Widow of 9/11 Pilot Shares Life Lessons

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Miriam Horrocks-Isenberg is the widow of Michael Horrocks, a pilot on the United Airlines Flight 175 that was hijacked on 9/11. (Sarah R. Bloom)

Miriam Horrocks-Isenberg’s poise in front of the Chabad of the Main Line audience suggests she has told her story countless times, but when she mentions her late husband, her voice still breaks.

“I had married a man named Michael Horrocks,” Horrocks-Isenberg said. “We had been married for almost 12-and-a-half years, and during that time we had had two beautiful children. On Sept. 11 of 2001, Michael was taken from us.”

Michael Horrocks was the first officer on United Airlines Flight 175 when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked the plane and crashed it into the World Trade Center in New York City, killing everyone on board.

Horrocks-Isenberg isn’t Jewish, but Rabbi Mendy Cohen of Chabad of the Main Line said he invited her to speak to the audience that evening on Feb. 5 because of how powerful her story is.

“It wasn’t a story of survival,” Cohen said. “It was a story of thriving, not just living, but truly living and — to coin her phrase — in limitless potential.”

Horrocks-Isenberg’s talk in the Penn Valley Elementary School auditorium was part love story and part motivational speech. She spoke about her struggle to find closure after her husband’s death and the lessons she learned from that experience: Trust your higher power; honor your values, not your fears; release resentment, stay present and say yes.

“More important than just sitting here tonight and listening to my story, I want you to find yourselves in my story,” Horrocks-Isenberg said. “I want you to create your own life lived in limitless potential. What is limitless potential? It is exactly that. There are no limits on the amount of joy and peace and happiness and faith and love that one person can have in a lifetime.”

She was a student at West Chester University when she met Horrocks. He bumped into her when she was out dancing with a group of friends at a club. “Build Me Up Buttercup” played in the background as she turned around to see who it was. Horrocks took her hand.

The two danced until the club closed.

Afterward he walked her to her apartment, and they talked on her couch until sunrise. As she rushed to get him out the door before her roommates woke up, he kissed her and asked her when he could see her next.

Three years later, they got married. They had a daughter in 1992 and a son in 1995.

September of 2001 began as an exciting time for the young family.

After a decade in the military, Horrocks was starting a new job with United Airlines. Only months before, they had bought a home in Glen Mills, close to their families. Both of their children were in school for the first time. Together they worked on home improvement projects, building a walkway up to the front door.

When Horrocks left for a flight scheduled to leave from Boston and land in Los Angeles, that walkway was still incomplete. It looked like a moat, Horrocks-Isenberg said.

Horrocks called that morning from the cockpit. He spoke on the phone with his wife and kids and sang “Rise and Shine” to them, a family morning tradition. He told his wife that he loved her and would call when he landed.

“I would never hear my husband’s voice again,” she said.

After her husband’s death, Horrocks-Isenberg’s sister took a six-month leave of absence from her job and moved in with them. Every morning, they wrote a list of tasks for the day. At first, the list included tasks like brush teeth, comb hair, take a shower.

The list also included figuring out what to do with the incomplete walkway — a decision Horrocks-Isenberg dreaded. She didn’t want life to move on. She told her sister she was putting the walkway in God’s hands.

One morning, she heard voices outside her bedroom window. Then she heard trucks. She looked out the window and saw people building the walkway.

She started to cry.

Her sister came into the room and hugged her.

“Miriam,” Horrock-Isenberg recalled her sister saying. “Look. God is building your walkway, and those people are out there, are all of his little angels.”

Horrocks-Isenberg said this instant taught her to trust in her higher power. It was one of several illustrative anecdotes she shared that evening.

She met Paul Isenberg in 2003. He was a recent widower, and friends asked her to reach out to him. She supported him as his family went through the same tragedy hers had gone through just two years before.

The last of her anecdotes to illustrate her life lessons, she said yes when he asked for her help in picking out a puppy for the kids — and then yes again, a year later, when he asked her to marry him.

“We said yes to blending this beautiful family,” Horrocks-Isenberg said. “Blending this family was the most challenging thing that we have ever done in our lives and the most beautiful and rewarding thing that we have ever done in our lives. We are blessed.”

When Horrocks-Isenberg was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she put her lessons to the test.

Trust your higher power. Honor your values, not your fears. Release resentment. Stay present. Say yes.

They served her well on her road to survival and recovery.

Today, Horrocks-Isenberg has a happily blended family. She and her husband have also undertaken more home improvement projects to accommodate their larger family of four children, who have since grown up.

“If I did not step into limitless potential, I would be giving the terrorists exactly what they wanted, and that was not what I was going to do,” Horrocks-Isenberg said. “I was going to live the life that I knew Michael would have wanted me to live.”

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