Over the weekend, the Seattle Times ran a story on the front page: “Ex-Microsoft executive killed in crash leaves a legacy of giving.”
The story reports that Bill Henningsgaard’s plane crashed into two houses, killing three children, including Henningsgaard’s 17-year-old son, and two unnamed children of an unnamed “working-class” East Haven mother. It is a tragedy that four people, three of them children, were killed in a plane crash. I am sorry for all those surviving loved ones who are missing their people right now. Especially for Joanne Mitchell, whose two children are dead. The coverage of their story has been deeply disappointing. Maybe that’s because they’re just proles from a “working-class neighborhood.”
The pilot Henningsgaard, on the other hand, has received special treatment, as a rich man whose name is easy to Google. He’s been the subject of a string of dewy-eyed profiles, extolling his virtues as a philanthropist and fundraiser. There has not yet been any investigation into the cause of the crash. It’s a little early to beatify the pilot – he may well be complicit in the tragedy, by either negligence or intention. Regardless of what will be revealed by further investigation, Henningsgaard was at the very least responsible for taking his son into the air, after he’d already crashed one plane with his elderly mother aboard (http://www.svpseattle.org/blog/a-harrowing-plane-crash-inspires-a-powerful-ask). He and his mother were rescued by first responders and a local bar pilot.
If a driver who was ‘regular folks’ had crashed once, and a few years later crashed again, killing three children, the news story would have at least mentioned that an investigation would be done to determine the cause, and would have at least questioned whether the cause could have been negligence. But Mr. Henningsgaard gets a full treatment of his philanthropy, with no whisper of doubt about how he crashed. Guess that’s just one of the privileges money can buy.
The reporters could have spent a little less time finding glowing quotes about the pilot, and made a few calls to East Haven instead. Mr. Henningsgaard crashed into a house. They know where the house is located – they could have called neighbors, looked for witnesses, done some actual reporting. They may have then uncovered the remarkable story of the neighbors who ran into the burning home in search of the children, of the mother who heroically ran in to save her kids and had to be dragged out of the flames. Of a working-class community coming together to mourn at a candlelight vigil for the people killed in the crash. They may have found out the names of the dead children – Sade Brantley, 13, and Madisyn Mitchell, 1 year old – and their mother, Joanne Mitchell. These people, and their neighbors, are the heroes of the story.
And how are they treated? They go unnamed and unmentioned in most of the news accounts I’ve seen. In this CBS report, Ms. Mitchell is referred to as “out of control” for running into a burning building to save her children. She is afforded no praise, no profile detailing her accomplishments and contributions to her community. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57597979/bill-henningsgaard-pilot-in-deadly-connecticut-plane-crash-survived-earlier-wreck/) Nor do the other neighbors get any attention. Who are they? They rushed into danger to help out in a terrible emergency. We don’t know what they did for a living, what interests they had, what their friends have to say about them. Mr. Henningsgaard, on the other hand, has lots of friends who write blogs, and their words of sorrow and praise are extensively quoted in the media.
Mr. Henningsgaard lived a decent life. Likely so did the people harmed by his flying. It’s appalling that the everyday heroism of the responders who rescued him from his first plane crash, and of the neighbors who risked their lives to help out after his second plane crash have gone unrecognized and under-reported while Mr. Henningsgaard is praised to the rooftops for volunteering. Let’s report his accomplishments. Let’s also report on the accomplishments of the working people in this story.
I’m sure Mr. Henningsgaard was a great guy. He raised a lot of money for good causes during his lifetime. While laudable, this is the bare minimum contribution to society that we should expect from someone with his wealth and privilege. The fact is that three children would not be dead if Mr. Henningsgaard had taken a more plebeian form of transportation when he took his son to visit colleges.
An alternate headline for the story could have been: “Rich man kills three children, self, while pursuing expensive hobby.”