Once a post-9/11 face of fear, now he’s an advocate for the mentally ill
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At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Edward A. “Ted” Coburn was a 31-year-old field support engineer for a division of Rockwell Automation.
He programmed machines used in manufacturing, helping clients like Budweiser, Intel and Campbell Soup “get what they want” from the equipment.
Coburn got that “job of my dreams” after graduating from Purdue University with near-perfect grades.
But the workload and travel were grueling. He was away so much he says Fresno, California, where he lived, wasn’t home as much as it was where he “worked out of.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Coburn was working from his apartment on a rare day “there was no pressing thing” at work.
He found himself glued to his TV and the images of planes slamming into the World Trade Center, the towers collapsing.
The attacks seemed to flip a switch inside Coburn. Over the following weeks, his mental health spiraled. His father, alarmed, decided to fly him to Chicago, then head to Indiana to get treatment near family there.
What happened during their Oct. 8, 2001, flight made news around the globe. Ted Coburn became the world’s latest face of fear.
But he was no terrorist. Suffering from delusions that one of the pilots and some passengers were intent on downing the jetliner, Coburn charged into the cockpit — still possible then before their doors were reinforced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Coburn was quickly subdued. As fighter jets scrambled to escort the aircraft to O’Hare Airport — a British tabloid headline proclaimed “Fighter escort in cockpit drama.”
Coburn was arrested. But, after 20 months in federal prisons and hospitals, he was acquitted of criminal charges because of mental illness, which Coburn by then had discovered included bipolar disorder.
Now 48 and living in Indiana, Coburn has spent the past 15 years rebuilding his life and trying to help others who, like him, deal with mental illness.
“I clearly see that millions of Americans with mental illnesses struggle to get the kindness and compassion that other illnesses, such as cancer, bring,” says Coburn.
In a series of interviews, he spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times to try to combat the “stigma” surrounding mental illness, which he says “holds many people back from getting the help they need.”
Coburn grew up in Churubusco, Indiana — pop. 1,800, roughly 25 minutes from Fort Wayne.
“I only lived in two houses,” he says, including one his father designed and built “on a small farm with lots of woods.”
He has four sisters. Coburn’s mom Charlotte stayed home to raise the kids. His father Stephen “is one of the world’s premier researchers on vitamin B-6,” taught college chemistry and was an organist at the Methodist church they attended.
“I liked woodworking and made some nice things out of wood,” Coburn says. “I was in 4-H. I liked making food and baking. . . . I liked to hunt and fish.”
Coburn says he’d buy, fix and sell old motorcycles and go-karts. Later, he invested in a “big sound system so I could play music for school dances and weddings. My parents had to drive me to the first few gigs in our family station wagon because I could not drive yet.”
In high school, he worked at McDonald’s, wrestled and ran cross-country to train for wrestling.
Though he “was not very excited about schoolwork,” he says he got “basically a full ride . . . for engineering at Purdue” from a company for which he worked each summer.
“I gained experience in the electrical engineering field with that job, and it was only two miles from home. We lived in the boonies. All of this I attribute to a miracle. I simply did not have good enough grades to be deserving of such an award.”
Thanks to the “faith they put in me, I was extremely motivated to get great grades in college. And I did — nearly perfect grades.”
In college, Coburn became a licensed pilot and was an avid skydiver.
A BREAK FROM REALITY
After college, he “got the job of my dreams” with Allen-Bradley, owned by Rockwell. After training for eight months in Milwaukee, he moved to Fresno and lived there for more than seven years.
“I worked a ton and traveled a ton. I loved my job and the people I worked with.”
But the workload “was taking its toll.” Then came the terrorist attacks. That’s what set things off for him, he says.
“9/11 is the event that, by all the evidence, kicked off this bipolar illness in me,” he says.
Mental health experts say that while science has yet to identify a single cause of bipolar disorder — which can be marked by deep mood swings and psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions — a stressful event could bring it out. And studies have found that 9/11 shook the mental health of many Americans.
“My work schedule that day was not busy, so I stayed home and watched so much news on cable,” says Coburn, who was renting a room from a family.
“I did not know that would break my brain,” he says. “I slowly broke down over the next month. The last week of that time, the wheels were really falling off. I was not sleeping. I had extremely high-energy. My mind was working so fast. I was saying and doing strange things.
“I was having delusions,” he says. “I tried to work, but people could see I was not myself.”
His parents, a close friend and other members of his non-denominational Christian church were worried about him.
Coburn says his “faith was growing in the months before this, and I was getting more involved with my church.
“Part of the delusions I had involved thinking that all these ‘symptoms’ were actually God building me up to do something great for Him.”
The friend in Fresno “was able to get me to go the mental hospital without saying it was a mental hospital. I was so very tired . . . I could not put up much of a fight against it.”
On a Friday afternoon, he was admitted “against my will” for a 72-hour hold.
“My behavior became way out of control” while hospitalized, Coburn says. “I caused a huge scene and damaged the building. The staff subdued me and forced some medicine on me that knocked me out. With all of that, I acted better on Saturday and Sunday.”
Then, he doesn’t know why, but the hospital released him with “no diagnosis, no medicine, no prescription, no ‘how to handle mental illness’ pamphlet. Nothing. They were zero help, and the involuntary admission was a big push to the following blowup. I was very upset at being treated like that.”
His father and his friend decided “flying me back to Indiana was the best plan of action. I did not like that plan at all because flying stresses me out, even though I have done a lot of it. I much preferred driving.”
Coburn’s father arranged to fly with him on Oct. 8, 2001 — from Fresno to Los Angeles to O’Hare to Indiana.
Three hours into the flight to Chicago, Coburn got up and crashed the cockpit — “a split second, and I was through the door” — stunning the two pilots. Despite heightened security post-9/11, American Airlines, like most other U.S. airlines, hadn’t yet fortified all of its cockpits.
ON THE PLANE
Court records describe what happened on board.
Coburn’s dad told flight attendants “his son had been suffering from a mental condition,” and they “began to prepare for any strange activity from Coburn and placed an off-duty pilot traveling to Chicago in a seat near Coburn in order to watch him,” according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.
Almost to O’Hare, Coburn’s father told flight attendants Coburn “had said he was going to make a run for the cockpit.” Before the off-duty pilot could react, Coburn “suddenly ran to the front of the airplane, breaking through and damaging the cockpit door,” records show.
“I thought we were dead,” one passenger said later. “I expected the worst,” said another.
Coburn says he just stood in the doorway, though records indicate he landed on a console between the pilots.
They tried to push him away, and “the off-duty pilot who had been seated near Coburn . . . chased him to the cockpit, grabbed Coburn from behind and fell backwards, trying to drag Coburn out,” records show.
Several passengers helped. Coburn was “bound by flexcuffs” and “seatbelt extenders.” A call over the public-address system asked if there were any medical professionals on board. A nurse responded, injecting Coburn with Valium and Benadryl that were kept on board, records show.
Coburn was reported saying something to the effect of the “pilots are going to kill us all” and talking about the devil and how the plane was headed toward the Sears Tower.
He struggled with those detaining him and recited the “Our Father” prayer.
The plane was escorted to O’Hare by two fighter jets that caused “sonic booms” that spooked people on the ground enough to call police.
Coburn says he remembers everything.
Taking off from L.A., he says he believed the plane was going down in the Pacific Ocean. As the Boeing 767 roared east, he still didn’t feel safe. There are plenty of lakes around, he thought. That must be where the plane is going down. Lake Michigan came into focus in his mind.
He whispered his fears to his father, sitting beside him. He says he believed at the time that God wanted him to prevent a disaster.
He scanned the cabin — there were 153 passengers and eight or nine crew members on board — and thought he knew who the people were who were going to bring down the plane. He thought one of the pilots was in on everything and that the terrorists now planned to slam the plane into the Sears Tower.
He seemed calm, but, when he wasn’t looking, his father, concerned, handed a flight attendant a note to alert the crew.
Coburn didn’t know what he was going to do once inside the cockpit but says he wasn’t going to hurt anyone or try to take the controls. Maybe he could get other passengers to help stave off the terrorists.
Some passengers did rise up — to help restrain him.
When the plane landed, Coburn was taken into custody initially by the Chicago police, then by the FBI.
Coburn’s father recalls talking with an FBI agent who seemed unsure how to handle things. Stephen Coburn says the agent told him “normally” someone in that type of situation would immediately be sent to get psychiatric care, “but, because of 9/11, we’re going to have to call Washington.”
After consulting with higher-ups, federal authorities charged him and took him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the South Loop, the first of several federal lockups and health centers where he’d be held.
He says he met some “great guys” in custody, “really sought out Christians and read the Bible,” and, at a correctional center in Rochester, Minnesota, “was in a choir.”
He says it wasn’t easy, but that being in custody forced him to confront his mental illness, including a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
For 10 months, he says he refused to take medication, clinging to the belief that what was going through his mind on that plane was real. More than once while in custody, he recalls “flipping out, yelling” and was put in special confinement.
Coburn says that initially “my judge would not force treatment on me, even though my parents were requesting it. Later, the reports of my behavior while incarcerated led him to demand that I get treatment, with the purpose of getting me ‘competent to stand trial.’ “
That kept delaying his case. “Going to trial, when it looked like I was competent, always caused blowups with my symptoms,” he says.
Eventually, the judge ordered him to take his medication.
“If I refused, a football team of officers would come in, tackle me and give me an injection,” he says. “With this leverage on me, I ‘chose’ to take oral medicine.
“I did not think I needed any medicine to get better,” Coburn says. “I would just try harder, you know. I would not let the problems happen again. Try to stand up to a tidal wave.”
But he says, “It was way too strong for me.”
He says his meds in prison included Lithium, a mood stabilizer, and the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa.
“Once I started taking medicine, I could notice the clarity of thought coming back so quickly,” Coburn says. “It was amazing.”
A PROSECUTOR’S HELP
Today, John Lausch is the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois — the top federal prosecutor for the Chicago region, tapped for the job last year by President Donald Trump.
A young assistant U.S. attorney at the time of Coburn’s arrest, Lausch was assigned the case. Coburn — charged with assaulting and intimidating a flight crew — faced a lengthy prison term if convicted.
Lausch ended up doing something unusual for a prosecutor: He asked U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras to find Coburn not guilty by reason of insanity.
He argued the “evidence supports the conclusion that the defendant . . . was suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him unable, at the time of the crime, to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts.”
Kocoras agreed. He found Coburn not guilty. He also required him to get mental health treatment, including regular visits to a psychiatrist.
Coburn’s father says that, at one hearing, Lausch “came over to Ted and said, ‘I’m about your age, I realize it could have been me.’ ”
“He really understood it, that something medically went wrong with me,” Coburn says.
Coburn was released on June 25, 2003, and moved back to the Fort Wayne area.
Lausch remembers the case well. He calls the situation “unique” given the circumstances and times.
Asking the judge for a not guilty verdict “was the right thing to do,” says Lausch, who remembers Coburn’s parents’ commitment to helping their son. “It’s good to hear that he’s doing well. That’s really good to hear.”
DALEY REBUKE, THEN A NEW PATH
Lausch’s actions were a stark contrast to the initial response, just after the plane incident, from then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, who ripped Coburn’s father for bringing him on the plane and not stopping him from barging into the cockpit.
“There has to be responsibility of that parent,” Daley told reporters in 2001. “You should be outraged by the father.”
Stephen Coburn apologized at the time, saying, “No words can erase the stress and inconvenience that we caused the passengers. We’re really grateful to the passengers and crew that were able to resolve the issue without any serious injury.”
Daley’s law department sued the Coburns months later to recover the expense of the emergency response. They settled after nearly a year.
The Coburns sued the California psychiatric hospital they said negligently released Coburn before the flight to Chicago. A judge ruled against them. But government health regulators investigated the hospital and found “numerous deficiencies,” including inadequate staffing and incomplete psychiatric evaluations.
While Coburn was still in custody, his parents got a call from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nearly 40-year-old nonprofit that has chapters around the country, asking: “Can we help?”
NAMI helps mentally ill people and their families navigate illnesses and treatment options and connects them with others in similar straits for support.
The Coburns learned more about their son’s condition — and that they weren’t alone.
When Ted Coburn moved back to Indiana, he says, “My parents introduced me to NAMI. I was reluctant to go to NAMI in 2003, but I was willing to give it a try. After a couple of weekly meetings I was sold. I have been to NAMI nearly every Tuesday night since that time.
“I was able to gain a very good understanding of mental illness in general, as well as my own illness,” Coburn says. “This social support is as effective as medication for me.”
Coburn also “learned a great deal about suicide,” which, according to suicide-prevention groups, claims nearly 45,000 lives a year nationwide, nearly half involving someone with a diagnosed mental condition.
“I lost a good friend to suicide,” Coburn says. “He also had a serious mental illness.
“I believe that if everyone had a basic education on this subject, we could save many American lives.”
As Coburn focused on improving his own health, he also joined his local NAMI board and for a time was its president. He and his parents “facilitate a lot of support groups.”
And with many police departments lacking training on dealing with people who are mentally ill, Coburn has trained officers to help them with crisis intervention.
He and his parents also have supported the Carriage House, a nonprofit community and resource center in Fort Wayne that has “the singular mission of assisting people in their recovery from mental illness and reintegration into the community.”
“I wish I could do more,” he says. “But I do the best I can.”
‘OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE’
In custody for 20 months, after he got out, Coburn returned to engineering for several years, spent time buying and rehabbing houses and then went back to engineering because it was better money.
He says he now works in a factory where, among other things, he’s responsible for maintaining and programming robots that do welding to “make metal parts, including bumpers that go on cars.”
Getting hired at times was “challenging, mainly because of my gap in employment . . . I am working hard now, up to 60 hours a week.”
His personal life has improved, too. “I was not sure I would ever get married,” he says. “But I met a super wonderful woman, and that all changed.”
They met through church and got married last year. Coburn now is stepfather to six kids.
“I have never relapsed, and I have never been hospitalized” since being released from custody, Coburn says. “I continue to work with my psychiatrist to maintain my health. I battle for my health every single day.”
He says that he is “optimistic about the future. I am thankful that God is watching over the path we are on as a family.”