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Cape Coral Mother Reflects on the Loss of Her Daughter Aboard Flight 77 on 9/11

Mari-Rae Sopper
Courtesy Photo
Mari-Rae Sopper

When Cape Coral resident Marion Kminek heard the news about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 one of her first thoughts was whether the events of the day would delay her daughter Mari-Rae Sopper's travel plans. She was moving from Washington D.C. to California that week to begin her dream job as the women’s gymnastic coach at University of California Santa Barbara. It wasn’t until later in the day Kminek learned that her daughter was aboard Flight 77 — the plane that was flown into the Pentagon.

Mike Kiniry spoke to her about that day, and to reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

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Kiniry: Marion Kminek, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me about your daughter.

Kminek: Well, thank you.

Kiniry: What do you feel when you're reminded of September 11th, just in a normal year?

Kminek: That's a tough question. Of course, the loss of my daughter, but also the support that people and our country gave all the victims at that time, how everybody pulled together.

Kiniry: So your daughter, Mari-Rae Sopper, let me get this right -- she was leaving her job as a lawyer in Washington, DC at the age of 35 in order to move to California to take a job as a gymnastics coach at a college that was canceling their gymnastics program? Is that about right?

Kminek: That's exactly right.

Kiniry: Was that the kind of life decision that she tended to make? That's a big break, that would come as a surprise for a lot of people.

Kminek: Mari-Rae had always wanted to be a collegiate gymnastics coach and life got in the way. First of all, you had to have a master's degree. So she got that. And then when she finished her master's degree, there weren't any job openings -- there aren't that many collegiate women's gymnastics teams. And of course, there's only a head coach and an assistant coach. So there weren't any openings. And that's when she decided to go to law school. And after she got out of law school, she had the school loan. So she was concerned about those. And she went into the Navy. I mean, none of this fits, right? She was an idealist.

Anyway, she went into the Navy, she was a JAG defense attorney and then became a defense appellate attorney. And then when she got out, she went into private practice and went to work for a corporate law firm, which was not her dream. She didn't like it at all. And so she decided that year because there were lots of openings in collegiate gymnastics coaching to start applying for jobs. And that's why she ended up at UCSB.

Kiniry: As a parent, how are you with that decision? I can imagine a lot of parents would be like 'you're going to leave your secure job as a lawyer to go be a gymnastics coach?' Was that something that you supported?

Kminek: Oh, yeah. She was very good with money. She had money saved. She owned a condo in the district in DC and had quite a bit of equity. So I knew she'd be fine. I also knew she didn't quite understand the cost of living in Santa Barbara versus her salary, but something she had always wanted to do.

Kiniry: So when she got on Flight 77, that wound up crashing into the Pentagon, she was on her way to her new life?

Kminek: Correct. She was moving. That was why she was on that flight.

Kiniry: And she had her cat with her. I saw that as one of the details in the story. I thought that was an interesting little insight. And you don't think about things like that when you think of these big events.

Kminek: That's true. And it's really one of the only way that the FBI was able to find the footage of her going through security at Dulles because there were only two women that had cats. And we do have that footage.

Kiniry: You do have that footage. Wow. That must be precious.

Kminek: It is. And I think it's online. I mean, I think it is if you Google it, I think it probably comes up because it was footage of two of the terrorists. They were right behind her. So it's footage of them, but she happens to be in front of them.

Kiniry: Wow. How did you find out that she was on the plane that struck the Pentagon?

Kminek: Yeah, I didn't know. Obviously, when you have an adult child, you don't know their exact travel arrangements. I knew she was moving. I knew the movers that picked up her stuff on Sunday. I didn't know she was leaving Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. I wasn't sure what time, but I knew that she was supposed to start work that week. And I think I had her phone number, which turned out to be a direct number at a desk in the office at UCSB. So when this happened, my only thought was, oh, my god, I hope she got out before this happened. She'll be furious if she can't leave. And then I don't know, something just told me that I needed to find out if she was on the plane and phone lines were down. I couldn't get a hold of anybody. And finally, I did get a hold of her sister. I thought that maybe she had driven her to the airport and she said no, another friend had driven her. So I got ahold of him, and he said, yeah, she was on that plane. He said she was there in plenty of time. And so he was sure that she was on the plane. So I called American Airlines and they couldn't confirm. They said she had a ticket on the flight, but they couldn't confirm she had boarded.

What I didn't understand at the time was that the airlines do not tell you they have people trained that are supposed to notify you. So although I knew by probably noon that day because, you know, you know the airline scans your boarding pass. So they knew she was on the flight and she had a ticket on the flight. I knew she didn't miss it. So by, I think, by about four or five o'clock that afternoon, Chicago Time, we got the call from American Airlines.

Kiniry: One of the articles that you sent me, you're quoted as saying "with her on board, well, God help those hijackers." Fair to say she was a tenacious individual?

Kminek: Yes. In my mind, I could see her try to talk them out of it. But of course, I don't think that really happened, but that would have been her first thought. Well, you don't want to do this. You're going to get in trouble. Because you do understand in the beginning, they didn't know they were going to die, right? Hijackings were inconveniences up to that point.

Kiniry: Have you attended many of the memorials over the years?

Kminek: Yeah. The first year, of course, we went to Washington, DC, and then we went out to California after that to a memorial there. And California considered her a citizen of California because that's why she was on the plane to move to. So that's why they invited us there. And then I'm trying to think we probably went to the fifth year. I know we went to the 10th year, and I also know that we went to the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial. But we haven't been since the 10th year, I think.

Kiniry: Where will you be this year?

Kminek: We're going to Washington, DC, going to the memorial service.

Kiniry: How has this been this year with all the extra attention that the the 20th anniversary has brought?

Kminek: You know, actually, it's nice because again, she's being remembered and that's all I wanted was her life to mean something and that she'd be remembered. And all the stories because there's a lot on the internet and that's all being rewound and put out there again. I'm glad for that.

Kiniry: Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with about your daughter?

Kminek: I think there's a statement in something I sent you that says that she always basically lived her life the way she wanted to live it. She always wanted to improve people. She always did it out of love. So sometimes she was a little too difficult, like if she wanted you to quit smoking or something else, but it was always to improve you. And she would have been a great coach for those girls. She did coach most of her life, but just not College.

Kiniry: Well, Marion thank you so much for sharing some time and your story with us.

Kminek: Thank you for letting me do this.