Rough Skies

Page 6 of 7

"What Larry did," Schramm says, "was pioneer a new position that was eventually adopted by almost every team in the NFL. Not only did he see to long-overlooked security needs--from Valley Ranch to training camp to hotels we'd stay at on the road--but he became a trusted sounding board for the players who had no one else to go to with problems, professional and personal. Larry went out and found experts in everything from financial investment to home security and brought them in to talk with the players and their families. While the coaches prepared them for Sunday's games, Larry was helping them to get ready for life after football."

The Cowboys job wasn't without its tense moments. During the 1984 Monday Night Football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim, Wansley received an urgent call from the NFL security representative assigned to the game. A death threat against Cowboys coach Tom Landry had just been called in. Somewhere in the stadium, he was told, was a sniper with a high-powered rifle.

It was late in the second quarter as Wansley hurried to the sidelines and made Landry aware of the threat. "I've got to get you off the field," he told the stunned coach. The Cowboys coach was surrounded by security personnel and quickly escorted to a nearby tunnel.

"I explained to him about the threat--which the stadium security director was taking very seriously--and urged him to spend the second half of the game coaching from the press box," Wansley recalls. "But he wouldn't have it. He insisted that his place was with the team. Once I realized that he was determined to return to the sidelines for the second half, I borrowed a [bulletproof] vest from a L.A. police officer working security and had Tom put it on."

For the remainder of the game, Wansley stood alongside the legendary coach, in radio contact with security officials furiously searching the stadium for a possible sniper. "Fortunately," he says, "nothing happened." Although when Danny White stood too close to Landry at one point in the second half, Landry pushed him away, saying, "You might not want to stand too close to me. They might miss and shoot you instead."

Nothing, no amount of law enforcement experience and training, study and review, careful planning or corporate brainstorming, could adequately prepare one for the emotional impact of a tragedy like the one that occurred on September 11, 2001. "Everyone in the command center and every person I spoke with on the phone was in some stage of denial. Something of this magnitude, something this insanely evil, was just impossible to fully comprehend," Wansley says.

And while a stunned nation sat in front of television sets, eager for the next bit of information on the tragedy, it had no idea that much of it was being generated not in Washington or New York, but from the American Airlines command center. "One of the things I found myself doing," Wansley says, "was thinking like an FBI agent again, trying to determine what kind of information they needed and where we might help them get it."

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.

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.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

Latest Stories