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Former Maine pilot recalls flight not taken on Sept. 11, 2001

Posted Jan. 19, 2013, at 6:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 20, 2013, at 2:56 p.m.
Stephen Scheibner
Stephen Scheibner

BANGOR, Maine — Stephen Scheibner was at Brunswick Naval Air Station the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, working on a project for his job as a U.S. Navy reservist. It wasn’t until he returned home to Georgetown that he realized his life had been spared from the terrorist attacks that day.

His story is told by his wife, Megan Ann Scheibner, in the book, “In My Seat: A Pilot’s Story from September 10th-11th.” He talked about his experience during Sunday services at Bangor Baptist Church on outer Broadway.

Scheibner was then, and still is, a pilot for American Airlines. About 17 hours before the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, Scheibner, now 52, signed up to co-pilot Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. He had expected to get a phone call confirming that he would be flying, but there was a 30-minute window during which a more senior pilot could bump him. Scheibner never got the call he had anticipated.

Instead, Tom McGinniss, a man Scheibner had met once, sat in the “number two seat” that day, was hijacked and died.

“When I got home that night I wanted to see who had been on those flights,” Scheibner, who now lives in Cary, N.C., said Saturday. “When I logged onto the airline’s website about 7 p.m., the same screen I’d had up the day before appeared. Where I had typed in my name [to be the co-pilot] were three words — ‘sequence failed continuity.’ That means the flight did not make it to its destination.”

Scheibner said Saturday that more than 11 years after that day, his reaction to having been spared still is hard to put into words.

“At first, you just have a sickening feeling,” he said. “Then, that kind of resolves into a sad feeling because you can’t be happy about that, because you realize that because you’ve been spared somebody else is going through a terrible tragedy. It’s still a mixed bag.”

In the decade after Sept. 11, 2001, Scheibner spoke about his experience at the Cornerstone Baptist Church he pastored in Topsham and other places, but his story was not well known outside Maine. Then, on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, his son Peter Scheibner, then a senior at Bob Jones University majoring in film production, decided to make a short movie about his father’s experience.

“It was a 15-minute film called ‘In My Seat,’” the filmmaker’s father said. “It’s not so much about 9/11, but about what it means to have someone else die in your place. He put it up on YouTube in August 2011. It’s had 2.1 million views since then.”

The success of the film led to the book, Scheibner said.

Over the past two years, Scheibner’s life has moved in a new direction. He gave up pastoring the church he helped found in Topsham and moved from Maine to North Carolina. He still flies for American Airlines but his focus now is on the character of the next generation of Americans.

“My wife and I started parentinghealth.com and a program for parents called Parenting Matters,” he said Saturday. “Ethically, the question that young people should be asking is, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ Instead, children are asking, ‘Can I or can’t I?,’ which, of course, is about whether they will get caught, not about whether what they are doing is right or wrong. What we’re really doing is working to build a better America one family at a time.”

Scheibner said that he still feels like he’s “living on borrowed time.”

“I’ve got to get the most out of every day and that doesn’t mean getting the most out of every day for me,” he said, “but getting the most out of every day for the Kingdom of God. I try to live my life with a sense of urgency and passion to make sure this second chance I’ve been given is not squandered.”

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