Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell has an inkling of how families of the victims of Comair Flight 5191 might feel, because he nearly lost a loved one on Sept. 11, 2001: his wife, Leighanne.
"The Backstreet Boys were in Boston the week before Sept. 11," Littrell said yesterday from Nashville, where he was doing studio work. "We were headed to the Fleet Center to do our fifth sold-out night, Sept. 10."
Leighanne Littrell was scheduled to fly out on the American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. But heading to that Boston concert, she told Brian she didn't want to leave the next morning.
"She had this look in her eyes that I will never forget," Littrell said. "She had this feeling in the pit of her stomach ... We ended up canceling that afternoon, Sept. 10, and then Sept. 11 happened.
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"I would not have a loving wife and a wonderful son if that had happened."
Today, Littrell will take the stage at Rupp Arena to sing for friends and families who did lose loved ones the morning of Aug. 27, when Flight 5191 crashed on its takeoff from Bluegrass Airport, killing 49 of the 50 people on board.
For Littrell, that morning was much like the morning of Sept. 11: phones ringing as friends and loved ones called to make sure Littrell and his family were safe on the ground. Aug. 27, Littrell was making calls himself to make sure his family and friends were all safe.
Littrell was born and raised in Lexington. Most of his family lives in Central Kentucky, though he, Leighanne and their 3-year-old son Baylee live in Atlanta.
"I've been on that flight many a time when I've come to visit family," Littrell says of the early-morning plane from Lexington to Atlanta. "Almost 14 years ago I took that very flight -- the first thing going to Atlanta, connected to Orlando -- to become a Backstreet Boy."
From there, the group has gone on to superstar fame, and this year Littrell released his first solo album.
The two songs he'll sing tonight are from that CD, a contemporary Christian record called Welcome Home. Littrell said he chose the songs because of their relevance to the event.
"Gone Without Goodbye really touches on tragedy, it touches on the events of 9/11, it touches on everyday news that we can't really get away from," Littrell said of the song, written by Billy Mann. "That song is not easy to sing. It paints a very vivid picture of events in our world today. But it's also inspiring because it's filled with hope. ... I think the families need to hear that. I think our community needs to hear those lyrics in the song, because it really brings people together, and it's very faith-based. Growing up in Lexington and singing in church, that's always been my life, and it always will be."
Littrell said his mother, Jackie Littrell, questioned the use of Welcome Home (You).
"I said, 'You know, mom, there was a homecoming that happened that day that we didn't see,'" Littrell said. "Welcome Home talks about leaving home in an earthly manner and in a heavenly manner. ... There was a welcoming home of God's children, and I want people to relish in that rather than in the loss. There's a rejoice. I know it's tough to rejoice, but I want to hopefully inspire some people.
"It's going to be hard for all of us. But the best thing is being together."
Littrell, who attended Porter Memorial Baptist Church, said he was "honored" to be asked to be part of the citywide memorial service.
Littrell is used to performing before crowds of screaming fans, but he encouraged them to be conscious of the purpose of tonight's event.
"This memorial service is not about me," he said.
"The atmosphere there will be evident of what we're doing and why we're there. It's not going to be anything like a concert atmosphere, and I don't want it to be. It needs to be what it is meant to be, and that is for the families."