Page 27 of Airport

AT WASHINGTON CENTER, the transmission was heard on a console speaker which Keith had switched in when his emergency transmissions began. At first there was a burst of static, then immediately a succession of piercing, frantic, chilling screams. Elsewhere in the control room, heads turned. Faces nearby paled. George Wallace was sobbing hysterically. Senior supervisors came hurrying from other sections.

Suddenly, above the screaming clearly, a single voice–terrified, forlorn, beseeching. At first, not every word was audible. Only later, when the tape recording of the last transmission was played and replayed many times, were the full words put together, the voice identified as that of Valerie Redfern, nine years old.

“…Mummy! Daddy!… Do something! I don’t want to die… Oh, Gentle Jesus, I’ve been good… Please, I don’t want…”

Mercifully, the transmission stopped.

The Beech Bonanza crashed and burned near the village of Lisbon, Maryland. What remained from the four bodies was unrecognizable and was buried in a common grave.

Lieutenant Neel landed safely by parachute, five miles away.

ALL THREE controllers involved in the tragedy–George Wallace, Keith Bakersfeld, Perry Yount–were at once suspended from duty, pending investigation.

Later, the trainee, George Wallace, was held technically not to blame, since he was not a qualified controller when the accident occurred. He was, however, dismissed from government service and barred forever for further employment in air traffic control.

The young Negro supervisor, Perry Yount, was held wholly responsible. The investigating board–taking days and weeks to play back tapes, examine evidence, and review decisions which Yount himself had had to make in seconds, under pressure–decided he should have spent less time on the emergency involving the Northwest Orient 727 and more in supervising George Wallace during the absence of Keith Bakersfeld. The fact that Perry Yount was doing double duty–which, had he been less cooperative, he could have refused–was ruled not relevant. Yount was officially reprimanded, and reduced in civil service grade.

Keith Bakersfeld was totally exonerated. The investigating board was at pains to point out that Keith had requested to be temporarily relieved from duty, that his request was reasonable, and he followed regulations in signing out and in. Furthermore, immediately on return, he perceived the possibility of a mid-air collision and tried to prevent it. For his quick thinking and action–though the attempt was unsuccessful–-he was commended by the board.

The question of the length of Keith’s absence from the control room did not arise initially. Near the end of the investigation–perceiving the way things were going for Perry Yount–Keith attempted to raise it himself, and to accept the major share of blame. His attempt was treated kindly, but it was clear that the investigating board regarded it as a chivalrous gesture–and no more. Keith’s testimony, once its direction became clear, was cut off summarily. His attempted intervention was not referred to in the board’s final report.

An independent Air National Guard inquiry produced evidence that Lieutenant Henry Neel had been guilty of contributory negligence in failing to remain in the vicinity of Middletown Air Base, and for allowing his T-33 to drift near Airway V44. However, since his actual position could not be proved conclusively, no charges were preferred. The lieutenant went on selling automobiles, and flying during weekends.

On learning of the investigating board’s decision, the supervisor, Perry Yount, suffered a nervous collapse. He was hospitalized and placed under psychiatric care. He appeared to be moving toward recovery when he received by mail, from an anonymous source, a printed bulletin of a California rightwing group opposing–among other things–Negro civil rights. The bulletin contained a viciously biased account of the Redfern tragedy. It portrayed Perry Yount as an incompetent, bumbling dullard, indifferent to his responsibilities, and uncaring about the Redfern family’s death. The entire incident, the bulletin argued, should be a warning to “bleeding heart liberals” who aided Negroes in attaining responsible positions for which they were not mentally equipped. A “housecleaning” was urged of other Negroes employed in air traffic control, “before the same thing happens again.”

At any other time, a man of Perry Yount’s intelligence would have dismissed the bulletin as a maniacal diatribe, which it was. But because of his condition, he suffered a relapse after reading it, and might have remained under treatment indefinitely if a government review board had not refused to pay hospital bills for his care, maintaining that his mental illness had not been caused through government employment. Yount was discharged from the hospital but did not return to air traffic control. When Keith Bakersfeld last heard of him, he was working in a Baltimore waterfront bar, and drinking heavily.

George Wallace disappeared from sight. There were rumors that the former trainee controller had re-enlisted–in the U.S. Army Infantry, not the Air Force–and was now in serious trouble with the Military Police. According to stories, Wallace repeatedly started fist fights and brawls in which he appeared to go out of his way to bring physical punishment on himself. The rumors were not confirmed.

For Keith Bakersfeld, it seemed for a while as if life would go on as usual. When the investigation ended, his temporary suspension was lifted; his qualifications and government service rating remained intact. He returned to work at Leesburg. Colleagues, aware that Keith’s experience could easily have been their own, were friendly and sympathetic. His work, at first, went well enough.

After his abortive attempt to raise the subject before the investigating board, Keith confided to no one–not even to Natalie–the fact of his washroom loitering that fateful day. Yet the secret knowledge was seldom far from the forefront of his mind.

At home, Natalie was understanding and, as always, loving. She sensed that Keith had undergone a traumatic shock from which he would need time to recover, and she attempted to meet his moods–to talk or be animated when he felt like it, to stay silent when he did not. In quiet, private sessions Natalie explained to the boys, Brian and Theo, why they, too, should show consideration for their father.

In an abstracted way, Keith understood and appreciated what Natalie was trying to do. Her method might eventually have succeeded, except for one thing–an air traffic controller needed sleep. Keith was getting little sleep and, some nights, none.

On the occasions he did sleep, he had a persistent dream in which the scene in the Washington Center control room, moments before the mid-air collision, was re-created… the merging pinpoints of light on the radarscope… Keith’s last desperate message… the screams; the voice of little Valerie Redfern…

Sometimes the dream had variations. When Keith tried to move toward the radarscope to seize George Wallace’s radio headset and transmit a warning, Keith’s limbs resisted, and would change position only with frustrating slowness, as if the air surrounding them were heavy sludge. His mind warned frantically: If he could only move freely, the tragedy could be averted…. Although his body strained and fought, he always reached his goal too late. At other times he attained the headset, but his voice would fail. He knew that if he could articulate words, a warning would suffice, the situation could be saved. His mind would race, his lungs and larynx strain, but no sound came.

But even with variations, the dream always ended the same way–with the Beech Bonanza’s last radio transmission as he heard it so many times during the inquiry, on the played-back tape. And afterward, with Natalie asleep beside him, he would lie awake, thinking, remembering, longing for the impossible–to change the shape of things past. Later still, he would resist sleep, fighting for wakefulness, so he would not endure the torture of the dream again.

It was then that in the loneliness of night, his conscience would remind him of the stolen, wasted minutes in the route center washroom; crucial minutes when he could have returned to duty, and should have done, but through idleness and self-concern had failed to do so. Keith knew–as others did not–that the real responsibility for the Redfern tragedy was his own, not Perry Yount’s. Perry had been a circumstantial sacrifice, a technical victim. Perry had been Keith’s friend, had trusted Keith that day to be conscientious, to come back to the control room as quickly as he could. Yet Keith, though knowing his friend was standing double duty, aware of the extra pressures on him, had been twice as long as he needed to be, and had let Perry down; so in the end, Perry Yount stood accused and convicted in Keith’s place.

Perry for Keith–a sacrificial goat.

But Perry, though grievously wronged, was still alive. The Redfern family was dead. Dead because Keith doodled mentally, dallying in the sunshine, leaving a semi-experienced trainee too long with responsibilities which were rightly Keith’s, and for which Keith was better qualified. There could be no question that had he returned sooner, he would have spotted the intruding T33 long before it neared the Redferns’ plane. The proof was that he had spotted it when he did return–too late to be of use.

Around and around… over and over in the night… as if committed to a treadmill… Keith’s mind labored on, self-torturing, sick with grief, recrimination. Eventually he would sleep from exhaustion, usually to dream, and to awake again.

In daytime, as well as night, the memory of the Redferns persisted. Irving Redfern, his wife, their children–though Keith had never known them–haunted him. The presence of Keith’s own children, Brian and Theo–alive and well–appeared a personal reproach. Keith’s own living, breathing, seemed to him an accusation.

The effect of sleepless nights, the mental turmoil, showed quickly in his work. His reactions were slow, decisions hesitant. A couple of times, under pressure, Keith “lost the picture” and had to be helped. Afterward he realized he had been under close surveillance. His superiors knew from experience what might happen, had half-expected some such signs of strain.

Informal, friendly talks followed, in upper-level offices, which achieved nothing. Later, on a suggestion from Washington, and with Keith’s consent, he was transferred from the East Coast to the Midwest–to Lincoln International for control tower duty. A change of locale, it was believed, would prove therapeutic. Officialdom, with a touch of humanity, was also aware that Keith’s older brother, Mel, was general manager at Lincoln; perhaps Mel Bakersfeld’s influence would be steadying too. Natalie, though loving Maryland, made the transition without complaint.

The idea hadn’t worked.

Keith’s sense of guilt persisted; so did the nightmares, which grew, and took on other patterns, though always the basic one remained. He slept only with the aid of barbiturates prescribed by a physician friend of Mel’s.

Mel understood part of his brother’s problem, but not all; Keith still kept the secret knowledge of his washroom dawdling at Leesburg solely to himself. Later, watching Keith’s deterioration, Mel urged him to seek psychiatric help, but Keith refused. His reasoning was simple. Why should he seek some panacea, some ritualistic mumbo-jumbo to insulate his guilt, when the guilt was real, when nothing in heaven or earth or clinical psychiatry could ever change it?