MORE

Memory Problem

Dean Thompson is trying to build a memorial to 9-11 victims who worked for American Airlines.
Mark Graham

The idea of a memorial to American Airlines flight crews who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks seemed simple enough. And as Dean Thompson saw it, "Who wouldn't be for it?"

In the waning months of 2001, Thompson and his wife, American Airlines flight attendant Valerie Thompson, began pushing forward with the idea from their home in suburban Hurst. They contacted company officials, the airline unions and others in the business whom they thought would be interested.

"They [the company] were very positive in the early days," says Dean Thompson, a 66-year-old retired fire inspector who thought he had the time and dedication to make the memorial come true.

A year and a half later, however, Thompson says he has learned how difficult it is to make things happen regardless of how well-meaning his cause. A long list of problems--from design disagreements, to labor-management tensions, to management changes at American Airlines--has hampered and perhaps stalled for good the Thompsons' good intentions.

Still, with support from some city officials in Grapevine and help from at least one father of an American flight attendant who died in the attack, Thompson is soldiering on. "Right now we're confronted with the problem that it takes money to raise money," he says. "It's a chicken-and-egg problem."

A thick stack of letters and e-mails in several manila folders documents some of the difficulties Thompson has faced over the past 18 months. At the outset, American Airlines' top management, led by then-Vice Chairman Robert Baker, were receptive to Thompson's project, at least in broad terms, the letters show. But by spring 2002, Thompson and the airline were at odds over the scope of the memorial and the design that Thompson was proposing.

"What they told me was that they didn't want a 9-11-specific memorial," he says. "They widened it to include all American Airlines employees who have died in the line of duty."

Thompson says he was amenable to changing the focus, and he sent the company a drawing of a proposed memorial that he thought would fill the bill. It comprised three bronze figures--a male pilot, a female flight attendant and a male ground crew worker--arrayed around a raised globe. "They found it to be all wrong," he says.

As one company e-mail put it: "The memorial rendering you brought by...is not acceptable and cannot be placed on company property as is. The reason, as we've discussed, is that it excludes more people than it includes. Employees from every work group have perished on the job over the past 75 years of AA history, and leaving any of them out would create hard feelings--certainly not the goal of this project."

Tim Kincaid, an American Airlines corporate communications manager who was in charge of the project, told Thompson in an e-mail last summer: "Our goals are similar. What the memorial looks like is all we're questioning." He suggested that a broader memorial committee be formed to reach a consensus on "a memorial we can all agree on: employees, families and the company."

Kincaid, who appeared to be supportive of locating the proposed memorial at the company's C.R. Smith Museum near American's headquarters, did not return calls for comment.

Thompson says discussion between his group and the company went downhill after that.

Complicating matters was the fact that several airline unions appeared to mistrust his motives and were reluctant to sign on. "The Air Line Pilots Association thought I was being used by the company," he says. "There was a lot of bad blood because they were in contract negotiations, and it just spilled over."

Finally, Thompson told the company he planned to go forward with his original idea without the company's blessing. "I intend to build a memorial, and I would prefer it be placed at the C.R. Smith Museum. But if we have to look elsewhere, I guess this will have to be," Thompson wrote to Kincaid.

The company has since erected a sleek, steel and stone plaque listing the names of American crew members who died on Flight 11, which terrorists flew into the World Trade Center north tower, and Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon. Shaped and sized much like a speaker's dais, it is located inside a secure American training building, where only company employees can see it. "Nobody can see the memorial they've built, and it was done so quietly I doubt most American Airlines people even know it's there," Thompson says.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the plaque was unveiled in a private ceremony last September, which was in line with the airline's low-key observance of the first anniversary of the attacks.

At a more public event that month, the Grapefest festival in Grapevine, Thompson's memorial found some new life. The festival had invited all active airline employees to a free lunch and dedicated the event to the very people Thompson had set out to honor. There, Thompson met several city officials who seemed receptive to his memorial idea.

"So many of our citizens work in the airline industry that it seemed appropriate we host a memorial," says Paul McCallum, executive director of Grapevine's convention and visitors' bureau.

The city has since been providing meeting space for Thompson's group and, while nothing has been approved, could provide some sort of financial support, he says.

"There's been so much turmoil and financial problems in the airline industry in the last year, whatever happens is going to happen with a go-slow approach," McCallum says. In the meantime, there is work to do solidifying plans for the memorial and "putting a structure and organization in place." They formed a nonprofit, the American Memorial Foundation, recruited a board of directors and put up a Web site.

Thompson says the design being contemplated is a fountain topped by a flock of doves. Because it will be somewhat abstract, it skirts the kind of problems voiced by American. "We won't have a problem being what I call politically correct," Thompson says.

The idea has passed muster with Mike Low, who has a great deal of experience with--and emotional attachment to--September 11 memorials. Low's daughter, Sarah Low, was an attendant on Flight 11.

Low, who owns a contracting business in Batesville, Arkansas, says he has been contacted by dozens of memorial efforts. "There are so many of them, it's difficult to remember them all," he says.

He says he is not surprised Thompson's group has problems raising money. "I'd expect with the airline business laying people off and all their difficulties, it will be slow," he says.

Low says simple memorials, such as tree planting and small plaques such as one that was erected in his daughter's honor at the University of Arkansas, have had an easier time finding their way to fruition than more elaborate ones. And in his opinion, there are too many grand ideas going around.

"They wanted to build something in Batesville, and it was relatively expensive. I didn't support it," Low says. "I'd rather see that money funneled into scholarships or to help families that need it." Low says he made an exception in Thompson's case and sent the group a $1,000 donation. "They struck me as sincere," he says.

Well-meaning people, and about a quarter-million dollars that has yet to be raised, is all it takes to get something done.


Sponsor Content