Last Monday afternoon, a small plane crashed less than a half-mile from my house in the Nashville suburb of Bellevue.
That’s my traditional news lede.
But I wasn’t a reporter on duty that day. I wasn’t waiting to rush out, with my notebook in one hand, a camera in the other.
I was sitting at home, in my office, working on a project, with my seven-year-old son in the next room. As I typed, I heard a funny noise, like an airplane flying very low overhead. Then…a beat…and a heavy THUD. The kind you feel in your sternum.
I thought to myself, “Oh my God, that sounded like a plane crashing.” Except that I’d never actually heard a plane crash in real life, and I assumed that that couldn’t possibly be what I’d heard. Maybe it was a car accident. A transformer blowing. Something. Not a plane crash, though.
A few minutes later, our neighborhood email list began filling up with messages. “Did anyone hear that?” one person asked. “A small plane has crashed by the YMCA,” one reported.
Indeed, a small plane crashed into what the Tennessean reporter Adam Tamburin called “a tiny sliver of grass amid a sea of subdivisions, grocery stores and restaurants.” That phrase “tiny sliver of grass” is not an exaggeration. There is a wedge of grass in between a parking lot and the western end of the Bellevue YMCA building, right next to the part of the building that houses the indoor pool where both of my children have taken swimming lessons. It’s not even big enough for a softball game.
But by some miracle, the plane’s pilot Glenn Mull, 62, managed to somehow land…well…his twin engine Gulfstream on that grass, avoiding the building that was just a few feet away. He managed to avoid the Kroger and the assisted living facility that are the Y’s neighbors. And he managed to avoid the houses in the neighborhood behind the Y.
Mr. Mull died in that crash. His beloved wife Elaine and his daughter Amy Harter and his 16-year-old granddaughter Samantha died, too. The family was traveling from Kansas to Nashville to attend the National Cattlemen’s Beef Associate Trade Show at the Opryland Hotel. According to reports, Mr. Mull was unable to land the plane at John C. Tune airport on the first attempt, so he was circling back around to try again.
But on that second pass, something went wrong, terribly wrong, and we don’t know what. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and a preliminary report could be released by the end of this week.
We don’t know how much the Mulls and Harters knew about what was happening in those final minutes. We don’t know if they knew they were going to die. It makes my heart ache to think of them being scared, so scared, and yet unable to do anything to change their fate.
But everyone who saw the plane go down has spoken about how the plane seemed to wrench to one side right before it crashed, sending it hurtling into the ground…and not into a building full of people. I’m not the only one who saw the miracle in that act–because surely it was a deliberate act on the part of Mr. Mull, his final act, which spared others.
This is how blogger Lindsay Ferrier described the scene:
“I want you all to know exactly what what that busy area must have looked like to Glenn Mull as he circled our neighborhood in the minutes before the crash. He had reached the most bustling section of our community at the busiest time of day. He would have seen hundreds of homes with cars in the driveway. A Kroger packed with shoppers. An assisted living community. And an enormous YMCA, where hundreds of families were streaming in and out to swim in the indoor pool, exercise, and take classes.”
And yet…he somehow saw that tiny sliver of grass.
The people who saw the wall of flames rise up from the ground from their spots by the indoor pool are alive to be grateful to him. The people in the Starbucks and the Kroger and the assisted living facility nearby…they’re alive to be grateful to him, too. My neighbors are grateful to him. I am grateful to him.
But oh, how I wish it had been a full-fledged near miss. When I went back to the YMCA on Saturday after it reopened, all I could see was that swath of burned land right next to an intact building. Right next to it. Quite literally, just a few feet away. It took my breath away all over again.
It is a weird thing to mourn people you’ve never met. You read about them, you nod along with the reports about how much they loved their family and friends, and you see pictures of them that make you smile. You identify with them. They were people who might have been your friends. They were people who were a lot like you. And yet you never really knew them. But you feel like you know them somehow anyway. You miss what could have been.
We are grateful here in Bellevue, but we are mourning, too. We are glad to be alive and sad, all at the same time. We feel like we owe a debt to Mr. Mull for giving us the chance to be grateful. He and his family will not be forgotten. We won’t forget.
That tiny sliver of grass will always remind us.