By Michael Miner

Hell Arrives on Schedule

Luck, said Branch Rickey, is the residue of design. By that measure, September 11 was the luckiest day the Tribune’s had in a long time.

If you read “The Longest Day,” the November 19 special section that launched Gateway to Gridlock, a four-day report on air travel in America, you might have reacted as I did: first, admiration for the careful re-creation of a day when the system collapsed; then annoyance at the pretense of exact knowledge of details the paper could only be guessing at; and finally astonishment as it became clear that the Tribune actually had witnessed everything it was telling us about. Louise Kiernan’s riveting eight-page narrative became the best argument I’ve read for an integrated national transportation system.

At midday on Monday, September 11, storm systems from the north and northwest wrapped themselves around Chicago, paralyzing O’Hare and disrupting air operations across the country. Six thousand stranded passengers spent the night at O’Hare because they had no way to get where they were going. They were victims of what the Federal Aviation Administration might describe as a perfect storm–though if you weren’t flying you’ll remember it, if you remember it at all, as just a good hard rain.

“The point of the series,” says associate metro editor Hanke Gratteau, who oversaw it, “is that the system is so overloaded, so overburdened, that the slightest thing going wrong sets off ripples of very bad stuff. The system is so fragile it doesn’t take much to tip it.”

September 11 wasn’t a day the Tribune would have picked on its own to observe the nation’s air operations. O’Hare had been blighted all summer by postponed and canceled flights, particularly United’s, and when executive editor Ann Marie Lipinski proposed a hard look at the reasons behind the delays and at the human toll they took, she wanted it done before the summer ended.

But the FAA and the two airlines with hubs at O’Hare, United and American, weren’t eager to help out, aviation writer John Schmeltzer tells me. September 11 was what the Tribune finally negotiated, and Gratteau says, “I think they picked it because they thought it would be a really good day for them. It was after the summer rush.”

Schmeltzer did a lot of the planning. “We had people on planes and in airports around the country,” he says. “We had people in five FAA control towers. I picked the flights.” He booked a reporter on United’s 8 AM flight to LaGuardia, which he calls “historically, the most hated business flight there is” because it’s so frequently late or canceled. Another reporter was assigned to a flight to Denver that hadn’t been on time in 30 days. “And then we tried to pick flights with very good records,” he says. “We didn’t go out and try to set up the airlines–although the airlines thought we set them up.”

Since the paper’s well-laid plans had been predicated on a normal day, the staff perfunctorily cursed the weather. “We were not hoping for a catastrophic storm like we got,” says Gratteau. Schmeltzer says, “It was awful. It destroyed what we were trying to do.” What it destroyed, of course, was a worthy account of small-bore exasperations, which was replaced with an epic tale of human misery–a deal journalists will take any day of the week. Gratteau says that the morning of September 11, chief of photography Bill Parker glanced at a radar screen mounted in the newsroom and noted the storm systems approaching Chicago. “He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Did you spend yesterday in church?'”

The Tribune was able to have it both ways, says Schmeltzer. September 11 consisted of “two distinct 12-hour days. The first day was perfect, and it showed how the FAA screws up the system and how the airlines fight with the FAA. And the next 12 hours showed what happens when all hell breaks loose.”

Tribune photographer Bonnie Trafelet and reporter Jeff Zeleny went to O’Hare expecting to take United’s noon flight to Denver, the one that hadn’t left on time in a month. But with the storm approaching, their desk switched them to a flight scheduled to take off after it would hit–“so we’d have a hard travel day,” says Trafelet. The noon flight, for the record, left on schedule.

As soon as it became clear that the plane they were now booked on wasn’t going anywhere, Trafelet started shooting pictures around the airport. Late that night she noticed a United flight attendant holding an infant boy. She took the picture. Betsy Moghadam, the mother of four-month-old Mark, was momentarily appalled. “I’m thinking, my God, is this some United thing saying how friendly we are?”

Trafelet explained to Moghadam what she was doing, and the two women clicked. Moghadam was a willing subject, Trafelet a sympathetic ear. “It was nice at this point to have someone listen to your story,” Moghadam says, “because you’d been trying to talk to customer service and to ticket agents who didn’t care. Even when I ran out of diapers and I was crying to the United person, she was saying, ‘Go downstairs to baggage and get some.'” Moghadam didn’t even know where baggage was.

Moghadam was traveling from Portland, Oregon, with her baby son and two-year-old daughter Macey to see her mother in Buffalo. She’d arrived at O’Hare on the red-eye Monday expecting to change planes and be gone, but she and her kids didn’t get out until Tuesday at three in the afternoon. While she waited at O’Hare her husband flew from Portland to London, attended a six-hour meeting, got a night’s sleep, and had breakfast the next morning.

Because Moghadam’s situation was as emblematic as it was pitiable, Trafelet stuck to her like glue. She was there at the gate, says Moghadam, when “at 11:30 they finally announced the 5:30 flight, which had been delayed to 8:10 to now, was now canceled and there wouldn’t be any more flights.” What’s more, the hotels were all supposed to be full.

“They told her at first that she had to sleep on cots with her kids, and I knew the cots were gone,” says Trafelet. “She would have been really screwed.”

Moghadam says, “I went up to the desk and started to cry, and Bonnie was taking pictures. And the woman behind the counter was saying, ‘You can’t be taking pictures. Who are you?'”

Trafelet stood her ground. The fuming agent went off to find a supervisor. When she came back, without saying a word to Trafelet she muttered to a colleague that Trafelet had permission. “So then all of a sudden,” says Moghadam, “it was ‘Well, we might have a hotel, but it’s 20 miles away.'”

United gave her taxi money and a food voucher. The only restaurant still open was a McDonald’s she and her kids had eaten at twice already, and which, she observed, “was trying to close, but the people were rioting.” So she and her two kids headed out to the taxi stand. “It was like a Disneyland line around the corner, and it was pouring rain and thundering. And my daughter was screaming, and my son was crying he wanted to be fed.”

Moghadam and her two kids were allowed to go to the front of the line.

Because Trafelet and Zeleny’s assignment was to play the part of passengers, they spent the night at O’Hare with everyone else. The next morning, still waiting to fly to Denver, they spotted Moghadam and her children returning for day two. They followed her to the gate, and Trafelet snapped the horror that crossed her face when she was told that her flight to Buffalo wasn’t leaving. This picture would become the centerpiece of Trafelet’s photo spread in the Tribune two and a half months later.

Trafelet and Zeleny called their editors. Moghadam says, “What I understood from Bonnie and Jeff was that they thought this was one of the worst-case scenarios. What was happening to me was one of the worst stories they’d heard and the most heartfelt–I was there with two little kids, and I didn’t have any more diapers. I guess their editors felt the same way.”

They did. Gratteau told Zeleny they should forget about Denver and follow the Moghadams to Buffalo. The two tickets cost about $1,100 each. “I came from the Daily Herald,” says Trafelet, “and I can’t believe the Tribune is about to plunk down the money to let us fly to Buffalo.”

The pictures Trafelet took of the Moghadams at O’Hare and in the air, and of Moghadam bursting into tears on seeing her mother in Buffalo filled almost the entire back page of “The Longest Day.”

I ask Trafelet, did you have to bite your tongue to keep from telling her that there were no cots and that she ought to call some hotels in the city?

“No, that is interfering,” she explains. “We have meetings every month where we go over stuff just like this. How we are not to interfere and not change the situation. In fact, she was asking me at one point what to do, and I was telling her, ‘Betsy, I can’t tell you what to do.’ I try to become just part of the environment around her.”

Nevertheless, Moghadam believes, and Trafelet concedes, that the reason a room at the Swissotel suddenly materialized for the bedraggled family might well be that a Tribune writer and photographer were observing her ordeal. “How other people react to me–I can’t control that,” Trafelet says. “And United knew we were doing the story. Several United people came up to me and said, ‘I hope this is going to be a positive article.'”

I tell her what Moghadam told me, which is that on more than one occasion she watched Moghadam’s two-year-old daughter and four-month-old son while mom went to the bathroom.

“Well, yeah,” says Trafelet, ruthlessly exposed. “What are you going to do? When you are that involved with a story–” She trails off and starts over. “I did sort of keep an eye on the kids. All right, I admit to that. But how do you not, in such a situation? How do you not?

“I wasn’t photographing the kids while I was doing this. It wasn’t a part of my story. Why not help her? I can’t detach myself to the point where I’m not human anymore.”

Al Gored: Is This Necessary?

Poor Al Gore has taken his lumps in the Sun-Times, which got sick and tired of him with indecent speed after last month’s election and began wishing loudly that he’d go away. Last Sunday’s editorial began, “Desperation does not make a pretty picture.” The Higgins cartoon showed a Ryder truck stalled on a railroad track and about to be flattened by a locomotive, while the guy looking under the hood was saying, “OK, try to overturn it again.” The Mark Steyn column was headlined “Following Gore over the cliff–Democratic troops make clear their intention to stick with their fearless leader, no matter how big a fool he makes of himself.” George Will was headlined “Gore’s weak case coming apart at the seams–Democrats’ arguments so thin that together they still add up to nothing.” And the Betsy Hart headline declared: “Voters: A new victim class?–We, and we alone, are responsible for making sure our ballots are clear.”

If Gore had been 600 votes ahead instead of 600 votes behind and Bush were putting up the same sort of fight, would these same voices have been ridiculing Bush with the same contemptuous enthusiasm? My hunch? Not on your life. Nothing has made Gore’s behavior more heinous than not having wanted to see him elected in the first place.

This saga has been virulently partisan from day one, and keeping up with it has meant knowing where everyone stands. Palm Beach County is Democratic; Seminole County is Republican. The Florida secretary of state is a Republican and a Bush campaign official; the Florida attorney general is a Democrat; the governor is George W. Bush’s brother. The mayor of Miami is a Democrat who wants to become a Republican.

The Florida Supreme Court is solidly Democratic, but the legislature is Republican. The U.S. House is Republican too, while the Senate is now 50-50. Almost all of the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans.

Most newspaper publishers are Republicans too. Except for the ones born in Commonwealth countries, who are Thatcher conservatives or royalists.

Partisanship finds a happier home in a newspaper than in a lot of other places. Yet a newspaper isn’t the worst place to be surprised by the occasional voice of dispassionate reason.

News Bites

“Kevin Williams, 36, a ‘real estate construction entrepreneur and member of Oprah’s security,’ says, ‘It’s very elegant, very chi-chi poo-poo.’

“Is that good?

“‘Oh, absolutely,’ he insists, flashing his Rolex as the opening strains of Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ waft through the sound system.”

Imagine yourself the Sun-Times’s Mary Mitchell. You’ve kept the mysterious disappearance of stewardess Traci Todd on September 14 in the public eye pretty much singlehandedly ever since. Now it’s October 15, and you’re reading your paper’s inane three-page paean to Nine, a new hot spot. And what you know and other readers don’t, because the name’s been kept out of the papers, is that Kevin Williams is the ex-boyfriend Todd’s family suspects of murdering her.

Todd’s skull was found November 25, and Williams was then arrested and charged with murder. Last Thursday the Sun-Times ran a profile of Williams, and the paper honorably quoted itself. I asked Mitchell what she thought as she read the Nine story. She laughed but wouldn’t say. It’s probably easy enough to imagine.

Meanwhile, the Tribune also did the right thing. It reported that the woman Todd found out Williams was secretly married to works at the Tribune.

Last Friday the Tribune religion page picked up a story from the Boston Globe about the Lilly Endowment’s National Clergy Renewal Program, which gives money to congregations so that their pastors can take time off for “reflection and renewal.” The story mentioned that grants have been awarded to 118 congregations in 33 states, but naturally the ones it focused on were all in Massachusetts.

A few phone calls would have given the Tribune story a lot more pertinence. Seven Illinois congregations also received Lilly grants, three of them in Chicago–the Congregational Church of Park Manor, Lincoln Park Presbyterian, and Living Water Community–and the others in Cary, Downers Grove, Libertyville, and Valmeyer.

Jerry Sullivan began writing Field & Street for the Reader in 1984. The column appeared every other week for many years and more irregularly later. Sullivan handled the considerable arcana of his field with the breezy authority of a grizzled old political reporter explaining aldermen. He could write a column in which every single piece of information was foreign to most readers, including the name of the bird or beast the column was about, and make it all seem as familiar as our backyards.

Sullivan died over the weekend at the age of 62. In his last Reader piece, which appeared in October 1999, he discussed a list of candidates the Chicago Audubon Society had put together for official city bird. None seemed worthy. “Cedar waxwings? Lovely birds, but has anyone ever found a nest within the city limits?… Belted kingfishers live around our lakes and rivers, but I don’t expect to find a nest at Montrose Harbor–and I am certain I wouldn’t find one at, say, Pulaski and Montrose.”

Needless to say, Sullivan had a bird of his own to nominate–“the American kestrel. Falco sparverius.” Quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sullivan rhapsodized for paragraphs about the kestrel, and sealed the argument with its conclusion. “They live with us year-round. They nest in every neighborhood and hunt the grass along the median strips. They eat mice. They are beautiful. And in keeping with the dark side of our city’s history, they are killers.”

A few years ago the Reader held a summer picnic in Harms Woods. Sullivan was a naturalist for the Forest Preserve District, and the Reader’s executive editor, Michael Lenehan, remembers his arrival: “Jerry showed up more than halfway through it, and instead of coming through the parking lot with a cooler and a baseball glove and the wife and kids in tow, he came out of the woods on the far side of the field all by himself carrying nothing, looking as though he owned the forest preserve in a way we didn’t.” It was, Lenehan went on, as if “he’d been asleep in the woods and had just gotten up and decided to come to the party.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.