That’s the question at the heart of Mark Berry’s unusually frank and moving memoir, “13,760 Feet,” which follows the TWA pilot’s attempt to deal with the loss of his fiancé, Susanne, after she was killed on TWA Flight 800 off Long Island 19 years ago.
Any death of a loved one is horrifying, but to lose Susanne on the airline Mark worked for, in one of the safest aircraft in the history of aviation, was a blow that took years to process.
Susanne’s death became bound up in Mark’s nearly lifelong love of flying. For a time after the catastrophe he couldn’t lose himself in work – like so many of us have in similar situations – because the airline grounded him and forced him to undergo counseling.
Mark and Susanne grew up near each other in Fairfield County – he delivered Greenwich Time to her mother’s house – but they didn‘t connect until many years later, when each had lived a little bit, succeeded in their respective careers, and were ready for a serious relationship.
After a year of dating, Mark proposed to Susanne on May 13, 1996, just two months before she was killed along with more than 200 other people on that doomed jet.
“13,760” is beautifully constructed. Mark alternates chapters that take us through the long aftermath of Flight 800 with the story of his steady climb in the aviation business from piloting dubious commercial planes in the Caribbean right after college to his long career with TWA.
Few books I’ve read have nailed the disorientation of grief better than this one. Mark writes about his lingering connection to the everyday things Susanne left behind – an unread book on her bedside table, pieces of jewelry, and a pair of sunglasses that was recovered after the explosion (along with Susanne’s engagement ring).
“I imagined her reading reading ‘Corelli’s Mandolin’ with me, then I returned it to the library for her. I read ‘A Year in Provence’ from her nightstand. I cried when I passed her bookmark. To this day, I want to tell her how it ends,” he writes.
Berry digs deep into the power of little things like phone messages that a survivor can’t bear to erase.
It’s a long book, but it is packed with great tales of aviation as well as the slow and not so steady climb the author made out of his grief-frozen life.
In a strong chapter called “Investigation and Speculation” Berry reveals his informed doubts about the “official story” that the explosion was an accident. He dismisses the fumes-in-an-empty-tank theory, noting that he has landed planes with three empty tanks: “Am I worried about blowing up because of this? Not unless my center fuel tank is hit by a missile.”
He tells us of expert witnesses who saw a “streak of light” headed for the plane just before it blew up, including an Air National Guard major who was only granted a five minute interview in which the FBI agent took no notes.
“Courtroom defendants have been convicted of felonies based on a single eyewitness report. The FBI and the CIA found a way to sweep aside more witnesses than dead passengers and crew,” he writes.
Volunteer investigators for TWA confirmed accusations that the FBI was removing aircraft pieces from the reconstruction hangar and that “the FBI was caught hammering pieces into new shapes in the middle of the night – presumably to make them fit their center tank explosion theory.”
The chapter on the investigation is fascinating, but it is only one small piece of this remarkably personal and moving memoir.
(Mark Berry sent me the pictures below and above from last month’s memorial service marking the 19th anniversary of TWA Flight 800.)