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FEATUREBy KJ BannanOut of the storm The terrorist acts of 9/11 took the lives of two American Airlines Credit Union representatives and changed the world they left behind. Their families and their fellow team members carry on their legacies and share their thoughts of that day.When Mary Jane Booth and Renee Lucille Newell boarded their flights early on Sept. 11, 2001, they did so as a labor of love for American Airlines Federal Credit Union.
In their day jobs, Booth, 64, was an assistant for American’s general manager at Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport (IAD). Newell, 37, was a customer service agent working in Providence, Rhode Island. Both volunteered as Credit Union Coordinators, helping connect American Airlines team members with membership and the many products and services the Credit Union made available
That day, they were traveling to Las Vegas for a coordinator training program designed to help do that volunteer work more effectively — gathering the latest brochures and learning new details about the Credit Union’s offerings. It was an annual trip they did to help their fellow employees as well as the Credit Union. Neither woman made it to their destination. Newell was on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston’s Logan International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). She was one of the 92 people who perished when the plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that stunningly clear September day. Booth was one of 64 people who took off from IAD, also on their way to LAX. Their plane was crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
“There were people from all over the country — two dozen or so — in route one way or the other to Las Vegas,” said John M. Tippets, the then-CEO of American Airlines Credit Union. “This was something they did out of the goodness of their hearts to help people get access to the Credit Union, and it was just a shock that they were lost that day.”Mr. Tippets talks about Mary Jane Booth and Renee Newell. The two ladies were traveling to Las Vegas as coordinators for the Credit Union and lost their lives during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.History of volunteerism Both women had a long history of compassion and volunteerism. Booth, who was known as MJ to her friends, family and coworkers and Sis to her younger sister Nancy Kimbell, was just that kind of person. Kimbell, who lives in Dallas, said her sister loved life and was always taking care of someone. “She loved to dance. She loved her work. She loved my kids and called them her kids,” Kimbell said. “She went to see our mother in assisted living every day and would always take the time to ask the other residents what she could do for them.”
This included bringing people food and flowers and offering to do chores or errands for them. “She was always asking to help others,” she said.
Newell’s final example of her selfless nature put her on a plane leaving from Boston rather than one from Providence, closer to her hometown. Her friend Carol Bouchard was terrified of flying and had never flown before so Newell said she would drive to BOS and sit next to her and hold her hand. This was how Newell always operated, explained her brother, Ronnie Tetreault. He and Newell grew up helping out at the family’s restaurant, washing dishes, taking orders and making sure customers felt welcome and were happy. That work ethic carried over to American Airlines, he said.“She did everything she could to help someone in need. When we had the wake [after 9/11], more than 2,000 people showed up, and a lot of those people were her customers. They flew to Rhode Island from all over the country and told me stories about how she was always trying to help them,” Tetreault said. “Whatever she could do to help someone get a better experience at American Airlines, she would do.”
Credit Union family comfort each other Booth and Newell’s deaths and the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, affected everyone in the American Airlines Credit Union family deeply, especially those who knew early on that the two women were on the planes that went down.
Guyla Sellers got the call after 9:40 a.m. As the Business Development liaison for the coordinator program, she was in Las Vegas getting ready for the training that day. Coming out of the shower, she watched footage of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center North Tower.
“I thought it was a movie,” she said. “And then the phone rang, and it was one of my coordinators who was scheduled to fly out, too. When she saw the planes hit ... she knew MJ Booth was on one of the planes that went into the Pentagon. She was really upset.”
Sellers was in shock. The team rounded up the dozen or so coordinators who had flown out Sept. 10, and they gathered to try to process the news. By midnight on Sept. 12, the group rented two cars and started driving home since they knew planes would be grounded for some time.
“Everyone was just in shock. MJ had 42 years with the company and was a character, so we all knew her, and everyone loved her,” said Sellers. “And we were heartbroken about Renee and everyone who lost their lives, as well. The ride home was very quiet.”
Back at Credit Union headquarters, the news traveled quickly, and team members huddled together, comforting each other. Many prayed — alone, in groups and within departments — focusing not only on their fellow team members but for the thousands of others who perished that day. At the same time, they were busy fielding calls from Credit Union members and employees who were calling with questions, expressions of grief and information.
Kent Ash, a Regional Director with the Credit Union, was driving into work that day when he heard about the terrorist attack on his car’s radio. When he got to work, he, like his many coworkers, crowded around a single television set up in a conference room. There was a feeling of disbelief and fear, he said. The first day passed as a blur. The following morning, Ash got a call as part of the Credit Union’s Customer Assistant Relief Effort (CARE) team and traveled with about 100 other employees to aid the families of those on the planes.
“As a member of the CARE team, I was assigned a family to support. In my role, I acted as a liaison between them and the airline. I tried take care of any small need they might have and relieve any burden that I could,” he said. “One day, I’m carrying out my traditional duties — approving loans and helping members — and the next, I’m supporting a family member who just experienced the worst, most tragic day of their life. I just did my best to guide them through this horrific event, but it’s an experience that will live with me forever.”
Shelly Ollar, the current Manager of Vacation Relief and acting Flagship Branch Manager, said she’ll never forget Sept. 11. Then a loan officer in the Phone Loan department, Ollar said an employee rushed into the room telling everyone to come look at footage of the first plane hitting the tower. “I was standing there with my coworkers and boss, and we watched the second plane hit,” she said. “The department that I worked in was always very busy — just constant. The phone was ringing all the time. And after we left the television and went back to our desk, there were no calls. It was like the world stopped.”
That wasn’t the case for the employees working in the general call center, though, said Tippets.
“Many of the people from our phone center acted as first responders in a way, either talking to employees who had been just broken down in tears or Credit Union members who, in some cases, were sharing a pieces of the story that nobody else knew,” he said.
A Chance to Soar The Sept. 11 attacks affected all Americans, but it hit American Airlines and the Credit Union especially hard. Tippets wanted to create a visual legacy at the Credit Union that would act as a lasting memorial for the families of those who were lost. This inspired him to commission a painting by Terry Isaac, a wildlife painter from Salem, Oregon, that would serve as a “message of common prayer.”
“I told him that I wanted a painting depicting an eagle emerging from a storm as a reminder of what we had experienced,” he explained. “I was looking for a symbol of prayer that was broadly understandable and relatable to everyone impacted by this horrible act of terrorism.”
The resulting painting, Out of the Storm, was an image of an eagle soaring out of a squall — a tribute to American Airlines, the Credit Union, as well as team members, like Booth and Newell. It was reproduced and sent to numerous places across the country. Large copies were sent to Credit Union locations directly impacted by the attacks as well as Congressional offices, American Airlines headquarters and the 9/11 memorial site in New York City. Thousands of posters and smaller prints were distributed to every American Airlines Credit Union employee as well as members nationwide.
“It was, and it remains, a united expression of healing for the country, for American Airlines and for the families mourning the loss of their loved ones,” Tippets added.
Recovering after challenging times That same message of recovery is taking on new meaning as the United States and the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of 4.38 million people globally since February 2020.
“Our Credit Union is like a family and caring for people is a big part of what we do. Our takeaway has been to honor those who lost their lives in circumstances beyond their control — and that could be on 9/11 or through our current struggles with COVID-19 — while continuing to support those who mourn but carry on,” he said.
Booth’s sister Kimbell said she takes a similar view, seeing parallels between Sept. 11 and the pandemic and knows her Sis would be right there volunteering and comforting people if she could. “You can find help for yourself by helping others,” she said. “My sister loved to bake and during the pandemic, I started baking and bringing things to neighbors. She would have loved that, too.”
Karen J. Bannan is a writer and blogger who writes about business, technology and lifestyles for a variety of publications, including Time magazine, The New York Times, Women's Day and Yoga Journal.