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Sequence failed continuity: A 9/11 story

At least 2,977 people died during the attacks on 9/11. Last weekend, I heard the story of someone who didn’t.

There in Mississippi State’s Taylor Auditorium, Steve Scheibner held a few hundred of us captive as he relived the day he was scheduled to co-pilot American Airlines Flight 11 — the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

He began with details from the afternoon of Sept. 10: suitcases packed and uniform ironed, First Officer Scheibner went to his computer and signed up for a flight the next morning. Like always, he waited for a confirmation call, but this time it never came. That’s because senior pilot Tom McGuinness bumped him from the flight just minutes before plans were finalized.

Hours later, both pilots went to bed. The next morning McGuinness showed up for work at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Scheibner went to his other job with the Navy.

Shortly after Flight 11’s take-off, Egyptian Mohamed Atta led hijackers in taking over the plane and crashing it into the North Tower of New York City’s World Trade Center. That was about 8:45 a.m.

As history was being written, Scheibner’s phone started ringing. Family and friends wanted to hear his voice, wanted to know he was OK.

And he was.

It took some time before Scheibner realized “the emotional gravity of what had happened.” And when he logged onto his computer later that evening, he saw the truth of it on the screen. The flight he had signed up to co-pilot was marked “sequence failed continuity.”

“That’s code for a flight that never made it to its destination,” he explained. “In God’s providence, He left me behind. There’s an obligation in that. I need to act like I’m living on borrowed time.”

The father of eight says the events of 9/11 — seeing his own mortality — intensified his life objective. “I want to hear well done, good and faithful servant. That’s what’s driving me these days.”

In addition to his work as a pilot, Scheibner and his wife, Megan, now spend time reminding audiences of the brevity of life and the importance of living lives full of purpose and meaning. Steve will speak at 40 events this year across the country and across the globe. Together, the couple focuses on helping parents train up their children biblically. Specifically, they deal with character.

“We don’t have a race issue in this country. We don’t have an economic issue or a religion problem. We have a character problem. All those other things are symptoms of a deeper issue which is our character problem,” Scheibner says. 

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Scheibner’s oldest son released a 15-minute film about his parents’ experience called “In My Seat.” It was his senior project at Bob Jones University, and to date the piece has had more than 2.5 million hits on YouTube. It’s been viewed in every country.

I was struck by one of the film’s audio streams from 9/11 — a play-by-play radio transmission between an airline attendant from Flight 11 and air traffic controllers.

“It’s still hard for me to hear Betty,” Scheibner says of the dialogue. “She was a friend of mine. She was a courageous lady who tried to gather information and hide at the same time.”

The devout Christian is quick to point out that Tom McGuinness wasn’t the first to die in his place. And while he now has a powerful testimony, Scheibner believes all of us are subject to major life-changing events — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a cancer diagnosis. He calls them “catalytic moments.”

“You have to allow God to do what He’s going to do with those moments. Allow God to humble you through those experiences,” he says. “Embrace them, and gain wisdom and maturity.”   

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.