By Sweeny Murti
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There are still days Melanie doesn’t believe it really happened. But then she looks at her son. Christopher isn’t 6 years old anymore. He’s a teenager, doing teenage things like learning to drive. So it must be real.
Melanie’s husband and Christopher’s father — Cory Lidle — died in a plane crash on Oct. 11, 2006. Lidle pitched in the major leagues for a decade, including the last two months of his career with the Yankees.
When I met with Melanie and Christopher in New York City last month, it was easy to see Christopher’s resemblance to Cory. “His eyes have always been (Cory’s) from day one,” Melanie said with a smile.
Lidle’s death — 10 years ago Tuesday — was stunning, certainly for the manner in which it happened. His small plane crashed into a building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, killing him at age 34, and his 26-year-old copilot/flight instructor, Tyler Stanger. Just five years after 9/11, news of a plane crash in Manhattan sent chills down New Yorkers’ spines.
There were a few things that struck me about Cory’s death. For one, I knew Cory, albeit for just two months.
For another, I spoke to him a few times about his relatively new hobby of flying airplanes, and we openly talked about famous plane crashes just three days before his tragic accident.
And what hit me maybe hardest of all was that I — along with the rest of the world — knew Cory died before Melanie and Christopher did.
“Cory went up in the plane and was in love,” Melanie said of the first time he had flown in a small aircraft. That was the fall of 2005, during an offseason vacation with friends in Arizona.
A month before the 10th anniversary of Cory’s death, Melanie Lidle-Heyward sat across from me — along with now-16-year-old Christopher and her second husband, Brandyn Heyward — in the restaurant of a Midtown hotel. We were about three miles from the Belaire Apartments, where Cory’s plane crashed barely a year after that first flight.
Obsessed With Hobbies
Melanie and Cory had known each other since they were kids in West Covina, California, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. They dated in eighth grade, were best friends throughout their years at South Hills High School and got together again after graduating in 1990. They were married in 1997, the year Cory made his major league debut with the Mets.
By 2005, Cory had become one of the more durable pitchers in the majors, starting at least 30 games for the fourth straight season. He was also one of the most traveled, pitching for five teams in six years.
The time and devotion to compete in the major leagues is enough to consume some people. For Cory, there was always time for family and other diversions.
“Cory is one of those guys that has to always be doing something,” Melanie said. “And he has to be the best at it, and then he will move on.”
Once Cory felt the itch to fly planes, Melanie knew exactly what that meant because Cory’s hobbies would be all-consuming. In high school, he wanted to become a pool shark and flipped burgers in the kitchen of a local billiards hall just so he could play for free. Later, after taking up golf, he would be out on the course several times a day to perfect his swing.
“The joke in our house was that he was only allowed to have one hobby at a time, because I would never see him,” Melanie laughed. “We started poker so I could spend more time with him.”
Poker became such a serious endeavor that they befriended World Series of Poker champion Chris Moneymaker. Cory actually advanced to the fourth round of a WSOP qualifier in 2004, and Melanie made it to the second round.
Cory had a small window of time to obsess over his newest hobby — between October and February, which is the end of the regular season and the start of spring training. A minimum of 40 hours of solo flight time is required before earning a private pilot’s license, and that takes most people a year or longer.
Cory met and hired Stanger as his instructor in the fall of 2005. By September of 2006, Cory said in a New York Times article that he had amassed 95 solo hours.
Cory had also just purchased his own plane, a 2002 Cirrus SR-20, for $187,000, according to the Times article.
“Of course I was worried, but there was nothing I could do,” Melanie told me. She remembers going up in a plane twice with Cory in spring training. That was in planes they rented to fly, but she never went up in the Cirrus plane with him.
“I know Cory — I knew that he isn’t going to do something half-assed,” she said. “I knew that he went up there and knew what he was doing. But I knew the risks. He’s told me a million times, ‘I’m more likely to have a crash on the street than in the air.’”
Over the course of about 90 minutes, Melanie spoke about Cory in the present tense off and on — a reminder that, for some, 10 years can go by in an instant. And maybe another sign that she’s not sure it really happened.
Melanie knew that trying to keep her husband grounded would have been fruitless.
“I couldn’t tell Cory, ‘No you’re not going to get a plane,’” she said. “He’s a grown man. (I asked) ‘Why the plane?’ But I knew that he loved it and there was no talking him out of it.”
Last Moments With His Family
Cory was traded from the Phillies to the Yankees at the end of July in 2006. He appeared in 10 games for the Yankees over the final two months of the season, going 4-3 with a 5.16 ERA. He made one appearance in the Yankees’ four-game loss to the Tigers in the ALDS — the final game in Detroit.
While Cory flew back to New York with the team on a Saturday night, Melanie and Christopher flew back from California — where Christopher had just started kindergarten — to meet him. Before they packed up and went home for the winter, they were going to spend a few days enjoying New York City.
When it was time to fly back to California, Melanie and Christopher planned to board a commercial flight while Cory would fly home in his Cirrus, a journey that would take three days with stops in between. Since Cory was going to be joined on his flight by his instructor, Stanger and his family also traveled to New York.
The Lidles and Stangers spent Monday and Tuesday walking around Manhattan and taking in what the city had to offer. They took their kids to see “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway. And Tuesday, on their last full day in New York, they took pictures from the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center.
“That’s the last picture we have of all of us together,” Melanie said.
Well Aware Of What Could Go Wrong
I was among the group of reporters Cory spoke to as he cleaned out his locker the day after the Yankees had been eliminated from the playoffs. As the session broke up and we said goodbye for the winter, Cory told us about his plan to fly home in a few days on his new plane.
I joked with Cory that I started to sing “American Pie” every time I boarded a small commuter jet. No way would I ever go up in a plane like that, I told him.
We started talking about the safety issues, and he told me and a few other reporters that he was a student of flying now. He was well aware of the accidents that had claimed the lives of Thurman Munson and John F. Kennedy Jr.
Cory told us he had read the accident reports on both of those famous crashes and others on the National Transportation Safety Board website.
Munson, the former Yankees captain, died Aug. 2, 1979, in a small plane crash in Ohio. At old Yankee Stadium, the team kept his locker stall empty with his No. 15 hanging above. It was across the clubhouse about 40 feet away from where Cory was standing and telling us — just like he told Melanie so many times — he was more likely to get into an accident on the ground than in the air.
Cory was going to be a free agent, and it was unlikely he would have re-signed with the Yankees, so he made sure his family got to spend a couple days having fun in New York before they had to leave.
That Fateful Day
Then, on a gray Wednesday afternoon, Cory and Stanger took off from Teterboro Airport around 2:30 p.m. They flew past the Statue of Liberty and up the East River, a little aerial sight-seeing before turning west for home.
Less than 15 minutes after takeoff, the plane slammed into a 42-story apartment building on East 72nd Street.
News outlets quickly covered the story, with fears of a terrorist attack being an immediate reaction by most. That idea was soon dismissed, and in a short period of time, reporters learned that it was Cory’s plane that struck the building and that both men had perished in the fiery crash.
Media outlets began reporting the deaths Lidle and Stanger. But New York City and police officials were not officially making that announcement yet.
That’s because both men had wives and children who were on a plane heading to California. And they had no idea yet what had happened.
“I had like 15 people helping me at one time, and I thought, this is kind of weird, no one’s ever done this before,'” Melanie said.
Melanie had gotten used to flying alone with Christopher all over the country. A baseball wife married to an oft-traveled player figures out the routine pretty quickly.
“Him and I fly everywhere together, and I did everything by myself,” Melanie recalled. “No one would ever offer to help.”
Not that it’s easy, but Melanie had gotten used to taking care of Christopher and all the belongings — bags, car seat, stroller, etc. — by herself with little assistance.
This time it was different. The crew on the cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles was being extra attentive to Melanie and Christopher.
“This time the flight attendants were coming up to us (during the flight) and asking him questions — ‘How old are you? Oh, you’re so cute.’”
Maybe if they were in first class, she wouldn’t have been as suspicious. But since she was travelling with Stephanie Stanger and her 9-month-old daughter, they were all seated in coach. The two families were separated by a few rows.
“And people are coming up to me,” Melanie said, “wanting to help me with the car seat, help me with my bag, and I’m thinking to myself this is the weirdest thing ever.”
One thing to remember is that in 2006, there were no iPhones. There was no Twitter, no Facebook and no on-board Wi-Fi to keep passengers constantly plugged in and up to date. On board a commercial airplane, you were still out of touch with the rest of the world until the plane landed. Unless you were a pilot.
It turns out that an old high school friend of Cory and Melanie heard news of the plane crash on TV while Melanie’s plane was still in the air. That friend had a family member who worked at American Airlines, allowing him to get a message to the pilots and crew and alerting them to what just happened to the husbands of two of their passengers.
Back in L.A., where the news spread in normal time, family members of both the Lidles and the Stangers were brought to the terminal so they could meet the plane at the gate. Melanie remembers hearing an announcement for passengers to not turn their phones on until after they got off the plane.
“I thought that’s weird, too,” Melanie said.
She realized later that “they didn’t want people to turn their phones on and see the breaking news.”
Waiting at the gate when Melanie and Christopher got off the plane were Melanie’s sister, Brandy Peters, and her husband, Miles.
“You couldn’t get past security without a ticket, so I thought, ‘What the hell are you guys doing here?'” Melanie said.
“My sister looked at me and said, ‘Melanie, Cory’s been in an accident.’
Melanie began to wonder about the magnitude of Cory’s plane crashing in New York City.
“I thought, ‘How many people could have died in this?’” Melanie said. “And she’s like, ‘It’s just Cory and Tyler.’
“And I was kind of trying to process that. ‘How can that happen? You hit a building in New York City, just the debris on the ground, how does that not hit anybody else?’”
There were, in fact, several injuries at the site and on the ground, but miraculously none life-threatening.
“So I think all these things are just going through my head, and at that point, I must have just, not blacked out, but just — shock hit me,” Melanie said. “My legs went from under me. They put me in a wheelchair, and they took me into a little room.”
Christopher was whisked away by a family friend, taken to Melanie’s truck, which had been brought out to the tarmac near the plane, and distracted with headphones and cartoons.
“As they are rolling me in, I’m thinking to myself: ‘Stephanie is on the plane. She’s four months pregnant, and she’s got a 9-month-old baby with her,'” Melanie said. “And they said: “Her family is here, too. They’re going to get her.”
Stephanie Stanger, just like Melanie, was then told her husband was dead.
“All of a sudden, I hear screaming,” Melanie recalled. “They had to take her out with the wheelchair. She was throwing up. And I was so worried about this baby.”
Stephanie’s baby would be OK. He just wouldn’t ever meet his father.
Melanie and Christopher went home, but had to sneak into their house in the middle of the night. That’s because the media had already gathered outside the Lidle house in West Covina. Remember, they knew what happened before she did, and they had blocked the entire street.
“There were reporters and newscasters and lights and everything,” Melanie recalled. “So we went to my sister’s house, and then in the middle of the night, we went back, and we were able to drive our truck into the garage.”
The crush of media on the tiny cul de sac caused a power outage on the street.
“We couldn’t leave the house. It was bombarded,” Melanie said.
Meanwhile, there was Christopher, shielded from the sobering reality as much as possible.
“Luckily Nickelodeon doesn’t show breaking news,” Melanie said.
Melanie was having a hard enough time coming to grips with Cory’s death. Trying to break the news to Christopher became impossible.
“I couldn’t do it,” Melanie said. “My mom and my sister, they told him for me. I didn’t want to know how he reacted. … I didn’t want to know.”
Telling a 6-year old his father is dead is one thing. Getting him to understand it is something else altogether.
“They told him, but I don’t think he believed it or really knew what they were talking about,” Melanie said. “I don’t think he really accepted it.
“He didn’t cry. And, truthfully, I didn’t cry for the first week. I think I was in so much shock I couldn’t have any feelings. Christopher and I are a lot alike in that sense, so I think he probably handled it the way I did. It didn’t really happen in our minds.”
The first time Melanie left her house after that was for Cory’s funeral, six days after the accident. Christopher was there, but was taken home halfway through by his older cousins.
Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Brian Cashman and Reggie Jackson were among those representing the Yankees.
Kevin Lidle, Cory’s twin brother and a former minor league player, was — unintentionally — a spooky presence.
There was media coverage there as well. The USA Today account mentioned that, “Supported by another woman, Lidle’s wife, Melanie, walked up to the gray casket … .”
The other woman was Stephanie Stanger.
“For me, after getting past Cory actually being gone, the second hardest thing was that it was all about Cory,” Melanie said.
“That really hurt me. It was really hard to look at them in the face, knowing that (Tyler’s) life wasn’t as important (to the media) as Cory’s.”
The other thing Melanie kept coming back to was Christopher.
“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know how different it would have been,” she said. “But I had to be strong for him.”
Picking Up The Pieces
The Yankees provided a great deal of assistance right away, from helping Melanie’s sister arrange the funeral to setting up grief counseling for both Melanie and Christopher.
“He was still so little, so he didn’t understand,” Melanie said. “He thought he was going there for playtime.”
In the first few months after losing his father, Christopher would oftentimes wake up crying in the middle of the night.
“It wasn’t that he was thinking about Cory,” Melanie said. “He was thinking about everybody else.”
Christopher would wake up thinking about his mom, his grandmother or his aunt and uncle not being there now. Melanie left a cellphone next to his bed with a handful of numbers programmed, and Christopher would awake in the middle of the night and call his grandmother, just to make sure she was still there.
Therapy only helped so much. Melanie took Christopher once a week, and then went by herself another day of the week. They went for about two years before Melanie decided to “give us a break.”
In 2008, 8-year-old Christopher was playing baseball in the same West Covina little league his dad had decades earlier. That’s when Melanie met Brandyn Heyward.
It turned out that Brandyn had lived in the same neighborhood as Melanie when they were kids, but they didn’t know each other then. Brandyn also had played college baseball against Cory’s twin brother, Kevin.
Doug Lidle — Cory’s dad and Christopher’s grandfather — introduced Brandyn and Melanie. There was also a little help from Brandyn’s teenage son, R.J., who was strategically deployed by Brandyn to strike up conversation with Melanie.
Brandyn was divorced. As he and Melanie became close, so did R.J. and Christopher. Melanie saw Christopher looking up to R.J. like an older brother.
On March 22, 2009, R.J died in a drowning accident caused by a heart issue. He was 14 years old. And it happened on what would have been Cory’s 37th birthday.
With another traumatic event to deal with in such a short time, Melanie decided to get Christopher back into therapy.
“It kind of pushed everything backwards for a little bit,” Melanie said. However, “It didn’t take so long to get everything back to normal this time.”
In April 2010, Melanie and Brandyn were married. After living for a short time in Glendora, they moved to West Covina, down the street from the home Melanie and Cory were planning to build in 2006.
The final NTSB accident report on Cory’s crash was released in May 2007. It states the cause of the fatal accident was “the pilots’ inadequate planning, judgment, and airmanship in the performance of a 180-degree turn maneuver inside of a limited turning space.”
The report placed blame solely on the pilots, but the board could not definitively determine which of the two men was at the controls when the crash occurred.
When the investigation was complete, personal effects recovered from the wreckage were returned to the families. Melanie received Cory’s wallet and his laptop.
“Everything smelled burnt,” Melanie recalled.
Stephanie received Tyler’s wedding ring and his digital camera.
Amazingly, the memory card inside the camera was still intact and held five pictures—three shots of the Statue of Liberty, taken as Cory and Tyler flew past it minutes before the crash, and the two family pictures taken at the Top of the Rock the day before the accident.
Stephanie printed the family pictures and presented them as a gift to Melanie.
“It was crazy to see those pictures,” Melanie said. “I don’t think I remembered them until I saw them.”
Together Melanie and Stephanie sued Cirrus Design in 2011 for product liability. After testimony that lasted two months, the jury deliberated only three hours and returned a verdict in favor of the plane’s manufacturer.
“It took a two-month toll on my life,” Melanie said.
But the trial process educated Melanie.
“If I knew then what I know now about planes,” she told me, “I don’t think there would have been a plane.
“It hasn’t been easy the last 10 years,” Melanie said.
That is an unimaginable understatement.
Before Cory died, Melanie dealt with thyroid cancer. In 2013, she battled breast cancer.
“They caught it early,” Melanie said. “I’m a clean bill of health right now. We’ve had a lot go on. But we have a really great family support, and it just makes it a little bit easier to get through things.”
Keeping His Memory Alive
Melanie and Stephanie still keep in touch. It was more frequent before, but now it’s usually once a year for the Cory Lidle Thanksgiving Tournament, a youth baseball event in West Covina. Proceeds go to scholarship funds in the names of Cory Lidle and Tyler Stanger, as well as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and City of Hope charities.
Stephanie attends every year with her and Tyler’s two children — their daughter, Ashlund, and their son, Powell, the baby that Stephanie was carrying and Melanie so worried about when they learned of the plane crash.
“Looks just like his father,” Melanie said smiling.
Melanie, Brandyn and Christopher were at Yankee Stadium in September for a game between the Yankees and Dodgers. Christopher no longer plays baseball. He’s focused now on soccer and volleyball. But they still enjoy going to the ballpark.
“Major League Baseball has been a big part of our lives,” Melanie said. “They’ve taken really good care of us.”
Melanie said they feel closest to the Yankees — Cory’s last team — and the Phillies and A’s, the two teams with which he spent the most time.
The Yankees invited Melanie and Christopher to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day 2007 in New York. Jason Giambi joined them on the field. Giambi, also from West Covina, was a teammate of Cory’s in both high school and the majors.
Inside the Yankees’ clubhouse, Cory’s locker was left empty for the season, his No. 30 plate hanging above it. Melanie never went inside to see it.
Christopher sat next to his mom for more than an hour while we discussed the events of 10 years ago. He was quiet, but listened intently. He told me he doesn’t remember much about his father’s playing days.
But the Lidles are fortunate to have plenty of video from Cory’s library. Christopher used to watch them more when he was younger, less so now. But only because he’s a busy teenager, Melanie said, than any other reason.
Their favorite is a highlight video Cory’s agent put together for teams in preparation for his free agency. In addition to strikeouts and other game action, there are some personal moments. One of them has Cory talking about one of his hobbies, poker. Then-3-year-old Christopher is sitting on his dad’s lap talking and playing.
“That’s a really hard video for me to look at without crying,” Melanie says.
‘I Always Feel People Feel Sorry For Us’
Melanie told me she doesn’t do public speaking very well, and she hasn’t told her story very much, either. During our conversations, both on the phone and in person, Melanie held it together better than I did.
I fought the urge to cry many times.
“I always feel people feel sorry for us,” Melanie told me. “I don’t want that.”
I was probably guilty of that for sure. Cory’s death stuck with me, and Melanie and Christopher are people I just had to meet. I did it so I could tell a little of their story. But I also did it so I could just know they were OK.
And for the most part they are. But there are still those times when Melanie doesn’t believe it actually happened.
“Even to this day, sometimes I think: Is this a dream? Am I going to wake up?
“I’ve known Cory more than half my life. For him not to be a part of me every day, it’s still not realistic. It’s still not reality for me.”
Cory is buried not far from their home in West Covina. “That’s the view he would have wanted,” Melanie said to me.
They will pay another visit Tuesday. Ten years now.
“To me, Cory’s always with us,” Melanie said. “I don’t think he’d want us to mourn and be upset — actually I know that for a fact. I know he wouldn’t want that. Cory’s put us in a comfortable lifestyle. We get to do a lot that we like to do and have fun, and I know that’s exactly how he’d want us to be. That’s how Cory lived.”
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN