed is an unanswerable question. So, instead, I try to answer a more pressing one. Was I to blame? Thousands of people were dead. Could I have stopped it? I sought the answer in the heart of a grieving mother.

Marianne MacFarlane, a 34-year-old United Airlines gate agent, had been on United Flight 175 for a mini-vacation in Las Vegas. Her mother, Anne MacFarlane, a Logan public service representative and former flight attendant, describes Marianne as "everybody's friend." That her mom was Marianne's dearest friend was plain to all who knew them.

Marianne's first airport job was selling flowers out of a cart in Terminal D. As her mom says, "Once you work at an airport, you can't work anywhere else." Despite a college adviser's admonition that "she had no future in aviation," Marianne's career took her to Florida, Maine, and finally back to Boston and a job with United Airlines. She worked the 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift and would rise at 4:05 to find her mother waiting downstairs to drive her to work. "Otherwise, she'd never have gotten there," Anne says wryly. Although she usually tossed an "I'll see ya" over her shoulder, on September 11, Marianne said "goodbye" as Anne dropped her off at Terminal C. Anne almost stopped the car to ask, "Why `goodbye'?"

The MacFarlane family lived in the old Irish section of Revere, in two double-deckers connected by a driveway and a pool. Anne and Marianne shared one, and the two MacFarlane sons lived next door. It was George MacFarlane, a Chelsea firefighter, who heard of the first plane crash and urged his mother, Anne, to turn on the television. As a commentator spoke of the horror unfolding in New York City, a second plane careered into the south tower. Anne watched as her only daughter was murdered. While she didn't know at the time that Marianne was on the plane, an unease grew. Anne at first waited at home with her sons for some piece of news, but then felt an urge to go to the airport. She needed to know. United Airlines employees were gathered around the ticket counter. When they saw her approach, some began to cry.

The memorial service for Marianne was held at St. Rose of Lima Church in Chelsea. When I arrived, the line of mourners stretched for three blocks. It dawned on me that I might not be welcome here. I had never met Anne and hadn't known her daughter. My heart pounding, I introduced myself to Anne and expressed my condolences. She took both of my hands and looked me straight in the eye. "Don't let them tear our airport apart," she said. "Promise me." Moments before she bade a final farewell to her daughter, Anne saw far beyond her own sorrow. "I won't," I said. "I promise I won't."

It was a promise I could not keep. The chairman of the Carter Commission was openly telling my staff that Massport needed a "professional" CEO. Allies on the Massport board of directors told me that the governor's office had begun subtly lobbying them for my removal. I felt my choices were either to resign or be fired. Aides and close friends gathered in late October to discuss my resignation speech. I had been through this kind of drill before, helping three governors craft just the right words to say in times of crisis. But it's infinitely harder when they're your own words. Struggling to keep my composure, I asked, "How can I resign without people thinking forever that I was to blame for the deaths of thousands of people?" The question hung there unanswered.

Following the resolution of a major controversy over my severance agreement, I drove out of the airport for the last time as its leader on November 9. A television news crew stopped my car as it exited the garage. I answered a few questions with the spin that my spokesman and I had agreed upon: "This allowed the agency to move forward." But one final question was unsettling: "What's next for you?" I answered, "I don't know; I'm sure good things." In truth, I was sure of nothing. As I headed for the Sumner Tunnel, I gripped the steering wheel to keep control.

hree months passed. Unemployed and six months pregnant, I sought refuge in my childhood home in Connecticut. A snowstorm had moved in, frosting the ground in my old neighborhood with 5 fresh inches. Wandering street after street, I searched for the peace that comes from having roots. The joy of more carefree times. After a half-hour, I turned to climb the hill to my old house and paused to take in a view unchanged in my 36 years: tall, gangly apple trees, a simple Cape Cod-style home. As I took a deep breath, the idyllic scene before me burst into flames as one, then two towers of the World Trade Center were hit by hijacked 767s and crumbled to the ground.

I continued to follow the daily news stories about aviation security. Richard Reid's alleged attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with a plastic bomb concealed in his shoe filled me with anguish and outrage. How could this happen? How could it not? The FAA's knee-jerk reaction was to say that shoes should be inspected at the security checkpoints. If Reid had been wearing the bomb under a baseball hat, the FAA probably would have said to check under hats, instead. A suitcase loaded with explosives could still be checked onto a flight at any time. Magnetometers weren't uniformly sensitive enough to catch a gun carried through a security checkpoint, even if the machines stayed plugged in. The industry was spending more time lobbying Congress to extend deadlines for tougher security rules than figuring out how to implement them. What had changed? Everything and nothing.

In June, I again sought out Anne MacFarlane. We met at the IHOP restaurant in Revere, and Anne handed me a teddy bear wearing a T-shirt saying, "Always in Our Hearts Flight 175." I squeezed the bear hard. She also gave me a laminated copy of an American flag, a certificate of recognition, and a letter from NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. He wrote that the space shuttle Endeavour had carried 6,000 American flags to the International Space Station in December to honor the victims and heroes of September 11. Anne wanted my children to have the mementos, to use as vivid illustrations for their history lessons. Inadvertently, Anne had shared my reasoning for telling this story in the first place: bearing witness for my children to events that someday will be as distant to them as Pearl Harbor and Vietnam are to me.

Anne also gave me a Mass card with Marianne's picture on it. I had wanted to ask her to bring a picture but had felt awkward. Our meeting was already enough of an invasion of her private grief. But I wanted Anne to share with me the essence of her daughter. I wanted to look into Marianne's eyes. I wanted to know her. We talked easily, Anne's motherly ways inviting questions and confidences. Finally mustering the courage to pose the question that haunted my dreams, I asked her, "Do you blame me?" She didn't blink. "You're no more to blame than Marianne is." I felt relief but no unburdening of my heart.

"I know I didn't lose anyone on September 11," I explained. "I have my husband and two children and my health. I know it's not comparable to what you and others lost, but on September 11, I lost myself." Anne didn't look surprised. She just asked quietly, "What are you going to do now?" I answered, "Get through the one-year anniversary, write my story, try to reclaim who I am." "Then do it," Anne said. "Do it in Marianne's name."

More months will pass, a second anniversary will come, then a third. Perspectives will change, more truths will be discovered. Mindful of the agony of so many mothers, I hold my children close and, in Marianne MacFarlane's name, try to find what I have lost, grateful for what I have.

Virginia Buckingham was executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority from September 1999 until November 2001.

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