The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope is credited with having said “to err is human, to forgive divine.” As humans, we cannot help but err. There are no perfect humans who never make a mistake. To the contrary, we all make errors in judgment on a daily basis. Most accidents, whether small or large, are caused by mistakes in judgment. Most failures of any kind are rooted in mistakes caused by poor judgment.
Whenever we make a mistake we are quick to recite the first part of Alexander Pope’s quote. The defense for our mistake is to say “to err is human”, and that is understandable. But, what happens when we are on the other end of the equation and someone has made a mistake that hurt us or a loved one. Are we just as willing to recite the second part of the quotation as the first? It is far more difficult to forgive than to confess “to err is human”. That is why the poet ascribed forgiveness to the divine.
In the space of 43 days back in the autumn of 1970, two events took place that forever changed countless people’s lives. On October 2, 1970 a plane carrying half of the Wichita State football team along with the head coach, administrators and boosters crashed outside Denver, Colorado on its way to a game in Utah. 31 people were killed including 14 football players and the head coach. After an investigation, it was determined that pilot error caused the crash. The pilot had deliberately diverted from the flight plan in order to show the people on the plane the Rocky Mountains at close range. He succeeded in doing that.
Just 43 days later, in an incredible coincidence, a plane carrying the Marshal University football team back from a game in North Carolina crashed into a hillside outside Huntington, West Virginia killing all 75 people on board, including 37 football players. Again, it was determined that pilot error caused the crash. This time it was the pilot attempting to land at an unfamiliar airport in poor weather conditions. The odds of two airplane crashes involving two college football teams happening within 43 days of each other are astronomical.
Before 1970 there had only been one crash involving a college sports team. In 1960, the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo football team was decimated when 16 of its team members were killed (along with six others) when their Arctic Pacific airplane crashed shortly after taking off from a Toledo, Ohio airport. The cause of the crash was excess weight causing engine failure. In other words, the cause was human error.
Since 1970 there has only been one airplane crash involving a college sports team. In 1977, the entire University of Evansville basketball team was killed when their DC-3 crashed on takeoff from an Indiana airport. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause was improper weight balance and the failure of the crew to remove external safety locks. In other words, the cause was human error.
In the course of 17 years, four aircraft carrying four college sports teams crashed. In every case, the cause of the accident was human or pilot error. Should such tragedies be brushed aside by using the excuse; “to err is human”? But, should forgiveness be denied because the people involved were athletic celebrities?
I was a 17 year old senior in High School when the Wichita State plane crashed. I didn’t know anyone on that plane, but I felt unbelievable sorrow for days after the tragedy; simply because it was our city’s sports heroes who had died. I believe this is called empathetic identification in the counseling arena. Just when the impact of the Wichita State accident started to wear off, the Marshall accident took place. That accident flushed all the emotions to the surface again. As difficult as this was for me, I cannot imagine the pain and suffering those directly involved must have felt.
There is no public information available to document whether lawsuits were ever filed relating to any of the four crashes mentioned in this post. There ARE many reports of great outpouring of support from grieving friends, alumni and total strangers united in a common feeling of loss. The common threads in all four tragedies are: The cause of the crash was human error, they all involved college sports teams, and there was great sorrow, compassion and forgiveness manifested afterwards by huge numbers of people who had never known each other previously.
Fast forward 30 to 35 years to our current society. Every time there is an accident of any kind, vultures descend almost immediately to start lawsuits worth thousands if not millions of dollars. Pain and suffering along with wrongful death lawsuits are filed within days of accidents. There seems, at times, to be no time for grieving, reflecting or forgiving. It’s all about the money in our materialistic society.
When disasters such as airplane crashes occur today, there seems to be an immediate outcry to pin the blame someone. Somehow we think if we can find the villain who “erred” that will make things better. Even if the “villain” is found, tried and punished; does that bring his victims back? Is it right to deny a “villain” forgiveness, if his villainous act was “human error”?
I cannot defend the foolish decision of a pilot to fly into a canyon so steep there was no way out. But, I can most certainly relate. Perhaps others have never made a poor decision in their lives, but I have made plenty. The pilot never intended to kill anybody. He probably never gave the possibility of crashing a moment’s thought. He did what he felt was acceptable in the circumstances based on his skill as pilot. Unfortunately he was dead wrong.
There are, no doubt, many circumstances where people should be sued, especially for malpractice, incompetence or deceit. But, should a person who causes pain, suffering and even death be sued for millions of dollars because they made a mistake? This is a question that needs to be addressed in our lawsuit crazy society. Is human error justifiable ground for destroying a person’s life, livelihood and reputation? Have we become so hungry for “closure” and “payment” when wronged that the concept of forgiveness is totally foreign?
If a chartered plane crashed today carrying a major college football team; before the memorial services were finished, the courts would be clogged with lawsuits “on behalf” of the victims. First in line would be the Universities themselves, for we all know they would go bankrupt if not for the huge sums of money brought in by their football teams. “Back in the day”, college sports were simply part of attending college. They were fun and helped build campus unity and camaraderie. Now they are huge money makers for Universities throughout the country.
God forbid we ever have another plane crash involving a college (or Professional) sports team. Not only would the pain and sorrow be unbearable, but the financial cost would be staggering. In our current day and time, no one but a fool would cite Alexander Pope’s poem. Not only has the forgiveness been eliminated as an option for the most part, but the excuse of “human error” has been discarded as rationalization or belittling the disaster. Because of this, it is ridiculous to think that what the great poet said centuries ago could ever be pertinent again; and that, to me, is a tragedy far bigger than any other.