‘We’re Having a Problem on the Plane’: Husband Writes About Losing Pregnant Wife on 9/11

On Sept. 11, Jack Grandcolas lost the two people he held most dear: his wife, Lauren, and their unborn child.

An unborn child, a victim of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is remembered at the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
An unborn child, a victim of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is remembered at the 9/11 memorial in New York City. (photo: Katie Yoder / CNA)

Nearly 3,000 names are engraved in bronze at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. But 10 of the victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are different: They have no names. Instead, each is remembered as an unborn child.

Among those memorialized this way are “Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas and her unborn child.”

On Sept. 11, Jack Grandcolas lost the two people he held most dear: his wife, Lauren, and their unborn child. His pregnant 38-year-old wife died on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers fought back against hijackers redirecting the flight to Washington, D.C. Grandcolas recounts his loss and search for hope in a new memoir, Like A River to the Sea: Heartbreak and Hope in the Wake of United 93.

The book, published by Rare Bird on Sept. 6, opens with a dedication to his lost child.

“Dear Son … or Daughter,” he begins. “I am writing this book at the advice of my therapist. She felt it would be helpful to share a little bit about your mom and dad, and why you will always have your place in history.”

Today, that child would be 20 years old. Her name would be Grace, if a girl — Gavin, if a boy.

Lauren was three months pregnant, Grandcolas recalls, when she flew from their home in California to New Jersey for her grandmother’s funeral. At her insistence, he stayed behind to care for their sick cat.

“We were giddy at the thought of becoming parents, having spent the previous decade trying to get pregnant,” he writes. “There had been plenty of heartbreak along the way, including a miscarriage in 1999, when Lauren was thirty-six. Two years later, we had pretty much resigned ourselves to raising only cats ... and then a miracle happened.”

Lauren and their miracle were supposed to return to California on Sept. 11, 2001.

That morning, Grandcolas woke up to the sound of the answering machine. He fell back asleep, only to wake up again and spot what he calls the “shape of an angel.” 

Had someone he knew recently died?

“It must be Lauren’s grandmother,” he thought. Then he realized it was Lauren, he recounted.

When he checked the answering machine, he heard a message that would change his life forever. 

“Honey, are you there? Jack? Pick up, sweetie,” he heard Lauren’s voice say. “Okay, well, I just want to tell you I love you. We’re having a little problem on the plane. I’m fine and comfortable, and I’m okay for now. I just love you more than anything; just know that. It’s just a little problem, so I, I’ll … Honey, I just love you. Please tell my family I love them, too. Bye, honey.”

“In that moment I knew Lauren and our baby were gone,” he writes of his college sweetheart and their little one. 

His wife’s funeral was held at a Catholic church in Houston. Lauren, he says, was not a religious person. But in the months before her death, she began attending a weekly Bible study.

“One evening she came home and said, ‘I finally get it,’” he remembers. When he prodded her by asking, “Get what?” she responded, “The meaning of it all.”

While raised Catholic, Grandcolas struggled with his faith. 

“What kind of merciful God would take my sweet Lauren and our child?” he asked. He later concluded that it was not God but human ideology.

He encountered God again after a conversation with Bono, the lead vocalist of the famous rock band U2. Bono performed One Tree Hill — Lauren’s favorite U2 song — in her memory at a 2005 concert at the Oakland Coliseum. Afterward, Grandcolas opened up to the singer.

“Being brought up Catholic, you’re given all this guilt about things that you didn’t do right,” he told Bono. “I worry that I may have screwed up in this life and mortgaged my opportunity to see Lauren again.”

“You’ll see her again. I know it. We all screw up in life,” he says Bono reassured him. “That’s why God grants us forgiveness. It’s his most powerful gift.”

Bono’s words changed him and his faith, he says. 

“Ever since 9/11, I had questioned God and his plan for me,” he writes. “The night was a tribute to her but in a very important way it set me free, allowing me to be more forgiving of myself and rekindle my belief in God’s mercy.”

Grandcolas introduces readers to Lauren as a woman with a beautiful smile, radiant personality, and even a mischievous streak. They married after meeting in college and stayed together as he progressed with a career in the newspaper industry, and she took charge as a marketing manager. 

After losing her and their baby, he struggled with depression, PTSI (Post-Traumatic Stress Injury), heavy drinking, fear of abandonment and survivor's guilt. With the help of psychotherapy, he said, he discovered that “for all these years I had been mourning Lauren without fully grieving for the baby we lost.”

“Over the years that child grew up in my mind, growing older every year,” he writes. “I knew I would not be able to move on until saying goodbye to the baby I never got to hold.”

Today, the memory of Lauren and their unborn baby lives on at memorials across the country, through the Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas Foundation and, now, his book.

“[A]s I continue to reflect on the highs and lows of the last two decades, I’ve come to realize that I am very lucky indeed,” he says. “I found true love, twice. I’ve endured a pair of horrific tragedies but still have a resilient spirit and zest for life. I’ll always carry the emotional scars of losing Lauren and our child, just as I’ll always have the physical scars from my burns, but all of my wounds continue to heal.”

“We all suffer loss. We all endure heartbreak. It’s how you respond to these cataclysms that define you,” he concludes. “Sometimes the most beautiful things grow out of our hardest moments.”