Family of American Airlines pilot reflects on terrorist attacks
By ALBERT McKEON Telegraph Staff Writer
The sky can’t hide on the open expanse of White Gate Farm.
The 120-acre farmstead stands at the highest elevation not just in Dracut, Mass., but in all of Middlesex County. Little seems to separate sky from soil.
John Ogonowski had that rare opportunity to work both ends – land and air.
He toiled the ground and supported others in the trade, including hosting immigrant Cambodian farmers on his property.
And every few days, the 50-year-old put aside his work shirt and jeans for a pilot’s uniform. He captained transcontinental flights for American Airlines.
In the early dawn of Sept. 11, 2001, Ogonowski left for Logan Airport and honored a family tradition by honking the horn as he passed his Uncle Al’s house. Meanwhile, two of his three daughters got ready for class at Bishop Guertin High School.
It seemed like the beginning of a beautiful late-summer day that would fade into memory as fall set in. Hours later, Ogonowski was killed by terrorists, and his plane, Flight 11, was slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower, the first of four such coordinated attacks that changed the course of history.
Nearly 10 years later, Ogonowski’s family carries on, honoring his commitment to agriculture while making the most of their lives.
They wonder what he would think of how the country and world have changed since 9/11, but also recognize the paradoxical fact that his death played a central role in how the past decade has unfolded.
“It’s always been a lot to contemplate,” said his widow, Peggy Hatch. “His death had a real profound influence. You think of the amount of resources that go into security now, and how you can’t be sure you’re safe.”
Jim Ogonowski, John’s younger brother, remembers watching television four years ago in the United Arab Emirates, where, as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, he coordinated air tanker refueling for all of Southwest Asia and Europe.
It wasn’t lost on Jim that his missions in that part of the world were a result of the terrorist attacks. Still, while relaxing in his room, he saw an image of the World Trade Center as part of a country music video and once again had to cope with his brother’s place in the 9/11 narrative.
“Every time I see the World Trade Center, I think of my brother. That’s my brother,” Jim said recently, walking the farm as he awaited rainfall to temper a humid August day.
“He’s part of history. That was the first plane hijacked that day. He conceivably was the first casualty. Who knows?”
The front end of the storm moved slowly across White Gate Farm until it reached the barn where Jim watched its arrival. It brought heavy rain, and prompted Jim to consider how he would protect his large chrysanthemum patch days later when Tropical Storm Irene arrived.
Jim, 53, tells visitors he’s “John’s little brother” and how he can’t get over that he’s now older than his big sibling. Even though Jim runs White Gate, he still considers it to be his brother’s farm.
Like John, Jim also touched the ends of the Earth, flying for the Air Force and then the Air National Guard while working as a farmer. And it is on the ground – guiding a tractor, bundling hay – where Jim feels closest to John.
“Even to this day, I’ll be watching ‘Chronicle’ and they’ll have some thing on agriculture, and my inclination is to reach for the phone and tell my brother,” Jim said.
Jim doesn’t live at White Gate Farm; his home is three miles away on the northeast side of Dracut. But after John died, Jim stepped in and kept the farm alive.
Hatch still lives in the large house set near the middle of the property. She remarried last year, after meeting Bill Hatch at Nashua Country Club, where she golfs and plays tennis.
On Sept. 11, 2001, two of John and Peggy’s daughters – 16-year-old Laura and 14-year-old Caroline – were in class at Bishop Guertin when Flight 11 crashed. Mary Katherine, 11 years old when her father died, later attended the private school.
The Ogonowski girls are now young adults, living and working in Boston, their mother said.
Laura will turn 26 just days before this Sept. 11. She works as a development coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Caroline, 24, works for the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Mass.
And Mary Katherine, 21, has an internship at the Ritz Carlton in Boston, aiming for a career in hotel management.
The family, Peggy said, has had “to be in a good place” to get through the last 10 years.
“None of the girls used what happened as an excuse for wild behavior,” she said. It was more about “finding their way.”
Peggy and her daughters talk occasionally about John, she said. Sometimes, they wonder “what would Daddy think of all these changes,” she said.
Peggy doesn’t have a green thumb; she only recently grew a few tomatoes. But reminders of John’s labor still define the landscape around her.
John planted 300 blueberry bushes and 150 peach trees. The two large barns he started constructing in 1998 were finished after he died.
And the Cambodians who worked on his farm as part of a Tufts University program still continue to use the land, even though they graduated, to show other students the seeds of their success.
After retiring from the military, Jim ran as the Republican nominee in a 2007 special election for Massachusetts’ 5th Congressional District seat, losing a close race to Democrat Niki Tsongas. The next year, he briefly threw his hat in the ring to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. John Kerry.
Jim didn’t want to talk politics as the 9/11 anniversary neared. Instead, he reminisced about his brother and described the little things he does to remind the family about John.
On what would have been John’s 60th birthday in February, Jim sent an e-mail to relatives about what should have happened that day had history developed differently. John would have been retired by now and working harder then ever on the farm, Jim wrote.
Peggy is glad Osama bin Laden “no longer walks the Earth” and is glad he was “brought to swift justice.”
Jim, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to think of bin Laden’s death.
“I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel bad. It felt unusual,” he said. “We got the head of the snake, but the damage is done.”
Peggy will attend a Sept. 11 memorial service in Boston on the anniversary. Jim hasn’t made plans, but he’s thinking that celebrating Mass at his family’s longtime parish, Holy Trinity Church in Lowell, Mass., might be the proper tribute.
For Jim, the only good thing that directly resulted from 9/11 was meeting his future wife at his brother’s memorial service in 2001. He and Kathy have been married for five years.
“Over the last 10 years, we define time by September 11,” Jim said. “We reference every day as those before September 11, and we reference every day as those after September 11.
“We are, as a family who lost someone, remembering September 11 every day.”
© 2010, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire