Rough Skies

Larry Wansley--former Marine, cop and FBI agent--has his biggest task ahead of him: making American Airlines safe from terrorism

In a sense, the security director reverted to the role of investigator. In the process, he violated one of his own rules.

"We'd learned over the years," he says, "that in time of a major crisis people want to do everything they possibly can to help. At some point, though, fatigue inevitably sets in and efficiency suffers. So, we had devised a plan whereby members of the staff would work in shifts, relieved for a time in order to get some rest."

Yet for three days Wansley never left the command center, didn't sleep and rarely put down a phone. Only when it was announced that commercial air service could begin and the tangled web of flight plans were organized did he finally walk into the sunlight.

Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Mark Graham
Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.

It was as he drove toward home that a sudden, gripping wave of depression swept over him. "I found myself feeling that I'd let everyone down. I was the person--the man in the mirror--whose job it was to see that our planes, our crews, our passengers were safe, and yet this terrible thing had somehow happened on my watch. And I was feeling that it was my fault."

In retrospect, he now realizes that it was only his fatigue playing games. He knows that, in truth, there was nothing he or his staff could have done.


It would be almost two months before he finally visited New York's Ground Zero to see the devastation of that infamous day firsthand. There just had not been time; too many meetings to devise stepped-up measures of airline security; too many new plans to be put in place in hopes of avoiding such an event in the future--or, God forbid, should it ever happen again, an improved routine of response; too much work necessary to assure the public that the skies were again safe to fly.

By the time he made the trip, he learned that he, like so many others throughout the country, had lost someone in the terrorist attack. John O'Neill, his longtime friend and former FBI agent, had been the director of security for the World Trade Center at the time and was now listed among the dead.

Walking with a New York police officer into the cavern where the World Trade Center towers had crumbled, he silently watched as search and rescue crews went about their grim assignments, clearing away debris, looking for bodies. "It was an indescribable experience," he recalls.

Larry Wansley thought he'd seen it all: horrific homicide scenes as a cop, man's repeated inhumanity to man as an FBI agent, the death and destruction that resulted when an American jetliner had crashed into a Colombian mountainside in '95. But never anything like this.

"As we made our way through the rubble," he recalls, "the cop I was with pointed toward a man isolated from the others, digging with only a shovel and his hands. 'He's a retired fireman,' the policeman told me. 'He's been here every day, dawn till dark. He's looking for his son.'

"For several minutes I stood watching him, dusty and dirty and in an almost trancelike state. You could literally see the pain on his face. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind. And if anyone had tried to talk with him.

"'No,' I was told, 'he doesn't want to be interrupted. He's got a job to do.'"

That night, as he sat alone in his hotel room, a safe distance from the ugly landscape he'd visited, Wansley found himself thinking of the bereaved and tireless father. And wondering what manner of dark dreams must now haunt his sleep.

(Dallas Observer staff writer Carlton Stowers co-authored Larry Wansley's FBI Undercover: The True Story of Special Agent "Mandrake," published in 1988 by Pocket Books.)

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