I’m proud to say that the “tall American” from Sumter who saved 398 lives on a British Airways jet is a good friend of mine.
It has been a lot of fun and very emotional watching Clarke Bynum and Gifford Shaw get their 15 minutes of fame.
If you missed it, the story goes like this: Bynum and Shaw were traveling to Uganda for a two-week teaching mission. A deranged man burst into the cockpit of the British Airways jumbo jet and attacked the pilots. The attack caused the plane to plunge 19,000 feet and put 398 passengers and crew members in danger of crashing. Bynum and Shaw helped flight attendants wrestle the man out of the cockpit.
This past Friday morning, my wife called Clarke’s wife, Sissy, out of the blue just to say hello. She and Sissy talked for awhile before my wife asked, “So how’s your family?” It turns out she had just hung up the phone with Clarke, who was safe on the ground in Nairobi.
“I’m not sure,” Sissy said. She says now she must have still been in shock.
It has been a wild ride for both families since the men’s triumphant return to the United States, and it has been interesting to see the story played out in newspapers, on television and on the Internet for the past few days. The men have been on several major network news shows, and I’m sure there will be more in the coming days.
I talked to Clarke just hours after the incident. He was in a hotel room in Nairobi, and what follows are some comments he made to me that we published in The (Sumter) Item, his hometown newspaper.
As many people know, Clarke is one of the finest basketball players in South Carolina history. He played in the McDonalds All-America game as a senior, and he had a solid career at Clemson. He is also one of the most humble, kind and genuinely unselfish people you’ll ever come across. He’s a devoted husband and the father of four wonderful kids. He’s also a good friend to many people. When you see him on television giving credit to God for giving him the strength to do what he did, it’s real.
In retrospect, I’m not surprised he did what he did. I also believe that his real mission work is just beginning.
In his own words, Clarke Bynum discusses what happened aboard the British Airways flight from London last week:
n “We weren’t even supposed to be on the plane. We were five feet from the cockpit door in the second row in business class. We heard horrendous screaming in the cockpit. The plane started to dip and dive. It dropped 10,000 feet in a matter of seconds. I looked at Gifford and said, ‘we’re gonna die.’”
n “A steward, a male attendant, came running by us into the cockpit and the door shut back. I said I gotta go help and Gifford said ‘go,’ so I busted into the cockpit. The guy was built like an ox. The plane was diving and I put my arms and shoulders around him and started hauling him backwards out of cockpit. Gifford had a foot or a leg, and I was thinking, ‘does this guy have a gun or knife?’”
n “I thought the whole cockpit episode lasted 45 seconds to a minute. Gifford thought it was more like two minutes.”
n “God had us on that plane for a reason. He had us on that plane in that seat at that moment. God’s mercy is real.”
n “We took him (the attacker) back to the area where stewardesses sit on takeoff and strapped him in. He was more subdued with four of us sitting on him. I was mashing his head into the ground. It’s a weird feeling to look into the eyes of a Kenyan man whose sole purpose was to kill you. He was mumbling some stuff.”
n There were still two hours remaining on the flight and Bynum said he hardly remembers it. He was still in shock.
“I walked out and couldn’t talk. I then proceeded to fill up four airsickness bags, but don’t put that in the story.”
n “There’s a videotape of the whole incident. Some kid had a video camera. My biggest fear was that tape would be out and Sissy would wake up seeing that.”
n “You just can’t describe waking up and the plane’s in a dive. As it pointed down, it was shaking from the pace and headed straight down. The mountains were getting closer by the second. What ran through my mind was Sissy and those four faces (of my children).”
n “The pilots were the heroes. They had the presence of mind to get that plane back up. Even when we had him on the ground, I still thought we were going to crash.”