Radio listeners pause to cheer up an old man

Michael Tuohey,  shown in 2011. AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach.

NPR’s story today about Bob Ebeling’s shame is about as good as it gets in this business, where the happy ending is a rarity. Ebeling was an engineer who tried to warn his bureaucratic superiors that the Challenger space shuttle was going to explode if they insisted on launching. They did, and it did, of course.

For 30 years, Ebeling has felt guilty about it and after NPR ran a story about him, letters poured in to comfort him, one of the little paradoxes of America these days in which a country that seems to have fallen head over heals for the rhetoric of hate still takes a minute to send a nice note to an old man.

“He’s never gotten confirmation that he did do his job and he was a good worker and he told the truth,” his daughter, Kathy, said. She had to read the letters to him because he doesn’t see so well anymore.

You can read the rest at NPR, but the story sounded awfully familiar.

It sounded just like Mike Tuohey’s, which was told by Yankee Magazine in 2009 in an equally poignant way.

He worked the airline counter in Portland, Maine and intended to work there until the day he died.

“They checked two bags, carrying two more,” he said of the men he routinely checked onto a flight.

“Everyone knows the pictures of the guy now,” Tuohey said. “That cold, hard picture. Well that is a warm and cuddly look compared to what I saw. My stomach literally turned over when Atta looked at me. I thought, ‘Why is this man so angry?’ He was looking at me sideways, and all this anger and contempt came through. I thought, ‘If this guy doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, nobody does.’ I’ve checked in hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, and he’s the only one who made me have that reaction. I remember telling myself, ‘Stop being a jerk. These are Arab businessmen.’ Those were the exact words that went through my head.”

They were two of the 9/11 hijackers. And he’s spent the days since wondering if he could have changed history.

“This is the most painful thing. I’ve always trusted my instincts. Always. But you have to know what it was like then. If you respond and are wrong, you get screwed.” He lays out a different scenario for his visitor. A what-if. This time he trusts his gut. He calls security. The men miss their flight. “Suppose they had been just businessmen. They don’t get to L.A. Maybe lose out on a multimillion-dollar business deal. They sue our airline for millions. We also get fined $1.5 million for racial profiling. I’d have put the whole company in jeopardy.”

He’s spent days since then crying. His friends keep telling him it wasn’t his fault.

“I just started crying,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Get over it. Get over it.’” He’d be at the mailbox and he’d see Mohamed Atta driving a car. He’d be at The Maine Mall and Atta would be strolling 100 feet ahead. “My heart would pound. My stomach felt like ice,” Tuohey says. “I ran after him…. I knew it wasn’t him, but at that moment it was. I know it sounds bizarre, so I don’t talk about it. I would say to myself, ‘Look, he’s dead.’ But it still scares you. It really hit me when I tried to find an excuse not to go to my mother’s funeral. Just because of the fact that entered my mind — that’s not me. I’d grown afraid to go out. I was afraid to see Atta.”

You get up in the morning and go off to work, and sometimes you come home with a lifetime of guilt. Sometimes someone can make it go away; sometimes they can’t.

Mr.Ebeling is in hospice now and a reporter asked him what he wanted to say to people who wrote him.

“Thank you,” he said. “You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease. You have to have an end to everything.”

It’s a fair reminder not to be so hard on ourselves, and, maybe, give each other a break every now and again.