Our lives are filled with bulletins of distant disasters; the reverberations reach us like microshocks from some far-off epicenter, rattling the dishes but passing us by. So it was that many Americans received the news that just after 7 p.m. on Sept. 8, USAir Flight 427, a Boeing 737 coming in from Chicago, had for reasons still unknown dropped from clear, windless skies into a wooded hillside six miles northwest of Pittsburgh International Airport. Rescuers struggling to the scene found no one alive among the 132 persons on board and were stunned by the near-total devastation. Others, more remote from the crash, may have felt a twinge of anxiety or changed their travel plans for a day or a week, but for them life would soon go on as before. More deeply affected was the affluent town of Upper St. Clair, Pa. (pop. 20,000), outside Pittsburgh, which lost 11 people in the crash, and the friends and families of all those who perished. Among the victims was a couple well-known in Upper St. Clair, Earl Weaver III, 50, and his wife, Kathy 44. They and their three children Brian, 16, Lindsay, 11, and Scott, 7, had been returning on Flight 427 from what should have been tragedy enough for one family, the funeral of Kathy’s 9-year-old nephew Kyle, who had died a few days earlier during a severe asthma attack. For those who knew and loved the Weavers or any of the others who died on that hillside, disaster had a face that was unforgettably human. For them, the loss would be incalculable, tearing holes in the fabric of family and community that time will never truly mend.
FROM THE MOMENT KATHY Bruckelmeyer and Earl Weaver III first met, air travel had a hand in fixing their destiny. It was Christmas week 1970, and Kathy, then 20 and just six months out of flight-attendant school, was working an American Airlines flight from Mexico City to Chicago. Weaver, a single, 27-year-old ceramic engineer returning from vacation, was seated near the plane’s galley. Hearing the crew was shorthanded because a flight attendant was sick, Weaver offered to pitch in and was soon sorting silverware and trays. Kathy, a stunning, blue-eyed blonde with a playful wit, had made a point of never dating passengers. Yet at the end of the flight when Earl, clean-cut and genial with an infectious smile, asked her out for New Year’s Eve, she agreed. “I couldn’t refuse—he looked like Pat Boone,” she used to say. Nine months later they were married.
Weaver’s father, Earl Jr., now 73, chuckles as he tells the story. It is five days since the USAir crash, and he and his wife, Grace, have traveled from their home in Sanford, N.C., to settle the family’s affairs. A two-story, four-bedroom colonial house and two cars—a 1991 Dodge minivan and a 1982 Buick Le Sabre—have to be sold, two wills probated, furniture sold, toys given to charity, memorial services attended and grief shared. “That chance meeting on the airplane had a fine result,” says the elder Weaver, “up until a few days ago.”
Earl Jr. surveys the small, wood-paneled family room of his son’s home. Little Scott’s blue, houselike Lego structure remains unfinished by the fireplace; cartoon videos lie by the VCR; and on a small, corner desk is an array of unfinished paperwork, as if someone has just left the room. Gazing at the busy nook beneath a shelf of commemorative Boy Scout mugs, Earl Jr. says it was “Trip’s” desk, explaining that this was what he called his only son because of the triple ones in the Roman numeral III that followed his name. “We were all Eagle Scouts, starting with me back in the ’30s, then Trip and then Brian,” he says. “Maybe that’s what started the romance with Kathy. Like a good Scout, Trip was just being helpful.”
As relatives, friends and colleagues tell it, Kathy and Earl were a good match. Kathy was creative but scattered in her pursuits until she met Earl; he seemed to focus her energy. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, the second oldest of four, with two sisters and a brother, Kathy was a popular, vivacious teenager who played the clarinet, painted, made her own clothes, modeled, briefly attended a charm school and entered several local beauty contests. (In 1970 she was first runner-up in the Chicago Tribune’s Miss Photo Flash competition.) “Kathy was kind of a spacey kid,” says her brother, Bruce Bruckelmeyer, 46, a land surveyor. “I asked her how she got it so together, and she said it was Earl—he was her foundation. All of a sudden she had direction in her life. She wanted to raise a family. She seemed very content.”
By contrast young Earl always seemed fixed on a goal or a set of values, which his father believes came mostly from Scouting and his Sunday-school teachers. Earl Jr., now a retired sales manager of a metallurgical products maker, recalls the time when his son was about 12 and the star catcher on a youth-league baseball team in their hometown of Mount Lebanon, Pa. “Trip’s team was in the championship series,” says his father, who was also the team’s coach. “But he had to decide whether to play or attend a Boy Scout camp. He was a leader at the camp and the kids needed him. But so did the baseball team.” In the end, Earl III chose to go to camp, his team lost the series, and afterward some parents blamed his absence for the defeat. “They were probably right,” says Earl Jr., “but Trip had his priorities, and Scouting came first.”
By the time the younger Earl was married in 1971, he had graduated from the University of Missouri at Rolla with a degree in ceramic engineering. He had been hired by Harbison-Walker Refractories, a Pittsburgh-based maker of linings for industrial furnaces, where he would work for 29 years until his death. By 1983, when the family moved from Mount Lebanon to their new home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in nearby Upper St. Clair, Kathy had stopped flying and was a part-time ticket agent. “If you had to plug into a computer all the qualities of the family you’d want to move in next door to you,” says Lily Brindle, their neighbor for the past eight years, “out would come the Weavers—the perfect family. I don’t mean they were goody two-shoes. They were just upbeat and positive, always lending a hand.”
Over the years, the Weavers filled their off-hours with volunteer church, Scout and school work. Earl taught Bible studies at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Kathy once ran a 54-act talent show at Lindsay’s middle school, and Brian helped his father on weekends in a church-sponsored project rebuilding homes for the poor in Pittsburgh. Brian also played on the Upper St. Clair High School hockey team, while Lindsay played the viola and had recently been chosen as a cheerleader at her school. As for Scott, his home had become a favorite hangout for a dozen or so kids who lived in the neighborhood.
“The Weavers were so active and organized, but they were never stressed about it—they did it all with a smile,” says Carol Pegnataro, a friend from Kathy’s flight-attendant days. “And they liked to clown, especially Kathy. She’d mimic accents, draw stick figures of passengers, cross her eyes, make angry or nervous passengers laugh, anything to lighten the mood. When my husband turned 40, she drove over to our house early in the morning and tied a bouquet of black balloons on the mailbox. I only know it was Kathy because I happened to look out my window just as she was doing it.”
Kathy had little to be cheerful about on Sunday, Sept. 4, the day her brother Bruce’s son Kyle died of a rare but sometimes deadly type of asthma attack. Still, she tried to buoy the spirits of her relatives who gathered in Chicago for the wake. By Thursday afternoon she was in a tearful mood as her sister Karen Thomas drove the Weavers to the airport for their 4:50 flight to Pittsburgh. They were late in leaving, and as usual they were flying standby without charge because Kathy worked for British Airways as a part-time customer-service agent. (In 1989, she had signed on with USAir, and a year later was hired by British Airways.) “On the trip over we talked about what would happen if they missed that plane or got bumped,” Thomas recalls. “Earl just said they would catch a later plane.”
Brian—like his father, trim and on the shy side—slept on the way to the airport. A subdued Lindsay sat in front writing in her diary and sweet-natured Scotty played in the backseat with his toy truck. “Earl was talking about how the next vacation we got together was going to be a cheerful one and that we should all go camping,” says Thomas. “I told him our idea of camping was staying at a Red Roof Inn.” The group arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at 3:50, in plenty of time to catch their plane. Thomas, the last relative to see the Weavers alive, says, “Scotty had a hard time remembering which aunt was which, but said, ‘Bye, Auntie Karen.’ I said, ‘You remembered.’ And he goes, ‘No, my dad told me.’ Then he gave me a hug.”
At the airport entrance, Lindsay changed her shoes because she didn’t want to walk through the airport in the heels she had worn at the funeral and reception. “Kathy hugged and kissed me and thanked me,” says Thomas. “We said we loved each other. And then, as we always did, we waved until the person was out of sight. She rounded the doors and was just kind of bending over and just waving and waving and waving. That I will never forget: her waving all the way in and facing me the whole time.”
Karen went home and took a nap. By the time she woke up and turned on the TV it was just past 6 p.m. in Illinois, and the first news reports were trickling in about a plane crash. “Originally they said it was a flight leaving Pittsburgh,” she says. “My husband and I looked at each other and went, ‘Oh, thank God.’ ” Then the newscaster corrected the first report; the flight, he said, had been Pittsburgh-bound.
At Bruce Bruckelmeyer’s home, where relatives had just returned from his son’s burial, everyone was screaming and crying while waiting for the official word by telephone from USAir that all five Weavers had been on Flight 427. After an agonizing wait, confirmation finally came, 8 ½ hours after the first news of the crash, on Friday at 2:30 a.m. “On the way to the hospital when Kyle was going, I never prayed so hard in my life,” says Bruckelmeyer. “And when all this came down with Kathy, I wasn’t praying, because my prayers weren’t answered with Kyle. It just wasn’t there. I was so exhausted. I didn’t have any hope. This time I ended up supporting my mom and my sisters. It was a total reversal of what had just happened.”
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Earl Weaver Jr. and Grace were watching television at 10:45 p.m. when the program was interrupted, and they heard the news of the crash. Suspecting their son and his family were on that flight, they called Kathy’s relatives in Chicago. They received official confirmation from USAir about 2 a.m. By noon Friday the shaken couple were headed by plane for Pittsburgh. In the days that followed, at their son’s home in Upper St. Clair, they joined with Kathy’s surviving relatives in receiving flowers, food and condolences from scores of the Weavers’ friends and neighbors. Some 1,200 persons turned out for a memorial service at the local Presbyterian church.
At schools and in homes, clergy and counselors worked through the fears and grief caused by the crash and felt by children and adults alike. “We were traumatized,” says Tom Fox, Scoutmaster of the troop Brian belonged to and in which Earl had served as assistant Scoutmaster. “For five years Earl and I camped together, talked to each other every day. We’re both engineers, both only children. He got me to run. Not every day like him, but I needed to lose those 30 pounds. We were like the brothers we never had. The day after the crash I wrote a 12-page eulogy to the man, then I couldn’t read it out loud, not even to friends.”
For Angie Hughes, 17, Brian Weaver’s death meant she would never again see her best friend. “I keep thinking he’s just on vacation, that he’s coming right back,” she says. “Before he left, he made me a cheesecake as a surprise. It’s still there in the refrigerator.” Jan Falk, Scott’s first-grade teacher at Carl R. Streams Elementary School, says Scotty was “always the first to come in and let me know when someone was hurt on the playground or was crying because they’d dropped their tray in the lunchroom. On the last day of school he gave me a pointer stick with a little plastic apple on one end.” Echoing a sentiment common among those who knew Lindsay best, 10-year-old Catie Morrow tried to find some solace in the death other friend. “It’s sad she died and stuff, but at least they all died together,” says Catie. “I’m glad she’s with her family in heaven.”
Five days after the crash, Grace Weaver, 74, slowly climbs the stairway—lined with family pictures—to the lifeless second floor of her son’s house. In granddaughter Lindsay’s room, papered with posters of Saved by the Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar, she pauses to touch the pleated, neatly pressed, black-and-white cheerleading outfit hanging by the bed. “Kathy made the pom-poms,” she says, slowly shaking her head. Then she steps across the hallway into Brian’s room. She lifts the olive-green sash covered with 45 merit badges, brushes a stack of hockey cards, then sits for a while. “It’s unreal,” she says. “Still hard to believe.”
Grace’s husband enters and stands in the warmth of a sunlit window. “I think my greatest problem in dealing with this is that the line of Weaver stops right now,” he says. “I’m the last, like Uncas, last of the Mohicans. And that’s very difficult for me to handle. I look at catalogs and think, gee, that would be nice to get for Scott or Lindsay. Then I realize that’s not possible—they’re gone, they’re all gone. That’s a little hard. But we’ll live through it. We’ll never get over it, but we’ll live through it.”
Several weeks later, after the elder Weavers had returned to their North Carolina home, they visited Upper St. Clair once more and saw to the details of putting Earl III’s house up for sale. Then they and other relatives attended a brief, private dedication of the younger Weavers’ final resting place—two small, sealed compartments set beneath bronze plaques in a courtyard of the Westminster Presbyterian Church. Identified remains included only teeth and bone fragments.
“It was a quiet, tearful affair,” says the Rev. David Fillpot, Westminster’s pastor, of the ceremony. Only the week before he had found a moment of private solace when he visited the crash site to say a silent prayer. The afternoon was sunny, crisp and cool as four workmen scattered grass seeds and straw over the scarred earth. Except for half a dozen blackened trees on the hillside, the only other signs of Flight 427’s horrific end were several wreaths of flowers placed near the point of impact. “I got an eerie feeling there,” says Fillpot, 61. “There was an absence, a vacuum, but also a pall of tenderness, knowing all the hours of cleanup labor that people had put in there. The workmen were so quiet and respectful, I felt a sense of awe and reverence. The leaves were starting to fall, and I thought of the grass seeds and all the new life that would grow next year.”
Additional reporting by LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago