Just as for many others, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 felt normal for Virginia Buckingham, operator of Boston’s Logan International Airport. She and her husband got ready for work and dropped their 2-year-old off at day care.
As she was driving to the airport to catch a flight to Washington, D.C, Buckingham heard over the radio that a plane had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center complex in Manhattan. She thought it was an accident. After the second plane struck the south tower 18 minutes later, Buckingham knew otherwise.
When Buckingham received the call later that day that the planes originated from Logan International Airport, she was shocked and horrified. In the weeks that followed, Buckingham was blamed for the attacks, as others alleged that she was responsible for a breach of airport security that allowed the plane’s hijacking.
Six weeks after 9/11, Buckingham resigned from her position and, two years later, was sued in a wrongful death lawsuit, only one of two individuals sued for that claim.
For the past two decades, Buckingham has lived with blame and guilt, but transformed it into a lifelong lesson of the value of resilience.
Buckingham’s experience in the aftermath of 9/11 and the strife and growth that followed inspired her memoir “On My Watch,” published last year, but timely as ever as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.
Buckingham will share her story with Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in a conversation with Rabbi Charles Sherman on Aug. 28 over Zoom as part of the synagogue’s Selichot services.
Sherman believes that Buckingham’s story is an important one for Jews to hear, especially during Selichot, the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah that begins the period of reflecting and repentance leading to the High Holidays.
“Her messages were not just about 9/11,” Sherman said. “She is really dealing with a message that a lot of us deal with: How do you get up the next day, when you find yourself in this dark, dark, dark place?”
Sherman is no stranger to tragedy and life’s unexpected turns. After the death of one of his sons several years ago, Sherman published another memoir, “The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak,” in 2014. He knows firsthand that the message of finding strength in loss is easier said than done.
Buckingham’s journey to acceptance was similarly rocky.
After the wrongful death lawsuit, Buckingham hit a low point. She focused on parenting her children as a way of keeping afloat.
In 2015, her life took another turn. She was accepted into a program called Presidential Leadership Scholars, a leadership development program created by the presidential libraries of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. For her leadership project at the program, she completed her book.
Buckingham compares resilience to sea glass in her memoir: “Something that originates from a bottle, but that’s in a form that it doesn’t resemble at all by the time it gets tossed around in the waves, in the salt, in the sand for 20, 30, 50 years.”
She offers that an individual is not the same as they were before experiencing terrible loss.
“You’re different forever, but that doesn’t mean you don’t offer meaning, can’t provide joy and build a meaningful life,” Buckingham said.
Sherman’s hope is that after hearing Buckingham speak, the audience will leave with a feeling of empowerment when weathering hardships and the unknown.
“Life is not about endings; it’s about beginnings,” he said.
This theme is reflective of Rosh Hashanah, said Sherman, who tries to find balance in the tradition of the holidays, while also honoring the new year.
“On one hand, there’s a sameness to the liturgy and there’s a sameness, really, to the rituals. But I’m not the same person I was last year,” Sherman said.
Though Buckingham isn’t Jewish, she finds meaning in the Jewish people’s story of resilience.
Buckingham’s husband is Jewish, and they made the choice to raise Jewish children. She remembers going to synagogue with her family shortly after 9/11 and hearing Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach: “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” The line resonated with her.
“The Jewish people who have gone through so much pain over the centuries, yet still live lives with such incredible joy,” Buckingham said.
The event will take place virtually at 8:15 p.m., followed by Selichot services virtually or in-person at 9:45 p.m. Visit mbiee.org for more