Christie Coombs’ husband was senselessly taken away from her in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the Yuma native who now lives in Abington, Mass., has dealt with her sorrow for the last 10 years by giving back to others in need.
Coombs, a 1982 University of Arizona journalism graduate, lost her husband Jeffrey, a 1981 UA business graduate, when the plane he was on slammed into the World Trade Center in New York.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Jeffrey Coombs boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston, on his way to Los Angeles on a business trip for his job at Compaq Inc.
Flight 11 was the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center.
In a telephone interview from her home, Coombs said the last thing her husband said to her on Sept. 11 was, “I’ll see you in a couple of days and we’ll celebrate our birthdays then.”
Coombs’ birthday is Sept. 15, and his was the 18th. Jeffrey would have turned 43 that year.
Coombs, who works as a freelance reporter for the Boston Globe South Edition and the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., said that in the aftermath of the tragedy that killed her husband, other people helped her family by bringing them food, providing money for their three children to go to college and taking them to sporting events and concerts.
“In November I said, ‘We have to find a way to pay it forward for what people have done for us,’” Coombs added. She knew other families were struggling more than hers was, so she organized a yard sale and auction at her children’s schools that raised about $50,000 for other families.
“From there it became a way to take the negative energy caused by grief and turn it into something positive,” she said. Their efforts evolved into the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation, which provides help for families who have been affected by death or illness, awards scholarships to local high school graduates and supports military families.
Coombs, whose maiden name was Schmitt, met her future husband at the UA. In a fall 2007 edition of a UA journalism alumni newsletter she wrote, “I remember my boyfriend, now late husband, riding his bike back and forth at varying speeds so I could get action pictures for my photojournalism class.”
She also worked for The Tombstone Epitaph, which is owned and produced by the UA School of Journalism, and recalled, “I remember wandering the streets of Tombstone trying to drum up stories. Wow, was that not an easy task.”
Coombs and Jeffrey married in 1984 and had three children, Matthew, Meaghan and Julia, who are now 23, 21 and 17, respectively.
“They’re a lot like their dad,” Coombs said. “They’re really strong kids.”
Looking back on the day her husband died, Coombs said no amount of information would be too much, although she realized that knowing the details would be painful.
“If I could have been a fly on the wall of that plane and survived for my kids, I would have,” she said. Coombs said she would like to know how much her husband knew about what was going on during the flight.
Coombs heard about the first plane crash on Good Morning America, but she did not realize it was her husband’s plane. When she found out it was an American Airlines flight bound for L.A., she began to worry.
“My first thought before it was confirmed was that everything’s going to be OK because things like these don’t happen to people like us,” Coombs said, referring to people from a small town.
“When reality hit, we just knew that it was going to be a difficult process,” she said.
Coombs’ brother-in-law got the call confirming Jeffrey’s death. Although several family members and friends had gathered at her house to provide comfort, all Coombs wanted was to have her kids home from school.
“I had to tell them in 7- to 13-year-old terms that a really bad man had taken over Daddy’s plane and he wasn’t coming home,” she said.
Coombs said her husband was genuine, kind and had a great sense of humor.
“His smile could light up a room,” she said. Jeffrey was originally from Boston and loved the outdoors. He was a hard worker who believed in the value of an education. His family always came first.
“He considered his kids to be the best accomplishment in his life.”
Maggie Dyet, Coombs’ older sister and a nurse at University Medical Center in Tucson, is still impressed with the strength Coombs showed after her husband’s death.
“Her life has taken a turn in a direction she never expected,” Dyet said. “She has done nothing but good in the last 10 years.”
Dyet said some people prefer to grieve in private, while Coombs has moved in a different direction, going public about her situation and starting the foundation.
“I think it’s amazing,” Dyet added. “I know that Christie thinks every time she’s able to do something good for someone else, Jeffrey would have approved.”
Coombs has been open with the media about her loss since her first interview with the Patriot Ledger soon after 9/11. She said one reason is because it is cathartic to talk about her husband. Another reason is “to keep the country educated and to make sure that the country doesn’t forget” the tragedy, she said.
“I think one place 9/11 put us is a step up in the unity scale,” Coombs said. She recalled how politicians put aside their differences after the attacks and regular citizens became more compassionate.
“At the same time it has also made us more fearful of people who are different from us,” Coombs said. She remembers teaching her children about the dangers of racial profiling the first time they boarded a plane after Sept. 11.
In Coombs’ opinion, the country has made progress in terms of safety with the creation of new federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration. However, she said there are still several areas that could use improvement, such as security in trains and subway systems.
“It (9/11) has taught us to be more vigilant and to look over our shoulder,” she said. “We don’t live in fear, we live in awareness.”
But she added that one of the repercussions of the attacks is that people are still dying in the country’s fight against terrorism.
For this year’s 10th anniversary, Coombs has a full day planned centered around a commemorative service organized by the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund. Afterward, she will perform community service as a way to observe Sept. 11 as part of a National Day of Service and Remembrance, which was instituted in 2009.
The Coombs family is also currently in the process of designing a Sept. 11 memorial in Abington using steel from the World Trade Center.
“We miss him every moment of the day,” Coombs said. “You can’t change what happened. You can only change how you respond to it.”