Robert Sabbag: The Survivor
The flight was intially delayed and, in hindsight, should never have left New York’s LaGuardia Airport. But Air New England flight 248 did leave, heading off toward its final destination of Cape Cod. It was June 17, 1979.
The flight never made it.
The plane was approaching Hyannis when it hit a row of trees traveling at the speed of 123 knots. It lost its wings and crashed, slamming into a thick forest. It traveled three hundred destructive feet, leaving sheared metal, crushed fuel tanks and dead bodies in its wake. My friend, Robert Sabbag, was one of the passengers on the fatal flight and one of its survivors. His back and one arm were broken, his pelvis was snapped, the cartilage in his nose was crushed, a bone in his neck was displaced and his face was bruised and swollen. But he was alive.
Now, 30 years after the crash that altered so many lives, Sabbag has written a riveting memoir–Down Around Midnight–which details in harrowing and emotional detail the effects of that night on all the suvivors. It is a book very much like Sabbag himself–honest, written in a meticulous style devoid of excess emotion, allowing the power of the words to convey the horror of the accident and the strength it took for those who survived to move forward with their lives.
I first met Sabbag in 1985, introduced by a great editor and friend, Harriet Fier. I was working on a start-up magazine for Harriet and Sabbag came by for a visit. He was still basking in the success of his monster bestseller, Snowblind. The start-up didn’t make it, but the friendship did. We stayed in touch from that day on, offering each other encouragement as we navigated the fragile ups and downs of the writing life. When I was given a special issue of a magazine to put together for Whittle Communications–dealing with the cops who were making in-roads in Hollywood–I called Sabbag and asked him to profile famed French Connection detective-turned-producer Sonny Grosso.
Sabbag was one of the first friends I called when I sold my first book and landed a job on my first network television show. He sounded even happier than I was and, once again offered to help in any way. That show, Top Cops, ran on CBS from 1990-1994 and led to a number of pilots and one spin-off—Secret Service on NBC. From the time I landed the job, I talked to Sabbag about coming on board. He joined us as the start of the second season and left when the executive producer handed him the reigns of the NBC show. That producer was Sonny Grosso.
Sabbag was the best reporter on a staff of excellent reporters, generous with the younger, less experienced members of the team, quick to offer encouragement and not afraid to dole out criticism. During the run of the series, Sabbag published his second book , this one on the history of the US Marshal’s service, Too Tough to Die.
When the shows came to an end, Sabbag returned home to Wellfleet, wrote a few magazine articles– one, a New York Times cover story called “The Invisible Family” was turned into “Witness Protection” an HBO movie he co-wrote. He published a third book, Smokescreen, about the marijuana trade and then decided to tackle the one story he had lived with for most of his adult life. In all the years I’ve known Sabbag and over the course of many conversations, he seldom talked about the crash and its aftermath.
I knew his wounds were severe and it had taken him months to recover. But he never spoke about it. Sabbag is a thoughtful and deliberate man, son of a career Naval officer, and there was much he kept private and, as with any good friend, I never pursued the issue. We all have our dark secrets and we deal with them in a manner which offers the most comfort. And I’m glad now Sabbag never told me about those agonizing days and that fateful night.
I’m glad he allowed me to read it for myself in a book I will never forget. The book covers the emotional hot buttons of lives linked by one unforgettable event. None of the survivors need to talk or think about death, they have seen it first-hand, up close and way too personal. None have to be told that life is a rare gift–they have been the beneficiaries of such a reward, allowed to walk away from a fiery wreckage. And the survivors live without an answer to that one question which looms larger than the rest–Why did I survive when others did not?
Sabbag tracks down the firefighters who battled the blaze; hospital workers who cared for the wounded and the dying; the families who waited for news, be it good or bad. Always searching for answers to questions he has held in check for years. It is an excellent piece of work and of the kind of reporting sadly missing in this fast-paced, anything goes internet world.
More than anything else, the book is about healing and coming to peace with the hard blows life often hurls our way.
Robert Sabbag will never forget the night of June 17, 1979.
After reading his book neither will you.