CEO Makes Her Mark in Crisis Management

Fran Maher was the General Counsel at United Airlines on Sept. 11 when the unthinkable happened. In that role, Maher was faced with an array of issues as she shepherded the airline through the disaster's aftermath. Now she is CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now another of NPR's profiles of people whose lives were transformed on September 11th, 2001. Although hundreds of miles away, Fran Maher had an immediate connection to the terrorists attacks. At the time, Maher was in Chicago working as senior vice president and general counsel for United Airlines. Today she heads the Red Cross in the greater Chicago area and says 9/11 drives her to help people prepare for disaster. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: Five years ago Fran Maher was like lots of people, driving into work, listening to the radio when the news broke that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York.

Ms. FRAN MAHER (Red Cross): So I got on the phone and called one of our law firms in New York that had a view of the Hudson River to see what they could see. And when I was talking to them the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and the news reports said that it looked like a military aircraft. I knew immediately that it was terrorism and I thought it might be our airplane because our colors were gray on the underside.

CORLEY: The second plane was United Flight 175. Another United airliner would crash in Pennsylvania. And an American airlines flight would plow into the Pentagon. Maher, a petite woman with short blonde hair, sits at her desk in a Red Cross office, remembering. On a corner bookshelf in the room, a model of a gray United plane is a reminder both of the job she held as the company's top attorney and of the day which she calls other-worldly.

Ms. MAHER: I cannot begin to explain how painful that is, to think that our employees and our passengers and all those people in the World Trade Center died because of what the terrorists did with our airplanes.

CORLEY: The attacks came on the heels of a personal tragedy for Maher. He husband had died unexpectedly from an aneurism shortly before 9/11.

Ms. MAHER: And I felt as if I was being presented with a choice of, do I - do I become a victim here or - or do I lead?

CORLEY: She helped craft federal legislation calling for reparations for the airline industry. And she developed administrative procedures to provide compensation to victims' families. She remembers the Red Cross being helpful at the time, providing mental health counseling. And what she learned helped ready her for the job she now has as the agency's Chicago CEO.

Ms. MAHER: To see our lives change in an instant - the death, the destruction, the loss of innocence - you know, really just reinforced for me that we need to make the most out of lives and we need to give back. We need to be supportive of each other as human beings.

CORLEY: Fran Maher's choice was to not simply respond to catastrophe but to help people learn how to get ready for it.

Ms. MAHER: All right, so this is one of our Red Cross standard issue backpacks. And we have a first aid kit in here, we have a flashlight, gloves...

CORLEY: In her office she goes through one of the Red Cross disaster backpacks. She keeps one at home and in her car. Recently the agency unveiled a regional plan for the Chicago area, an effort to increase resources in the event of a major disaster. This month is national preparedness month and Maher, who has been the CEO for a year and a half now, says it was September 11th and the death of her husband that taught her that all families need to prepare.

Ms. MAHER: At United Airlines we had 800 children who were stranded around the world at airports when disaster struck and the airspace was shut down, their children separated from their parents. Those are the kinds of things that people need to plan for. In the event a disaster occurs you may be separated from your family, and your first priority is going to be get your family back together again.

CORLEY: Fran Maher began flying soon after September 11th. She says what she will not do, however, is watch any of the television shows or movies about the terrorist attacks. She says for her that would simply be too much.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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