On a crisp September morning in Amherst, New Hampshire, Elsa Gronlund Griffin awoke with the sun, determined to get her two boys off to school on time and herself out the door for a parent-teacher conference.
At about 7:30 a.m., her phone rang. It was her older sister, Linda, calling from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, where she and her boyfriend, Joe DeLuca, were off to San Francisco — first, for her business trip, and then for a vacation in the California wine country to celebrate her 47th birthday in two days.
She mentioned her flight number, and they caught up on a few family goings-on before saying farewell.
“All right, have a wonderful trip, I’ll speak with you in a couple days,” Ms. Griffin said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” her sister replied.
About an hour later, Ms. Griffin was driving toward the school, listening to music, when an alert interrupted her radio station. At 8:46 a.m., a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, it announced — the first of the series of terrorist attacks that would unfold on September 11, 2001.
“It felt very personal, because it was New York, where I lived for a couple of years when I graduated college,” Ms. Griffin recalled during a recent interview from her home in England.
“But the second feeling that happened very quickly was, ‘Oh my God. Linda’s up there.’”
The news had spread throughout the school when Ms. Griffin arrived and, after her meeting, she rushed home, hoping that she would have a message from her sister saying that her flight had been grounded and they were stranded at the airport.
“I just had this horrible sense of dread — I was sobbing, sobbing, driving home,” she said. “It was this uncontrollable horror.”
Walking through the front door, she quickly flipped on the television, noting a smoldering field from a crashed plane on the screen, and continued toward the answering machine. The red light was blinking. She had three messages.
The first was from a friend. The second was from her mother, Doris Gronlund, just to say hello.
The third was her sister’s voice.
“Elsa, it’s Lin,” she started.
“Um. I only have a minute. I’m on United 93, and it’s been hijacked, uh, by terrorists who say they have a bomb.”
Sag Harbor Beginnings
When Linda Gronlund was 7 years old, her father, Gunnar Gronlund, landed a job at Sag Harbor Industries that moved his young family to the village two years later. It was 1965, and the young girl hardly minded, spending every free moment playing in the woods or splashing in the water at the beach — more often than not with her little sister by her side.
“She thought, when she was in high school, that she wanted to be a marine biologist,” Ms. Griffin said of her sister. “She loved the water, loved snorkeling and scuba diving and swimming, anything in the water.”
But, above all else, Ms. Gronlund’s first love was cars — foreign cars, to be specific. She was constantly taking them apart and putting them back together with her dad.
In high school, she drove a very distinctive Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, recalled State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who first met Ms. Gronlund in grade school.
They became close friends as upperclassmen, bonding over their participation in the high school musical, “South Pacific” — “I had one of the two non-singing parts, for good reason,” he said with a soft laugh — and even attended Southampton College together, where she would often give him a ride to class.
“She was fiercely independent,” he said. “Definitely heard the beat of her own drummer and had those things that were important to her. Everybody loved Linda, but she wasn’t a go-along-with-the-crowd kind of person.”
At first, Ms. Gronlund studied oceanography, but she pivoted toward a double major in chemistry and English. After graduation, she worked in the college’s admissions office and, one day, when she was giving a tour of the campus, she brought a small group of visitors to the greenhouse and garden, which Andrew Messinger ran.
As their paths crossed more and more, they started to date, he said.
“Linda was just incredible. Warm and energetic, not at all afraid to express herself, and what an incredibly curious mind,” he said. “In the process of getting to know her, I found out about her love of automobiles, and it turned out she was an accomplished automobile mechanic. I was blown away.”
It was her love of cars that ultimately determined her career path.
Shortly after earning her law degree from American University in 1983, she joined Volvo’s North American office in northern New Jersey and played an instrumental role in environmental protection — specifically, steering the company away from freon for its air conditioning coolant.
“She was on ‘MotorWeek’ talking about this, and I know because I recorded it on VHS for her,” Ms. Griffin said, adding, “She was this incredibly brilliant scientist who could explain things in English to laypeople.”
In 1990, BMW North America tapped Ms. Gronlund, who eventually became manager of environmental compliance in the company’s engineering department. Her “baby at the time,” Ms. Griffin said, was working on the hydrogen-fueled car, while simultaneously opening a new plant in South Carolina.
“I like to say that Linda was formidable,” Ms. Griffin said. “She was brilliant, she was thoughtful, very strong — very strong willed, always had been, totally wanted to always do things by herself, and did, most of the time.”
Ms. Gronlund never shied away from a task. She earned her brown belt in karate, learned how to build a timber-frame house, and taught herself to ride a motorcycle that was much too big for her. Despite their divergent paths, she always cheered her sister on — whether Ms. Griffin was starting a family, or running the New York City Marathon, as she did in 1999.
Six weeks before the terrorist attacks, Ms. Griffin, her husband and their two children visited Ms. Gronlund at her home in Greenwood Lake, New York, where they met Mr. DeLuca for the first time — “I liked him so much: He was so good, so sweet and funny, and an amazingly good match for her,” she said — and the sisters spent hours having long, rambling conversations.
It was the last time they saw each other, Ms. Griffin said. “And it was wonderful.”
United Airlines Flight 93
It was 45 minutes after Ms. Gronlund and Mr. DeLuca departed Newark International Airport when four hijackers rushed the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93, causing the plane to drop 7,000 feet.
Over a radio transmission, the captain could be heard shouting “Mayday!” and “Get out of here!” The time was 9:28 a.m.
Sometime in the next two minutes, the hijackers killed a passenger seated in first class.
At 9:32 a.m., Ziad Jarrah, a member of al-Qaeda who had trained as a pilot, made an announcement to the passengers, overheard by the FAA Cleveland Center.
“Ladies and gentlemen: here the captain,” he said, according to official transcripts. “Please sit down; keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit.”
Three minutes later, the cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of a flight attendant pleading for her life. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” she begged, and then fell silent.
For the next 20 minutes, passengers and crew members used the GTE Airfones on board and personal cellphones to call their loved ones. At 9:46 a.m., about 18 minutes into the hijacking, Ms. Gronlund left one of the four voicemails from the plane that day.
“Apparently, they, uh, flown a couple of planes into the World Trade Center already and it looks like they’re gonna take this one down as well,” Ms. Gronlund continued saying in her message. “Mostly, I just wanted to say I love you.”
Ms. Gronlund started to cry. “And I’m gonna miss you, and … and please give my love to Mom and Dad, and …”
She took a deep breath. “Mostly, I just love you and I just wanted to tell you that. I don’t know if I’m gonna get a chance to tell you that again or not.”
Collecting herself, she told her sister the location of her safe, its code and how to use the keypad, steady until she prepared to sign off.
“I love you and hope that I can talk to you soon,” she said, her voice cracking. “Bye.”
At 9:57 a.m., passengers and crew members stormed the cockpit, trying to break through the door. The recorder picked up yelling and thumping, the crashing of dishes and glass. In response, the hijacker piloting the plane tried to cut off the oxygen, then pitched the plane right and left to knock them off balance — and ultimately decided to crash the plane early.
At 10:03 a.m., the plane turned upside down as it passed over rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania, plowing into an empty field at 563 mph, about 20 minutes flying time from its presumed hijacked destination — Washington, D.C. All 44 people on board — the 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers — were killed.
When the message ended and the tape clicked off, Ms. Griffin fell to the floor.
“I just remember banging my head on the floor, on the rug,” she said through her tears. “You know, you see the pictures of the Wailing Wall, when women do that thing with their heads? That’s what I did.
“And I realize it’s grief, right? My overwhelming sense was, I just want to go back in time, just a little bit. Just so I could actually talk to her.
“But to tell you the truth, it was just such a gift that she called me,” she continued. “It was such a gift for her to leave that message for me. And I think if I had been there and I had picked up the phone, I don’t think I would have been any help to her. I think I would have been hysterical.
“I think it happened the way it needed to happen.”
After a couple of minutes, Ms. Griffin picked herself up and, realizing there were so many planes in the air, ran into the other room to grab her phone book to call United Airlines. As she was waiting to be connected, she walked back into the room to watch the news — which, when she got home, was showing a smoldering field with a different flight number.
When she looked at the screen now, the flight number was updated to United 93.
“That was the moment that I knew,” she said. “I knew she was gone.”
First, she called her husband to pick up their kids from school. Next, she followed her sister’s directions.
“I had to call my mom and dad,” Ms. Griffin said. “Those are the two worst two phone calls I’ve ever had to make.”
After selling her longtime clothing store, Saga-Lund, her mother had taken a job working part time at Long Wharf Wines & Spirits in Sag Harbor — which is where she was when Ms. Griffin got her on the phone.
“She’s like, ‘Hi, honey!’ And I knew it’s a cement floor there,” Ms. Griffin said, a sob ripping through her. “And I thought, if I tell her, she’s gonna hit her head and pass out.”
She asked her mother to sit down. “I said, ‘Mom, Linda was on one of the planes and it crashed. And she’s gone.’
“The sound, the wail that was coming out of her — people started coming in from the street because they could hear her,” she said. “People loved my mom. Somebody picked up the phone, and I was, like, ‘You need to call the doctor and get him there, because she’s not okay.’”
When she felt able, Doris Gronlund left the liquor store and walked up and down Main Street, asking for people to hug her. When her longtime friend, Nada Barry, proprietor of The Wharf Shop, heard the news about her daughter, she jumped in her car and rushed over to her house.
“I remember saying, ‘I must go to Doris’ in my mind,” she said. “I don’t remember anything other than coming to the door and just hugging her — and I’m not a huggy person. Anything else, I blocked out. I don’t know a word that was said.”
Mr. Messinger, who writes the “Hampton Gardener” column for the Express News Group newspapers, wouldn’t learn the news until several weeks later, while reading an issue of The Southampton Press that reported Ms. Gronlund’s death.
“It was no surprise to me that she probably had a hand in assuring that the plane never reached its target,” he said. “I’m certain her training in the martial arts played a part in making sure that plane never made to Washington. She was never timid, and I have no doubt that she did what she could while in flight. What a true hero.”
That day, when Ms. Griffin called her dad, who lived in Florida, her stepmother answered the phone — and asked to be the one to tell him instead. Not long after, he called her back and, “very much like Linda, was super practical and calm in a crisis,” she said.
After talking for a while, he asked her, “What did you do with the tape?”
“Well, nothing yet,” Ms. Griffin replied. “It’s still here.”
“Call the FBI,” he said.
And so she did.
Moving Forward From The Impossible
Ms. Griffin can only describe the following days as “chaos” — navigating her new role as executrix while the press circled and swarmed, her grief public and on display.
“I was the baby in the family, almost five years younger. Somehow Linda knew that I could handle it, I guess,” she said. “And I had to grow up a lot.”
A couple of days later, Ms. Griffin and two of her closest friends traveled to Greenwood Lake, where, with police assistance, they entered Ms. Gronlund’s house. When she walked through the front door, it still smelled like her sister, she said, and everything she needed was there — just as Ms. Gronlund had said it would be in the answering machine message.
“The thing that is so Linda is that she was still taking care of me, you know?” Ms. Griffin said. “She was still looking out for me. She didn’t want me to have to struggle to find her papers. She was always that for me.”
Once the house sold, the family used some of the equity to build an extension onto Doris Gronlund’s home in Sag Harbor — realizing her daughter’s dream all along.
“Linda always said her plan was to move back at some point,” Ms. Griffin said. “She wanted to do pro bono law work there. She wanted to build a wing onto mom’s house and live there, and take care of my mom.”
In the aftermath, the Sag Harbor community rallied around the elder Ms. Gronlund, who died in 2018 at age 93. After September 11, she relied on her strong faith to get her through, but she always struggled with the loss of her eldest daughter.
“Devastated is not a strong enough word, honestly. It was really, really, really hard for her — forever,” Ms. Griffin said. As for herself, she said, “I made a decision pretty early on that the choice was either to curl up in a ball and die, or to live as authentically as I can. So, for me, it changed a lot of things in my life.”
Moving forward, she tapped into the life she felt she was meant to live, she said. As she continued to raise her sons, she got divorced, rode in a hot air balloon, went skydiving, met four U.S. presidents, and started hiking and traveling.
“Of course, I’d trade them all, every single one, in two seconds, the things that have happened to me since then, just to hang out with my sis,” she said. “I’m sitting here looking at her picture right now.”
In 2002, Ms. Griffin ran the New York City Marathon again — this time with family members of the United 93 passengers — and made a point to squeeze in one to three miles every day that she could.
“I think that was a huge factor in my ‘one foot in front of the other,’” she said. “You’ve just got to keep moving, keep going, keep noticing that the seasons and the nature keeps going — and the grass still grows and the flowers come up. Just having that, being out there in nature, was so huge for my healing.”
Within the first year of Ms. Gronlund’s death, several memorial services honored her, including one hosted by BMW — which was livestreamed to the factory in South Carolina — and another at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. The eulogy that Mr. Thiele gave there still sits in his desk, and every September 11 he takes a moment to read it and remember his friend.
“On 9/11, I’m usually at a school and you realize that you’re talking to a whole school full of kids who weren’t alive on 9/11. That kind of hits me that, God, this really is history now,” Mr. Thiele said. “Every year, I tell people about Linda Gronlund. I just don’t want people to forget. I want people to know her story.”
On the East End, Ms. Gronlund is memorialized by the Linda Gronlund Nature Preserve at Barcelona Neck, comprising more than 500 acres of pine barrens and coastline along the unspoiled, wooded peninsula in Peconic Bay — which just so happens to be a place she loved as a teenager.
“After the Barcelona dedication, my mom said, ‘Hey, Elsa, Linda always wanted a waterfront. Now she’s got it,’” Ms. Griffin said. “It is gorgeous there, at the end of the walkway. You’re right at the water. It couldn’t have been more perfect.”
At the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Linda Gronlund’s name rests alongside 2,976 others, carved into the bronze parapets ringing the pair of sunken pools. The roar of the two cascading waterfalls at their centers, plummeting 50 feet, drown out the sound of the bustling city around them.
According to the architect, Michael Arad, the pools represent “absence made visible.” While the water flows into the voids, they can never be filled.
“When I learned that those aboard Flight 93 would have their names inscribed at the memorial at the World Trade Center, I wanted so much to go down there and just touch her name — to make contact just one more time,” Mr. Messinger said. “I haven’t been able to. That would mean saying goodbye. I never want to do that with this incredible woman.”
For the 20th anniversary of September 11, Ms. Griffin and her husband plan to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown, Pennsylvania, about two miles north of Shanksville.
Recently, she released Ms. Gronlund’s answering machine message to the memorial for the first time, which allows visitors to pick up a phone there and listen — her words forever a reminder to love deeply, to live fully, and to remember always.
“She wasn’t just a passenger on a plane,” Ms. Griffin said. “She was an amazingly powerful person in her life, and she lived her life. Without a doubt, that is the lesson that I took away from it: This is all we got. And we don’t know how long we have — none of us, not a single one of us, knows. And you’ve got to spend more time doing the stuff you love.
“You’ve got to tell the people you love that you love them,” she said. “And she did that. Linda always did that.”
Winner of Best Feature Story, first place, New York Press Association 2021
Judge’s comments: ” Absolutely riveting … I had tears in my eyes! I loved the many voices and the way the writer took us through this woman’s life. Fantastic!”
We endeavored to tell the stories of those from the East End who were lost, those who survived that horrific day, the hero first responders who got people to safety and others who were impacted.
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