Flight Change Saves AHL Referee and His Family

Brit Milazzo@@M11azzoCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2009

An American Hockey League official and his family had tickets for Continental Airline Flight 3407 that crashed in Buffalo on Feb. 12.


Jeff Smith, AHL's senior referee, drove right past Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on Feb. 20 and saw planes either sitting on the runway or descending from the sky.


Then he drove past Clarence Centre, N.Y., on the New York State Thruway, I-90, as he made his way to Rochester, where he refereed that night’s AHL game between the Amerks and Hershey Bears.

As he passed each landmark, he wondered, "Why am I still here?"

Why did fate, luck, an angel—whatever the case—intervene and keep him and his family off Continental Flight 3407 eight days earlier?

Smith, 39, is still asking why he, wife Kathleen, and sons Paddon, 7, and Tanner, 4, are the lucky ones, and why 50 others perished when the plane crashed onto a house in Clarence Centre, a suburb of Buffalo, shortly after 10 p.m. on Feb. 12.

"Why would they protect me and not 50 others?" Smith asked when reached by phone from his native Port Elgin, Ontario, cottage, where he was spending a week-long working vacation with his family.

"I actually feel quite uncomfortable,” he said. “If it was a miracle for me, why not a miracle for the other 50 people?"

He knows he may never learn the answer, no matter how many times he stares at the boarding passes—seats 5A, 5B, 6A and 6B.

"We still have them," Smith said. "I don't know what we'll do with them."

The Smiths never used those boarding passes, because a Continental gate agent was sympathetic to his children.

Smith's family was coming along "so the kids could enjoy winter" while he officiated AHL games in Rochester; Toronto, and Hamilton, Ontario.

The Smith family was booked on the Continental flight from their home near Palm Beach, Fla., to Newark, N.J., and then to Buffalo.

They were in the gate area in Palm Beach, boarding passes in hand and their luggage was already checked onto the plane.

"We did everything we could to get on that flight," Smith said.

Both flights were scheduled to buck strong winds and when the gate agent, Jackie Papa, saw Smith's two kids, she told him he should consider an alternate route. The turbulence, she said, would be far too unsettling.

"If it was any other week, if my kids were not with me, I'd have been on that flight," Smith said. "I'd have said, 'What's a little turbulence?' It's probably the first flight I didn't get on in a thousand flights that I was supposed to be on."

The day of Feb. 12 was already chaotic for the airlines. The strong winds in the Great Lakes region of western New York were causing delays and passengers were restless.

While Smith has yet to speak with Papa—they'd been playing phone tag—he heard she had decided to be nice to him, because he had understood about the weather-related flight backups.

Smith can surely relate to the customer unrest she was dealing with at the counter. As a referee, his calls on the ice can anger players and coaches, so a voice of reason and diplomacy is key.

He took Papa's advice and flew U.S. Airways through Charlotte, N.C. and then to Buffalo, instead.

They learned of the Flight 3407 disaster, moments after arriving in the Buffalo-Niagara terminal and realized how lucky they were.

"It was just a fortunate chain of events," Smith said.

He's quite sure his entire family knew they were on the flight manifest, based on the plethora of questions he faced when he phoned Continental around 1 a.m. just to make sure they knew he wasn't on board.

"You don't necessarily think about it all the time, but it's amazing how many little things make you think about it," he said.

On Sunday there was a knock at his cottage door in Canada—a Continental baggage employee was delivering their luggage, which had been taken off Continental Flight 3407, but didn't get transferred to their U.S. Airways flight in enough time.

"He didn't really explain anything," Smith said. "But it still had the Flight 3407 bag tags."

On Monday his family flew back to Florida. "Ironically they’re on the same Continental flights," he said.

His oldest son, Paddon, is in first grade. A condition of missing school to go on a winter getaway was to write a daily journal.

Last Friday, he drew a picture of a crashed plane.

"Above it said, 'My plane crashed today, dad said.' Underneath it said, 'I wasn't on it'."

A week later Jeff Smith can't fully explain why, either.

"I look at the flight manifest," he said. "And realize there could have been 53 names.

Sources: Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Kevin Oklobzija

Britney Milazzo is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. 


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