Why So Much Heartache at This Time of Year?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 8) – The tragedy involving the Lokomotiv hockey team in Russia yesterday got me thinking how wonderful it would be if someone… somewhere… somehow… could lop off mid-August to mid-September on the Georgian (or World) calendar.

Though I’m certain many happy occasions have taken place during this time (birth of children; engagements; weddings, etc.), it has been an otherwise dreadful juncture in recent world history. This came to light when I saw the heartrending images of the destroyed Yak-42 jetliner in the Volga River; the number of familiar hockey names and faces that lost their lives (several of whom I knew or had interviewed), and the bereaved families left behind.

Without even doing a computer check, I was able to rhyme off many of the notable tragedies that have chosen this time of year to alter the lives of countless people.

Topping the list – clearly and obviously – is Sep. 11, 2001: date of the worst international terrorist attack on North American soil… its 10th anniversary creeping forward like a deadly storm.

I also remember Korean Airlines Flight 007 — the Boeing-747 civilian jetliner blasted out of the sky by Russian interceptors on Sep. 1, 1983, costing 269 innocent lives. The New York to Seoul transport had stopped for re-fuelling in Anchorage and had accidentally strayed into restricted Soviet air-space when it was shot down on orders from the Kremlin. Almost 15 years to-the-day later – on Sep. 2, 1998 – fire erupted in the cockpit of Swissair Flight 111, incapacitating the captain and first officer, who were powerless to stop the McDonnell-Douglas-11 jetliner from plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean near Halifax, killing 229 surely-terrified souls.

COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE (ABOVE) DETAILING HOW THE SOVIETS SHOT DOWN KOREAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 007 IN SEPTEMBER 1983.

I was a 13-year-old Grade 8 student at Dufferin Heights Junior-High School in North York on Sep. 5, 1972 when word arrived that 11 Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich had been taken hostage by members of the Black September Organization – a Palestinian terrorist body. The day-long ordeal, played out on live television across the world (ABC in the United States; the late Howard Cosell prominent in the coverage), ended in a gun-fight and hand-grenade explosion at a military base outside Munich, taking the lives of all 11 athletes and a West German policeman. For as long as I have my faculties, I’ll remember sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed when ABC sports anchor Jim McKay so simply and eloquently said about the Israelis, “they’re all gone” after reporting the tragic conclusion. Just the night before, I had watched on TV, with friends and relatives, Game 2 of the now-legendary Canada-Russia summit hockey series, as Team Canada avenged a Game 1 whipping with a 4-1 victory at Maple Leaf Gardens, temporarily soothing the anxiety of fans in this country.

THOSE THAT REMEMBER THE HORROR OF SEP. 5, 1972 WILL RECALL THE IMAGE OF THE HOODED BLACK SEPTEMBER TERRORIST (ABOVE) ON THE BALCONY OF THE ISRAELI TEAM HEADQUARTERS IN MUNICH.

Who could ever forget the images coming from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed the city on Aug. 28, 2005? Winds gusting to an incredible 175 miles-per-hour led to a malfunction of the levees and flood-walls protecting New Orleans, causing billions of gallons of water from Lake Ponchartrain to spill into the downtown area and suburbs. More than 10,000 homes were flooded; the storm resulted in 1,836 confirmed deaths, and caused an estimated $1.8-billion in damage.

The deadliest hurricane in U.S. history – and third-most deadly among all Atlantic hurricanes – took more than 8,000 lives in Galveston TX on Sep. 8, 1900. The Category-4 behemoth whipped up winds of 150 miles-per-hour in the era long before sophisticated weather detection.

The poorly-governed Russian air-transport system incurred a disaster at this time of year prior to the one that wiped out the Lokomotiv hockey team. On Sep. 14, 2008, Aeroflot Flight 821 – a Boeing-737 en route from Moscow to Perm – crashed on its landing approach, claiming the lives of all 88 passengers and crew. The tragedy was determined to be the result of pilot error; autopsy results revealed unsafe levels of alcohol in the tissue-remains of the captain.

Just more than a year ago – on Sep. 3, 2010 – United Parcel Service Flight 6, a Boeing-747, crashed shortly after taking off from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (it was bound for Cologne, Germany). Twenty-two minutes into the flight, the crew reported fire in the cockpit and attempted a return to Dubai. The jumbo-jet overshot the runway and crashed into a field southwest of the airport. Both U.S.-born crewmen — Captain Doug Lampe, 48, and First Officer Matthew Bell, 38, lost their lives.

It was also during this week – Sep. 5, 2005 – that a Boeing-737 operated by Mandala Airlines of Indonesia went down in a heavily-populated area shortly after take-off from Polonia International Airport in the city of Medan. It crashed into a large sub-division, destroying numerous homes and cars. Only 16 of the 120 passengers and crew survived and 49 others were killed on the ground.

All of this has been magnified in our small corner of the hockey world by the death of popular NHL enforcer Wade Belak on Aug. 31 of this year. Just after 1:30 p.m., Belak’s body was found in a condominium at One King Street here in Toronto. Though his death was widely reported to be a suicide, the official cause has not been released by Wade’s family or Metro police. It was revealed (by Belak’s grieving mother) that the outwardly-jovial ex-NHLer suffered bouts of depression – a contributing factor in the recent deaths of hockey enforcers Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, along with former Baltimore Orioles pitching great Mike Flanagan.

MIKE FLANAGAN (ABOVE) PITCHED FOR THE BLUE JAYS IN THE LATE-1980s AFTER A STELLAR CAREER IN BALTIMORE. HE APPARENTLY SHOT HIMSELF IN THE FACE TWO WEEKS AGO.

The disaster in Russia yesterday brought to light a paradox: it focused attention, once again, on the horrible airline-fatalities record in that country while allowing us to marvel at the comparative safety of the North American transport system. When you consider the number of take-offs and landings each year involving professional, college, and minor-league sports teams in Canada and the United States, it is both remarkable – and highly-commendable – that no club-tragedy has occurred since Nov. 14, 1970, when 36 players on the Marshall University (Huntington WV) football team died in the crash of a McDonnell-Douglas DC-9. Marshall University is probably best-known for being the alma-mater of former NFL star receiver Randy Moss.

We should be immensely thankful that no professional sports team in North America has been lost to an airline incident. All leagues have a disaster contingency in the event an entire roster is decimated. The NHL’s plan activates if five or more players on a given team are “killed or disabled”. A special insurance fund is on hold (permanently, we hope) for a victimized team to select players from rival NHL organizations. The initial draft would yield that club one goalie and 14 skaters.

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