Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Why didn't we see this coming?

        Awoman, a very nice person, I'm sure, calls and wants to talk about the past week in Cincinnati. She says she used to live here and is saddened by the “disturbance.” Disturbance?

        Rioting in the streets. Curfew. Shots fired. Glass breaking. Looting. An ashen Mayor Charlie Luken being badgered by the Today Show's Ann Curry. We have come to the attention of the Rev. Al Sharpton. My mother is calling to make sure I'm safe.

        I like to be as polite as the next Cincinnatian, but this is several degrees hotter than a disturbance. This is what a friend of mine calls an unnatural disaster. A pilot, he's usually talking about airplane crashes, which he says are the result of a terrible intersection of the ordinary.

        This assumes there was no malice. No deliberate sabotage. No bomb in somebody's suitcase.

A telltale noise?

        In July of 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. The official version was pilot error. But what if he'd had more time in the air with his new plane? What if he hadn't hurt his foot? What if he hadn't gotten a late start? What if the weather had been better?

        Then there's the elegant Concorde, which crashed minutes after takeoff in July 2000, killing 113 people. At first, the runway repair team was blamed. Then shreds of rubber were found on the airport runway. A strip of metal. A punctured tire.

        Was there a telltale humming noise? Did somebody on the ground or in the air ignore something he should have heard or seen? This was, after all, an airplane that had been in the air since 1976 without incident.

        And what didn't we see here in Cincinnati? Did we ignore expert advice? Did we fail to hear the warnings? Were we lucky for so long that we thought we were invulnerable?

        So now we know. We know that what happens in Over-the-Rhine has consequences in Hyde Park. We know that what happens in Walnut Hills has consequences in Norwood. That was as immediate as finding out that you couldn't go to Good Friday evening church services. As important as running out of milk for the baby. As trivial as canceling your dinner reservations.

Outside experts

        When confronted by high unemployment among young, black men, did we remind ourselves of the black doctors and lawyers in the neighborhood? Amid charges of racial profiling, did some Cincinnatians think smugly of how far we've come since the days when Marian and Don Spencer weren't allowed to take their kids to Coney Island?

        “High performing communities spend more time looking outward than inward,” Northern Kentucky University President James Votruba said at a conference in February. “It's not good enough in this issue of race to compare ourselves to our past when others are moving rapidly.”

        Were we deaf to the telltale thumping of the engine? Did we ignore the gathering clouds?

        After a plane crash, pieces of the plane are reassembled in a hangar. Outside experts come in and examine it from every angle. Witnesses are interviewed. Procedures are reviewed.


        Can you imagine what would happen if airline officials promised they'd look into the situation. And passengers were told to cross our fingers and keep flying?

        We would be ticked off and scared to death.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


Race commission will take lead in recovery
Previous race reports ignored
Report promised soon on beanbag firings at crowd
Police chief disarms critics
Citizens police review panel feels excluded
Grand jury may get case in a week
Heimlich, Luken at odds over handling of riots
Store owners hope for aid from city, feds
City to tap resources of businesses
Reds not expecting problems
End of curfew brings relief
Mayor Luken's views
- PULFER: Why didn't we see this coming?
Black youths speak of change
Week of spring break taught lessons