Points in Pittsburgh
Roberto Clemente’s Statue, Bridge and Life and the Flight 93 War Memorial
This Pittsburgh essay is personal and revolves around the crashing of airplanes. My life changed 25 years ago this summer when I missed a rendezvous in New York City for a trip to Europe. When I arrived at my destination in Rome, I emerged in a kind of nightmare, which I later recounted in an article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal. I was erroneously told that some of my family had just died in a jet that fell into the sea.
The error and disaster affirmed my conviction to doubt the government and, instead, to detect facts for myself. The crash also affirmed the power of proper journalism. I created a series of articles asking questions about the cause of the crash. I sought to reconcile serious discrepancies in the government’s $40 million investigation. My articles about the investigation informed the reader about contradictory government claims. The essay in the Wall Street Journal among others in various newspapers led to a wave of new claims and disclosures. These, in turn, showed further discrepancies.
Meanwhile, I was haunted by the 230 passengers and crew of TWA flight 800 who lost their lives, some of whom I recalled as we waited in New York City’s TWA terminal. The mystery of what caused the 747 to crash on July 17, 1996 remains unsolved.
The TWA 800 explosion is partly the impetus for writing about the death of one of my first heroes—the Pittsburgh Pirates’ legendary number 21, Roberto Clemente. I suppose TWA 800’s lessons motivate me to want to learn why one of baseball’s greatest players boarded an aircraft which he almost certainly knew was at risk of crashing on that 1972 New Year’s Eve. The jet he’d chartered for charity was damaged in a previous crash. The flight was poorly piloted and seriously compromised. Clemente had been forewarned not to board. The overloaded jet nosedived off the coast of Puerto Rico, killing everyone on board including Clemente. The athlete had fielded baseball with the speed, precision and power of a marksman. He hit the ball with startling consistency, playing with clarity, grace and beauty. Clemente was 38. He left a wife and three sons. When news of his death broke, Americans were stricken with grief.
This includes my family. We were traveling. The news came over the radio as we headed home to Chicago after our first family trip on a passenger jet. My brother had met Roberto Clemente on a baseball diamond. He’d had his picture taken with Clemente, who had courteously signed the photograph. In retrospect, Clemente’s crash foreshadowed darker days ahead. Plane crashes would become a motif in my life—a DC-10 crash near Chicago, TWA 800, United 93—and a grim legacy.
Fall from flight, whether Pan Am 103 or United 93, symbolizes America’s 20th century decline. The descent certainly includes the death of Pittsburgh’s beloved Roberto Clemente, which moves me to write about Clemente for this fall’s 15th anniversary edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly. My purpose is to examine his life and death within the context of The Great One choosing to board the plane in spite of reason. Clemente’s death remains a cause for sorrow. Writing the article let me research, question and doubt what has until now been universally regarded and praised as an act of altruism.
Points in Pttsburgh for getting to know and appreciate Clemente are few but powerful. There’s the Sixth Street bridge—renamed Roberto Clemente Bridge—Susan Wagner’s admiring statue as you cross the bridge by the ballpark and the Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville. I’ve visited these points several times in preparation for writing the article. They’re meager tributes for a man who was larger than life. But they recall the one who was beautiful, great and able. Read my article in the current edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly, in the mail to subscribers and on sale on city newsstands now.
Pittsburgh is tethered to another historic plane crash. This is the deliberately downed United Air Lines Flight 93—the September 11, 2001 flight upon which crew members who were not slaughtered by Islamic terrorists banded with passengers, such as Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham and Todd Beamer, who could be heard saying “Let’s roll.” This summer, I visited the nation’s flight 93 war memorial 80 miles from Pittsburgh. I report on this place to remember America’s only defenders on that Black Tuesday—civilian, not U.S. military—in an article for Pittsburgh Quarterly. Read my exclusive article here.