Scheibner tells Parkview students about the day he should have died
When the image of smoke pouring from the World Trade Center’s North Tower appeared on television sets on Sept. 11, 2001, humanity saw the start of an event that would shake the world. Steve Scheibner saw that, and something more.
But for another man’s last-minute decision, Scheibner saw what would have been his grave.
A commercial airline pilot since 1991, Scheibner had been assigned the day before as co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which was to take off from Boston and fly to Los Angeles.
“Eleven years ago, I saw where I should have died, but didn’t,” Scheibner said Tuesday to students at Parkview Baptist School.
Scheibner, 51, who lives in Georgetown, Maine, still flies for American Airlines.
The co-pilot slot for Flight 11 had come open three days earlier, and at 3 p.m. Monday, Sept. 10, Scheibner logged onto the American Airlines computer and signed up as co-pilot of the airplane.
There was only a 30-minute window for any more senior pilot to bump Scheibner out of the co-pilot’s chair.
Scheibner expected to quickly get a telephone call confirming his assignment.
The phone never rang. Tom McGuinness, an American Airlines pilot whom Scheibner had met once before, had called in and taken the assignment.
“In that window, Tom called down there and said, ‘Hey, is that trip still open?’” Scheibner said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got just a couple minutes to make up your mind.’ He said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ So, he talked to his wife, called them back and they erased my name.
“Who knows? They might have had the phone in their hand ready to call me when Tom calls. It was that close. ... It’s a very rare occurrence that you get assigned a flight and you get bumped. I appreciate that. I know the odds of me getting bumped off that flight are more than a gazillion to one.”
His schedule for Sept. 11 now clear, Scheibner instead reported to his naval reserve commander at the Brunswick (Maine) Naval Air Station to see if he had an assignment for him. He was in the commander’s office when the 9/11 terrorist attacks began.
“All of a sudden they’re locking down the base,” Scheibner said. “They’ve got guys with guns showing up. We’re talking about going to war and waiting for contingencies. There’s a lot of planning, so it was a very busy day from a soldiering point of view. I was thinking by the end of this week I might be on active duty again.”
In addition to his work as a pilot, Scheibner also was the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in nearby Topsham, Maine. Soon, his cellphone began ringing with people who were afraid that he had piloted Flight 11. The first call came from a secretary at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, Pa.
“As soon as she heard my voice, all I heard was tears, and I started crying,” he said. “So, I talked to her for a couple of minutes, calmed her down, said I’m fine. She just kept crying. Two minutes later, somebody else called, another lady, same thing. I started making phone calls. I said to my wife, ‘Honey, it’s OK. It wasn’t me. Tell everybody you can find that I wasn’t on that flight, but I’m playing soldier today, and I’ve got to concentrate on what I’m doing.’ She took over.”
It wasn’t until later in the day that Scheibner wondered if the first airplane that struck the WTC was the one he’d been assigned to fly. Returning to the American Airlines computer, he saw that the flight information for that flight was exactly what he’d seen the day before, except that his name as co-pilot was replaced by “sequence failed continuity” — American Airlines code for a flight that failed to reach its destination.
Then, he realized how close he came to be in the smoking hole of the World Trade Center.
That, Scheibner said, galvanized his conviction to make every moment count. He continued as pastor at Cornerstone Baptist until recently, and has started Character health (http://www.character health.com), a speaking ministry aimed at helping parents instill strong character in their children. In preparation to hear him speak, Parkview students read “In My Seat,” a book written by Scheibner’s wife, Megan Ann, about Scheibner’s experience.
“A ‘borrowed-time believer’ lives every day with a sense of urgency,” Scheibner told Parkview students Tuesday. “They live with purpose and passion. They know that every breath in their lungs every day on this earth is a precious gift from God. ... Understand what it means to live on borrowed time.”
Although 9/11 is still commemorated on the anniversary, Scheibner said the sense of urgency and unity are not nearly what they were in the days following the attacks. He recalls a speech by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said the great lesson of the 20th century was to never appease an aggressor.
“Because, when it comes to evil, you can’t understand it. You can’t reason with it. You can’t negotiate with it. You have to exterminate it,” Scheibner said. “That’s the only thing that’s been productive over these last 11 years, the extermination of guys that, in their heart, it’s just black.
“So, 11 years later, the resolve is beginning to diminish. There is a whole generation coming behind us that says, ‘What’s the big deal about 9/11’ because they didn’t live through it personally.”