If my radio alarm had gone off, I would have known the president was dead. But we had lost power from the thunderstorm that still raged when I woke up to the beep of my backup alarm, my Ironman watch. I got up and didn't even bother to look out the window. I liked running in the rain, but not in a storm. I shaved in the dim bathroom while the rain pounded the roof. I listened to Debbie running around trying to get the kids ready for school in the dark. They ate cold cereal with warm milk and whined about how horrible everything was.
It was the worst storm I could remember since moving to Annapolis. My commute wasn't far, but the storm turned it into a complete nightmare. I sometimes wonder why I even bother. I have high-speed Internet at home that connects me to my office just as if I were sitting at my desk. But I actually like having an office. There's just a different feel to it when you put on a suit and drive to the office. It feels wrong to sit in my pajamas talking on the phone with a U.S. attorney in D.C., sounding tough about a criminal he's trying to put away. Probably my Marine training. I spent too much of my lost youth deriving comfort from mindless routine.
I drove through the downpour ignorant of the enormity of events that swirled around me. Everyone in the world knew about the crash except me. I sometimes listen to the news while driving, but I had become addicted to books on tape. That day I was deep into a John le Carré novel, which, when I started the engine in my Volvo XC90, picked up right where it had left off.
I got to my office a little later than usual and parked in my space in front of our two-story redbrick building. As far as I knew, it was just another day, with the Big Storm to remember it by. I opened the heavy door to our building and forced it closed against the wind. I put my umbrella in the brass stand near the door and shook the rain off my raincoat.
"Morning," I said to Dolores, our fiftysomething receptionist, who was well-intentioned but didn't really get it.
She had an odd look on her face. "Good morning, Mr. Nolan," she said, pregnant with expectation.
"How are you, Dolores?" I hung my coat on a peg on the coatrack and picked up my briefcase, waiting for the storm questions. Dolores was waiting for something else. "What?" I asked.
"Can you believe the news?"
I quickly realized I hadn't heard any news. "What news?"
"You haven't heard?"
"About the president."
The last time anyone had spoken to me like that about the president was when Reagan was shot by Hinckley and I was a teenager. "What?" I asked.
"I thought you must have heard."
"Power went off."
"I thought you'd listen in your car."
"What is it, Dolores?"
"The president's helicopter went down last night."
I felt a sudden dryness in my throat. "Was he in it?" I asked, afraid of what the answer was. I'm not, or I should say wasn't, a fan of the president's. Different parties, different perspectives on pretty much everything. But the idea of the president dying was about the office of the president, the disruption, not the end of a politician I didn't care for.
"Yes. On his way to Camp David in the middle of that storm."
"Why the hell was he flying last night? That was nuts."
"That's what everybody's asking. Nobody's answering, but—"
"TV on in the coffee room?"
"Yes, sir." She frowned.
I started toward the back of the office thinking about what kind of storm it would take to cause the president's helicopter to go down. Last night's storm was just the kind. Lots of wind, electrical storm, nasty rain, hail, maybe even icing. Lots of possibilities. "Anybody get out?" I yelled over my shoulder.
"No, sir. All killed. Pi lots, Secret Ser vice agents, president, everybody."
I shook my head. "Vice president been on television yet?"
"Just for a second—looked like he'd seen a ghost. He's being sworn in at ten. Mr. Nolan?" she said, forcing me to stop.
"What?" I said, stopping.
"There's something else."
"Kathryn Galbraith called."
She was the vice president of Aviation Insurers International, or AII as it was known, A-double-I. She was one of the people who retained me in cases, who made it possible for my children to eat more than saltines. A lot of what I did was to defend airplane manufacturers in lawsuits when planes crashed, especially helicopters—which I flew, and still did, in the Marine Reserves—and which, coincidentally, crash more than fixed-wing airplanes. In the Marine Corps, we said our helicopters were sixty thousand parts flying in formation, yearning to be free of each other. Sometimes that was more accurate than we liked to admit.
AII probably insured either the helicopter or one of the major parts in it, and they were concerned. "She say what she wanted?" I asked.
"Just that it was about Marine One."
Everybody from our small firm except Dolores was crammed into the squeaky-floored coffee room. A small, round table sat in the middle of the room, and the old television with a built-in videocassette player was in the corner on the counter. "Morning," I said to the group.
They all responded without looking at me. They were riveted to the live images of the crash scene. News helicopters battled each other in the rain overhead the crash site for the best angles to show the wreckage; several had their cameramen hanging out of the doors to zoom in better on the scene. One cameraman was standing on the skid of his helicopter, held on by a rock-climbing harness. They were about to make more wreckage if they weren't careful.
My law partner, Rick Berberian, said, "You lose power?"
"Yeah. All night. You?"
"Pretty much the whole western part of the city."
Two of our three associates were sitting in chairs, leaning forward. If the mood weren't so serious, it would have been comical. Rachel Long, the third associate—who worked exclusively with me—was standing in the corner with her arms crossed. She was also a Naval Academy graduate, surface warfare, who had resigned from the navy after a crushing divorce from a classmate. With her gaze fixed on the television, she said, "You hear Kathryn called?"
"Yeah." I nodded and stared at the video images of the crash scene that were being shown over and over as a variety of people spoke over the images. The wreckage still burned in the ravine. You could make out the skeleton of a helicopter and the path of destruction where it had ripped through the trees. There was no trench in the ground or the trees. Marine One had come straight down.
A large, dark green tarp covered a large portion of the wreckage site. I couldn't figure out how or why they had erected a tarp, then remembered the news helicopters. A lot of sensitive evidence could be on the ground. Like bodies. Like the president's charred body. Not something for the news helicopters to feature around the world.
Rachel asked, "Think we'll get a case from this?" Rachel worked with me both on the criminal defense work I did, and aviation cases. She hadn't been a pi lot when she started with me four years before, but had gotten her private pilot's license within a year. She loved it and was working toward her commercial license.
"Probably thinking about the security clearances. Lots of French workers didn't have the clearances the people at Sikorsky had. Remember all that yelling from Congress? They said if the contract for the new Marine One helicopter went to a French company, it would expose the president to assassination by helicopter. They picked the French company anyway. They're probably scared shitless right now."
Rachel stood up. "Maybe they did just kill the president."
"Well, maybe they're about to be our client, so don't jump to any conclusions. What do we know so far?" I asked.
Rachel sipped her coffee, pushed her black hair behind her ear, and said, "Departed the South Lawn around ten pm heading to Camp David. Secret Ser vice wanted to drive, president wanted to fly. Marine pi lot okayed the flight. Apparently he had a ton—"
"What was his name?"
"Chuck Collins." They all looked at me. "You know him?"
I knew him all right. Not personally as much as by reputation. Everyone in Marine helicopters, even in the reserves, was shocked when he was selected as the commanding officer of HMX-1 to fly the president. There had been a stunned silence in the Corps. We couldn't imagine how a pi lot who was widely known to despise the president had become his chief pi lot. Most had shrugged and put it down as one of the many ironies of life. Others had simply waited for something dramatic to happen, which they thought was inevitable. But what most expected was an anonymous book or article exposing the president as a fraud or a philanderer and Collins being fired in disgrace. Rachel broke my train of thought. "So, do you?"
"Know him? Yeah, sort of. Not very well. Reputation mostly. Without a doubt, one of the best pi lots in the Corps." He could fly anything. He'd flown F/A-18s, then transferred to helicopters. Nobody did that, but he did. He wanted to work with the grunts, get shot at and shoot back instead of dropping bombs. He had supposedly said he wanted to "watch 'em die" when he was in combat. None of this above-the-fray-anonymous-bomb-dropping-steak-eating existence for him. What a piece of work. But a great pi lot. Several combat tours, highly decorated, brave, heroic even. But how had he become the president's pi lot? Had the interviewers been so dazzled they didn't see what he was like? We had all wondered, but had frankly forgotten about it.
Rachel went on, "So he changed altitude a couple of times looking for clear air. Kept moving around. Last transmission to ATC said he was out of control."
"They interviewed the controller?" "Yeah, and they've already recovered the FDR, even though it's pretty burned. They've taken it back to D.C."
I felt stupid. If you'd asked me whether Marine One had a flight data recorder, I wouldn't have known. Airliners all have them, but most other planes don't. It made sense that they'd put one in Marine One, particularly the new model. "What about the CVR?" The cockpit voice recorder, a hard drive that recorded everything the pi lots or crew said.
"Still looking for it."
"What's everyone saying happened?" I asked.
Rachel leaned back slightly. "First on was that senator from Mississippi —"
"Blankenship," Berberian said.
"He called a press conference at the Capitol. Said exactly what you just said." Rachel imitated Blankenship's voice: " 'I hate to say I told you so, but I said if we picked this foreign company to build Marine One, admittedly with an American company as the front, that there could be trouble. I'm now told we never even completed the security clearances of the European workers before this helicopter was delivered. Now it's come to this. I'm calling for a full investigation into the construction and security of the helicopter, particularly the parts made overseas.' "
Rachel said, "He said if it wasn't intentional, then it was a defective helicopter, and that's almost as bad. So he got two I told you so's, which clearly pleased him. Then there were the usual experts. One former NTSB investigator said it was almost certainly the weather." The NTSB was the National Transportation Safety Board. They were responsible for investigating all major crashes in the United States, and sometimes outside the United States. They had trained investigators, one of whom was in charge of any investigation. Those investigators would often retire and go into private consulting work doing the same thing for private parties for a lot more money.
"Pretty good guess."
"Not if you listen to the other former NTSB investigator. He said this helicopter could handle that weather no problem. Wouldn't be comfortable, but wouldn't cause it to crash, and they were too high for a wind shear to knock them down."
"That's also true. What else?" I asked.
"Then there was the former helicopter pi lot with a million flight hours who suspects foul play. Said these Marine One pi lots are the best helicopter pi lots in the world flying the strongest and best helicopter in the world. Wouldn't be maintenance, not with the way they take care of Marine One. He said it was either a missile or a midair by another plane that wasn't squawking."
"Squawking?" Berberian asked.
I answered, "Had their transponder turned off so Washington control couldn't see them on their radars, at least not easily. Might be the only way you could get another airplane close to the president in the air." I watched the video on the screen zoom in on a large rotor blade that was close to the rest of the wreckage. It was nearly intact. "It'd be pretty hard to shoot down a helicopter in the dark through a thunderstorm. Could be done with radar and fire control, but it wouldn't be easy. And I promise you not by some random guy with a Stinger in his trunk."
"Marine One have antimissile defenses?"
"Sure," I answered.
"You're not cleared for that."
Berberian laughed. "You don't know, do you?"
I looked over his way. "Actually I do. But I can't talk about it."
He was puzzled. "Why the hell not?"
"Because I fly that helicopter every month, Rick. I know the Secret Supplement."
"The book that describes all the classified equipment."
Berberian wasn't persuaded. He wanted the inside scoop and was pissed I wouldn't give it to him.
Rachel poured another cup of coffee and headed toward the door while I watched the political commentators in front of the White House discussing the swearing in of the vice president, Donald Cunningham, the former senator from Illinois. "Shall we call Kathryn?" she asked.
"Aren't I going to be involved?" Rachel asked.
"In the case, or investigation, what ever it is, probably; but not the phone call. I'm not going to make this call on a speakerphone."
Rachel was disappointed. She wanted to have more responsibility, the kind she had grown accustomed to as a navy officer. "I'll let you know what she says."
I walked up the stairs to my office. Rachel was right behind me. Her office was next to mine. I turned on my computer, checked a few news Web sites, and glanced at my e-mails. Dozens of e-mails from other Marine pi lots in the reserves, most wanting everyone else's take on the accident. I could answer those later. I picked up the phone and dialed Kathryn's number.
Excerpted from MARINE ONE by JAMES W. HUSTON
Copyright © 2009 by JAMES W. HUSTON
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.