AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 1420:
When Time Was Gone
by Sharon (Angleman) Goodson
" T wo and a half more hours of travel," I thought, "God, I'll never make it."
It had been an exasperating day. After an hour and a half drive from Stockton to the Sacramento airport, I finally left the ground at 2 p.m. A thunderstorm forced us to circle Dallas for half an hour before landing, then the flight from Dallas to Little Rock was delayed for over two hours. I was physically and emotionally drained and seriously considered getting a hotel room when we landed in Little Rock. I would tackle the remaining 150 miles to my home in Jonesboro in the morning. It would be at least 12:45 a.m. by the time I deplaned, got my baggage and dragged my tired body to the van. And it waited at the far end of the long-term parking at the Little Rock Municipal Airport.
I looked at my ticket again. 8F. A window seat. "Good," I thought, "at least I won't be stuck between two people." Being one of the last ones to board, all the seats were full. A man I met during the extended layover in Dallas took my camera bag further down the aisle for me, since all the overhead bins around my seat were full. I hated letting go of my equipment like that, but I didn't have any choice. The plane has stuffed, and travelers were tired and irritated. There was little patience for additional delays.
I scooted past 8D, an attractive man with glasses, probably in the military judging by the haircut. I literally crawled over 8E, a plump, pleasant looking black woman who's eyes sparkled and danced.
I settled in with my legal pad and pencil and continued to journal my thoughts as I had been doing most of the day. My two seat mates discussed vacation spots and engaged in the usual chit chat one often shares on a plane. He was in the military, lived in Alaska and loved it. She was returning from her annual vacation with her sisters. She had about an hour's drive from the LR Airport also.
Once in a while I put down my work and stared blankly into the skies, seeing nothing - no stars, no city lights, no landscapes, only thick, lifeless black. Occasionally I would briefly join the conversations, but my mind had withdrawn unto itself, and in that state, casual conversation was an exhaustive chore.
I noticed the passengers in front of me, a couple maybe in their early sixties. The man was in seat 7E, the woman in 7F, the first row of seats behind first class. They seemed happy and she smiled a lot. She joined my seat mates' conversation occasionally and enjoyed hearing the stories about Alaska the military man told.
At one point she was helping her husband do something. It looked like he had a blanket over his head and held a flashlight under the blanket. I don't know what he was doing. I giggled out loud at my imagined image of this man, like a kid in Roy Rogers pajamas, reading comics in bed after lights out. I wrote the image down on my legal pad.
Bleary-eyed and weary, I squinted through the low light to make out the hands on my watch again.
11: 41 p.m.
That was the last time I ever looked at the face of that watch.
The pilot suggested we watch the "spectacular lightning show" as we began our descent to Little Rock. I put my pad and pencil in the straw bag that held my planner, various papers and files, my oversized Stephen King soft back, wallet, gum, and of course, cigarettes. I left my bag on my lap and looked out the window. As I watched the light bounce off the clouds, I caught momentary glimpses of rain passing quickly beneath us. Another tear rolled down my already-streaked face, much like the rain streaked down the plane windows. I noticed the optical illusion the rain created as the MD-80 sliced swiftly through the clouds. The speed at which we traveled and the outside lights on the plane gave the rain the appearance of a solid horizontal surface speeding just beneath us. For a second I thought the gray mass was actually the runway pavement and that my fuzzed mind had simply missed the descent to Little Rock.
"Hey," I said to no one in particular. "Look at this. This is really cool." I turned toward the lady and the military man and repeated the statement, pointing out the window as I did. She glanced quickly out the window and seeing nothing, she returned to her conversation with our seat mate.
"That is really cool," I said again, this time to only myself.
I thought about my trip to California. The past several months had brought so many changes. Things were ending and things were beginning. Someone in charge had taken a great big stick and stirred stagnant, discontented lives, and now seemingly random events were unfolding almost like predestined clockwork. Choices would be forced. Directions would be analyzed. I even joked in my journal about what kind of adventure I would encounter on the way home from Sacramento.
I checked my white cardboard box again. The vintage and the relishes I had purchased in the Valley were faring well. The two carnations and a rose, left from a bouquet given to me, were still fresh, snuggled neatly in little vials of water. The honeycomb still waited to spill its sweet, sticky juices onto three eager, fascinated pairs of hands. I smiled at the image of my children eating their first honeycomb. Childhood should be that way….
"Well I think he's been doing a pretty good job if you ask me." The passenger's voice and a momentary feeling of antigravity brought me back to the present. The sensation was accompanied by a jolt to the left.
"Yes," I responded jokingly to the voice, "until now, anyway."
As soon as the words left my mouth the plane tried to make contact with the ground. The side-winding, weightless feeling of hydroplaning tires told me my teasing was more ironic than I intended.
The customary solid grip of rubber to concrete never came.
The plane fishtailed to the left.
Our speed was unaffected and in fact seemed to accelerate as winds pushed us along. I think we were airborne again for a moment. I don't know if it was the winds or the pilot pulling us back up. From somewhere I heard engines screaming in protest.
"What the hell is going on?" I thought. "I should have been paying attention! But it's okay, I'm sure. He'll get it this time…of course he will.…"
We missed contact a second time. The brakes were useless and caused us only to slip sluggishly like some huge, failing carnival ride. It felt again like the plane lifted back in the air. Engines whined and wailed, straining against themselves. It felt like the nose swung up and the tail flapped helplessly in what I later learned where 80 mph winds.
"One more time, baby," I pleaded, "Catch the ground this time…."
I felt the agonizing grind of the brakes this time. We never once felt the familiar grab and comforting jerk to let us know contact was made. Instead, the comfy feeling of touchdown was replaced by uncontrolled, unimpeded sliding and violent trembling. We grabbed only the water standing on the runway.
"Three strikes. You're out." A voice, not quite my own, said.
The inside of the cabin rumbled. A surging, powerful pulse spread from the front of the craft and bellowed swiftly through every panel, every screw, every rivet and every passenger on the plane. With that, the vibrations increased with a force like a thunderous, electric shock wave.
Our speed had still not decreased. The roaring rattle of the shock wave grew louder and more intense. Things started tearing apart. I could actually feel the resonance of smashing, screeching metal. A metallic, ionic taste filled my mouth Fear had not yet registered.
As the shock wave vibrations shook craft, passengers jerked and snapped in their seats. I looked at the woman with the shining eyes. She looked at me. Our faces must have mirrored expressions of complete confusion and disbelief. Both of us gripped the same armrest - partly to try and vainly steady some of the shaking, but mostly because there was nothing else to do.
With only our wide, seeking eyes, we asked each other what was happening. With mouths hanging open in shock, we both slowly shook our heads to silently answer, "I don't know." Then as if written in a script, we turned our heads and focused our gazes forward again.
Out of pure instinct, like being the passenger in a speeding automobile, I braced my right leg against the seat in front of me. As soon as I did I thought, " This is a good way to break my leg."
"What difference does it make?" the not-my-own voice said. "All of your bones will be crushed in seconds here anyway."
Nevertheless, I lowered my leg and as I did I felt my body begin to thrash about wildly. My seat belt must a been a bit loose as I felt myself being thrown around like a rag doll at the mercy of an angry pitbull. A few days later I would find bruises were my hips had strained against the strap and behind my knees where the edge of the seat was slamming into my flesh. I had no idea what was happening now. It felt like we were speeding over a mountain or through some jagged hole in time. I later learned this was probably the trip down the boulder embankment.
By now the violent shuddering of the craft threatened to cave metal in upon metal. We still slid over uncharted ground. The pressure in the cabin was almost unbearable. The shock waves continued in invade every cell of my body. Metal was screeching and ripping, grinding and shrieking. It was like the plane met with some gigantic meat grinder at the beginning of some bottomless black dimension…and we were going through it.
"It is it," I thought. "So, this is it. I have lived my life from beginning to the end, the very last second. How odd….I know at this moment, as I'm still alive in some abstract kind of way, what it's like to live an entire lifetime…one of 38 years…from beginning to the end. I always wondered….I know my whole life now, from beginning to the very final, teeny second, I will know."
I held my three children in my heart very closely for a moment. I say I held them because I didn't actually think of them in words, or see them in pictures, but rather felt them inside of my soul. It reminded me of the magic experience of knowing them in my womb. I embraced them good-bye, each one, then all together. There was no time for regret or sorrow. I thought of one more person, a person I had been writing a letter to earlier in the flight.
Then an odd thing happened. My brain began to try and calculate, in some way unknown to me, the approximate moments of life I had left. It was as if my brain was no longer part of myself and who I was, but rather an independent instrument designed to process the data I needed. Foreign formulas were racing through my mind, considering medium speeds, wind shifts, velocities, locations and time. I understood completely the reason for this. I was trying to calculate the time I had left so I could quickly decide what issues to resolve and people to embrace before I died.
While I realized no time frame, of course, I did understand that time was very short, seconds maybe. The convulsing aircraft was splitting and tearing apart at the seams. The interior power was out. Although I could not see very well, I knew horrible things were happening around me. I could hear the crushing, twisting and shredding of metal. The sounds were deafening and dizzying. To focus on any one object was impossible. Violent vibrations caused my eyes and my brain to see everything as if through a warped kaleidoscope. Jerking and spinning, objects mocked their places in solid, predictable space. I shut my eyes tightly.
While the nose, of course, stopped first, the momentum of the middle and the back of the plane continued for split seconds longer, slamming and grinding into what had stopped before it. The intense force of the stop made me feel like we were a big, metal bug hurling into a giant windshield. Debris folded in on itself like an accordion. Time was gone.
At that second I turned my mind to God. I felt His presence and what I thought was forgiveness. I do remember thinking, "God, I sure hope I did all that right. Know that…"
A roar of absolute silence filled my ears, and black filled my head.
I opened my eyes, but I could not see. I could not hear. I could not feel.
Suddenly lightning illuminated my surroundings. I saw the left side of first class was gone. It was just gone. A huge jagged hole allowed sheets of soaking rain to pour into the cabin. (It shouldn't be raining inside the cabin.) Winds screamed and splitting cracks of thunder broke the ringing silence in my head.
But I could feel nothing.
Time was gone.
I waited. I waited to begin floating out through the hungry hole into the fiery, monstrous night, into the arms of the All Mighty, I prayed.
"Hurry," I pleaded. "Please hurry. I don't think I like it much here and I want away from this gaping, ragged hole as soon as possible. Please hurry."
Very slowly my limbs and my head began to change. I felt a heavy, yet hollow sensation travel through my body. "Okay," I thought, "I'm ready."
I noticed a dull kind of tingling, and the heaviness increased. The hollowness was changing to a feeling of thickness and more heaviness. My eyes began to see shadowed objects in the darkness, and I could hear repeating explosions of thunder. The spinning, ringing in my ears only amplified the sounds. I'm certain I could hear the rain and a cracking noise from further back in the plane, but the sounds just all became one after a few seconds, one huge throbbing, aching sound in my head.
The air became instantly turbid and electric, seeming to lack oxygen. It carried with it a putrid odor I can only describe as a scoured metallic fumes hanging in poisonous, ionic air. The atmosphere was highly charged. The nerves in my body began to respond to this charge. My body grew heavier. My lungs stirred. I was alive. My body had survived. I wasn't floating anywhere.
I turned my head to the left. The lightning, almost constant now, provided a surreal illumination within the cabin remains. Everything was surreal and everything was in slow motion. It made sense, though -- after all, we were in another dimension and time was gone. The hole, and the wind, and the flapping, screeching debris - the darkness, and the storming and the deafening, throbbing silence it created - it was a 3-D disaster film at its finest. And I was one of the illusory actors in it.
"Man, those producers do their homework," the not-mine voice said. "This is ‘Airport' for sure! How did they know how to simulate this?"
I looked at the woman next to me and then through her. The military man was gone! Vanished. Adios. The small cushioned seat sat there empty, taunting my eyes and my scrambled brain.
"The Rapture," the voice cried. "The Rapture came and you missed it! In the twinkling of an eye, a man will be gone and one will remain…. You brought this on yourself, Sharon…"
Moments ago I was ready to meet God, now I had to face the knowledge that He left me behind. Awesome fires of hell broke loose in my mind, screaming and gnashing their teeth…jagged, mangled, blackened teeth, with shreds of ghastly grayish-pink insulation snapping in the wind, twisted strips of metal clanging against each other like morbid wind chimes, reeking of rancid rubber and burning oil….
"Explosion, Sharon," the now-familiar voice said. "Crashed planes explode…In a big way. It's just a fact."
The voice brought me back again.
"I have to get off," I thought. "I'm alive. I survived and I have to get the hell off of here so my kids don't stay orphans. They don't have anybody else…."
I had not stopped looking through the woman to the seat next to her. I tried now to focus on her face.
"Are you okay?" I asked in a horse whisper.
She nodded. "Are you?" she asked. Her eyes were dark and wide…and dull.
"Yes," I told her as I patted the top of her hand, which still gripped the armrest, like it was my child's.
"Where did he go?" I asked her, looking at the empty seat.
She shook her head and mumbled, obviously confused.
"Okay," I said. "Okay. We have to get off. Go!"
She seemed to be fumbling, not certain what to do.
"GO!" I yelled. "We're going to explode any second!"
She moved a little faster, unfastening her seat belt. I think her buckle was sticking. I think mine was too, or maybe we were just shaking. If I had I wanted to, I could not have squeezed past her. The seats had shifted forward during the impact.
I looked around my seating area on the floor. I leaned to pick up my white cardboard box and even my luggage rack.
"Tray tables in an upright position…and check your area…"
I was doing what every normal passenger about to deplane would do, I was gathering up my personal items and preparing to proceed down the aisle to the exit.
"What are you doing, you idiot?" a new, deeper voice yelled.
"My stuff…," I pleaded like a spoiled child.
"This is NOT a normal deplaning!" the deep voice commanded. "Now get your ass moving! Smell the air! Time is GONE!"
I quickly abandoned my belongings, except for the bag already in my lap. I started to put it down, then decided to take my chances. If it got in the way, I would ditch it. I pulled the bag to my chest and tried to stand up in the small space around me. I couldn't stand. I was going to have to scoot out. The woman next to me was taking too long. Her size did not help her efforts to move quickly, and she seemed to be pretty dazed.
"Hurry up!" I cried. It's going to blow! We have to get off NOW!"
She made awkward progress and stumbled away from the seat area. I scooted along toward the outer seat. Just before I got to the first seat in the row, seat 8D, where the Alaskan man used to be, I remembered that my camera equipment was about ten rows back.
"That's great," I thought. "How am I going to get that? Everyone… if there is anyone…will be coming this way to get out the hole. I'll be going against traffic. I will get trampled and yelled at for sure…."
"You are NOT going to get it, you fool," my deep voice said. "You are going to get off this plane with your life, and do it now. Your children are counting on you."
"But I need to take pictures," I argued in thought. "This is incredible. I have to take pictures. It's my job…."
"You are NOT a witness," the deep voice boomed. "You are a participant."
I knew that. But yet, I didn't know that. I decided not to analyze it. I did notice, however, how quickly my brain was processing information, without any effort on my part, it seemed. I knew I was not hearing "voices" in my head, but still, here I was, with three distinct parts of my brain functioning independently, each doing it's own thing. For a moment I became fascinated with the idea that my sub conscience had somehow merged with my conscience, that my mind was in a place I didn't control. This dimension the meat grinder took us through to somehow launched a different realm of consciousness. All my thoughts and inner conversations were happening within fractions of seconds, out in the open, with lightning speed….
Lightning. Lightning cracking the skies apart, hanging there longer than it should. A participant. Rain continued to invade the cabin. I could feel droplets spraying in. Someone later said it was fuel, but I don't know.
I tried to stand, scared my legs would collapse. They were shaking badly. I felt the only thing between my head and the floor was a big mass of Jell-O. I took it slow, to make sure my legs would hold my weight. As rubbery as they were, they worked. They got me to the aisle. I began to make my way behind the woman. I may have pushed her, but not forcefully, more like helpfully, maybe. Then my eyes caught the floor to the left.
Debris of metal, fiberglass and insulation was piled as if abandoned years ago. Cabinets and panels lay haphazard among the twisted ruble. Everything even looked old and dusty somehow, like a coating of time had settled over it. It seemed to be piled about three-quarters of the way up the cabin.
Something light from the floor caught my eye, a form, a shirt, maybe…a body. On the floor, mostly covered by the ruins, a body lay still and lifeless in the dark. It seemed to be a male. He was laying face down on his stomach. I think I remember the reflection of twisted, broken eye glasses near his face, but I'm not certain. I may have seen this because I knew the military man was wearing glasses. Both his arms were above his head, bent at the elbows. It was too dark to see anything else, and the rest of his body was covered anyway. Something dark was around his face, what I could see of it…or maybe it was just the shadows.
The military man. That's who this was. But somehow, this was one of those thoughts that just don't "stick" when input to the brain. The idea that this still and crumpled man was a man I had talked with and looked at minutes ago was not sticking. I was willing the image and the thought away. No, it was someone else, someone from the left side of the plane, after all, to see that side of the plane….
"Do something, for Christ's sake," t he not-mine said.
"I don't know what to do," I thought. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a dead body outside a coffin."
"You don't know he's dead, you coward," not-mine pointed out.
"I do," I thought back. "He's dead. The man I was sitting next only moments before is dead here on the floor. (How did he get on the left side of the floor? And where are those seats?) Time is gone for him…. Oh my God!"
An unruly feeling of disorientation flooded over me. Frozen, frightened things began to happen in my chest, and a hard fist of fear was knotting up in my gut. My eyes widened and my mouth opened. A scream clawed at my throat, but nothing came out, instead the cry exploded inside my head. Grayness washed around me. I lost time somehow. It was only a short time, no longer than a breath, maybe, but I lost it. I could tell because the atmosphere or something shifted in the cabin. Where there were no people before, there were people now, or so it seemed. Passengers were lined up to exit, calm and orderly…and like zombies. I think my mind was being funny, though, because when I looked again, it seemed just as dark and dejected as before.
Then I heard a woman, crying out from behind me to the left, "Help! I have a baby….I have a baby…." I turned toward the voice, seeking out the source. I pictured a woman trapped in the ruble with a child in her arms. Then I pictured her searching in the dark blindly with her hands trying to find the baby.
I saw nothing but the ugly pink and yellowed shredded strips of insulation flapping wet and soggy in the wind. It was like some ghastly windsock garnished the entrance to this dark, hideous and twisted metal cave. A dimension within a dimension leading back into a horrifying unknown, where the fires of hell were already burning.
My mind was racing. All those thoughts and all these visions were occurring so quickly. Smoke began to crawl toward the front of the cabin. No time to spare. Think! Move!
"Help them! God! You selfish bitch!" not-mine screamed inside my head. I'm scared. I don't know what to do, I answered.
"It's simple, Sharon," the deep voice said. "We are going to explode any second….
"Like…maybe…NOW!" not-mind taunted.
"So decide," continued the deep voice. "You can not see the woman, you don't know where she is or how to get to her. And if this man is not dead, he is unconscious. You can't carry him…."
"Yeah, you'd have to put down your bag," not-mine said mockingly.
"Stay and you all die," deep-voice said. "Your children will have no mother, no parent at all. You have done nobody any good, not your children, not these people. Go and your children will still have a mother. If it doesn't explode, you can come back to help, but you can't help dead."
My head spun and my body shook. The idea that I could come back was enough to get me moving.
(But what makes me better? Why am I getting off and they aren't?)
The air was getting thicker. I heard ripping, crackling sounds from inside the cave. The putrid smell of disturbed chemicals was getting heavier. I headed for the hole, my only escape into the night.
Lightning made finding my way no problem. There was little debris in the aisle from where I was to the hole. In fact, there was nothing really in my way at all, as if someone had come along before me and shoved everything aside to clear my way.
I got to the edge of the hole, my legs still rubber and my head still spinning. I walked cautiously in a flat-footed manner, not knowing what would give way under me, or how stable my surroundings where. I looked down…(right through the seats, with people still in them, seats with people who where thrown out of the plane, still buckled in. How I didn't see them is beyond me. I apparently had to step over them). All I saw was more ruble, some light-colored, some dark, some shiny, some ugly pinkish-yellow. I had no idea how far down the ground was. I thought maybe it was only a few feet below because of the way the debris was laid out and scattered before me. It seemed to be spread out fairly even around the hole and on the ground around us.
Rain was beating down harder. Winds howled and threatened to collapse our cave. Lightning rippled the skies and thunder cracked them. I was ready to go. I would rather endure this ungodly weather than spend one more nightmare moment as a prisoner on this abominable craft, reeking of fuel and fire and death… (Oh dear God, how many are dead?) .
I clinched my bag to my chest, thinking once I should let it go. I jumped as gently as I could and prayed God had not set the ground to far below me and that a rod wouldn't go through my foot.
"Now's your broken leg, dear," not-mine said. "All that and you're still stuck here, stuck here just outside to explode and burn just the same… poor Sharon...."
I don't remember if I got off first or the lady next to me did. It seems someone was in front of me. It could have been 7F. If there was someone there, I'm fairly certain it was a woman. I vaguely recall helping someone down from the hole onto the ground, but I have a funny feeling the memory is just my conscious trying to console itself.
My feet hit. I stumbled, but regained my balance. My trusty brain equipment had calculated right, the ground was only a few feet away. I landed on what I think was a piece of panel. It felt spongy. I took a few steps and the ground felt more solid, but still very cluttered.
"I'm out!" My brain screamed. "Oh my God, I made it out!"
I looked behind me quickly. I think I was trying to keep track of the woman who was sitting next to me. I may have seen her, or maybe that's when I helped her, I'm not sure. I did see two or three other people around me, probably no closer than six or seven feet…maybe…perception was but a concept at this point.
"You're not clear yet," deep said. "You need to put some ground between you and this plane, quickly."
With my bag held tightly to my chest, I headed out into the unknown, a few scattered zombie-like figures as company. The rain, sharp as razor teeth, beat down on us without mercy. Wind whipped and shoved our bodies, threatening our balance. Lightning pierced through the skies and hung on the earth till thunder overpowered it.
(What's that guy there with the camera? Well, shit! How did HE get his stuff and get in front of me? Hell, we just crashed! There's no way anybody else is here yet...we don't even know WE'RE here yet.... Some flash he's got there. He better take care of his equipment, it's awful wet out here. Who (what) is that guy, anyway? And why is he taking pictures as he walks away from the crash, facing the dark? That's not too kosher anyway, taking pictures of these people...pretty rude, really.…Hey! Where did he go?)
I felt I was being stoned to death. I escaped the plane only to be swallowed up by this terrifying storm. I had never felt raindrops this hard, this big, and this cold. I didn't know yet that it was hail beating down and assaulting my body. Small circular bruises on my shoulders and back would later verify this.
I was aware that I might be injured, possibly even seriously, but that I just didn't feel anything yet. I know that in crisis situations, adrenaline and shock will override pain. Because of this, I tried to be merciful in what I did with my body. I didn't let it run, as it wanted to, I didn't let it pass out, as it wanted to, and I didn't let it disappear, as it wanted to.
I trudged on, drenched and freezing within moments. Water and slush was up to my ankles. The ground was uneven and my balance was questionable. I looked around a little bit, and saw to my left a colossal wall of thick, greasy charcoal-colored smoke. The smoke was beginning cover what remained of a bridge or a catwalk structure. About the time I looked that way the wind shifted, and the smoke came rushing to surround us. The few people I could see through the rain were stolen away by this black, poisonous fog. It was just me now…again…trapped in a sticky web of smog and soot.
I immediately began choking and coughing. "Oh God, not this too!" my mind cried "Which of these nightmares is going to kill us? Now I'm suffocating!"
"GET DOWN!" A male voice yelled from ahead of me. "Get as close to the ground as you can!"
I dropped to the ground and landed face first in sludgy swamp water. The smoke closed in on even the earth. There was no safe place to breath. Every breath I took filled my lungs with poisonous, black gases and burned down my throat as if I swallowed coals. I could feel my throat closing up. While I was down, lightening struck so close I could feel the hair on my arms tingle. It was followed immediately by a boom of thunder that shook the ground. I thought the plane had exploded. I wanted to cry, but I was too scared. I wanted my mom. I wanted to go home, I had had enough.
Then almost as quickly as it came, the ominous cloud was swept downwind again. I coughed a few more times, then began my walk into oblivion again, wheezing as I did.
My mind seemed to be winding down from how it was working before. The split-second processing had given way to a slower, more deliberate form of reasoning. That was a bit of a relief because I felt a little more in control, of my own mind, anyway. I no longer felt spilt in distinct pieces. Instead, I was feeling scared, urgent, and alone, and becoming very numb - both in body and mind. I felt animated with only one thin layer of my mind leading me on. The voices had gone away…pretty much anyway.
We walked on, spread out like drugged rats swimming away from a sinking ship. We hiked through tall grasses, muddy holes and mucky water, sometimes as high as our waists. I was soaked and freezing and began to shake badly. I pulled my bag closer to my chest, hoping for warmth. The pelting rain made it difficult to open my eyes. When I did I had to squint as freezing rain dripped from my eyelashes and my hair into my face.
I don't know how far we ventured, maybe 60 yards, but it seemed a fairly safe distance in case of explosion, if we hugged the ground in the water, that is. I looked around and realized I could see nothing…no lights, no airport, no sign of any other life. We had crashed at the edge of the earth. Stephen King's The Langoliers came to mind.
Where the hell are we…?
"Hey!" I yelled to those ahead of me. "Where are we? Where are we going?"
No one answered me. I walked on a few more yards. I could see the dark shape of a large building-type structure off in the distance, in front and to the left of us. It was completely dark, and appeared abandoned. I began to get scared we would walk off the face of the earth, or at the least, into a domain not kind to people wandering its grounds in the dark.
Quicksand, sudden drop-offs, wells, black holes, langoliers….
"Where are we going?" I screamed. "We can't just keep walking. We don't know what's out there!"
My screams apparently got some attention. I'm not sure how it happened, but we pulled together into a small group and found a patch of ground slightly higher than the rest, and hopefully, drier.
We all just stood there in silence for a few minutes facing the plane, watching it burn, knowing people were still on it. I was thankful the rains and the wind keep those smells away from me. The was still a horrible odor in the air, but much of it was from the fuel-soaked clothing of our group.
My whole body was trembling fiercely. My legs were still rubber and felt like they were giving way. I was so cold and shaking uncontrollably. I knew shock was a strong possibility and didn't want it to happen here - in this forbidden place. I squatted close to the ground to help my balance and to curl in on my own warmth.
I still held onto my bag. One of the straps a broken, and it was so very heavy. I realized why it was so heavy - all the papers I had in it, including the oversized soft-back novel, had soaked up the water like a sponge. The bag was so swollen I couldn't even squeeze my hand into it. It reminded me of an enormous tick about to pop from its parasitic feast.
A male voice from behind me told everybody to gather together for warmth. I think I shifted on my feet, but I didn't move. I couldn't. I felt outside of the group because I was all alone. A small woman came over to me and put her arms around me. I let her, and I leaned into her body. I felt like a small child. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I also felt safer and warmer.
"If we die tonight, do you know where you would go?" she whispered. I thought for a moment. "To heaven…I think," I answered. "I haven't been walking right."
"None of us do," she said, and she pulled me tighter.
She quoted some scripture to me. I can't remember exactly what now, but I recognized it and felt comfort from it.
Mostly she talked. I would answer her with short, direct responses. I didn't have the energy for much else. She told me about the business trip she had been on and how she didn't think she would ever go back to work - God was telling her that. She talked about how cold she was and said she would just pretend she was warm. She told me also that she did not want to be one of those groups who come back here year after year to memorialize the anniversary of the crash.
She asked me about myself. She told me her name several times, but it wouldn't stay. I told her how bad I felt that I didn't help anyone. She told me all we could do was pray. We continued to shiver, our teeth clattering, our muscles aching and our voices broken.
Someone started screaming for anyone knowing CPR.
"Do I know CPR?" I thought. "No, I've never trained, I can't do it."
"We're losing him, people," the female voice pleaded. "Come on…we need help…."
I don't know what became of the man. I think he was having a heart attack. Another woman was having a lot of trouble breathing. Someone gave her their soaked sweater for her to breath through. The woman was very gracious, but returned the sweater in a few minutes because she knew how cold everyone was.
"They will find us soon," someone said. "They know we are here. They just need time to get here."
I looked at my watch, but it was gone. It must have flown off in the impact or fell off during my hike through the freezing swamp. Either way, I had no way to track time. (Does it matter? It's stopped, after all.) I tried to look in the skies and find a star I could follow, but there was no sky to search in. Had we been there 10 minutes or three hours? Perception was only a concept now….
People laid on the wet ground with broken, protruding bones. People laid bloody heads in the laps of others. People hunched and cowered to the ground. Voices moaned and wept. A woman started screaming and flailing her arms when she realized her travel partner was not with us. Though we never really said it, we all thought we were the only survivors. There was about 20 of us, maybe…maybe 15.
I suddenly remembered the man I had met during the layover. He was about my age, from California. We had exchanged business cards and talked about a possible business relationship. He was putting together a book, but it was still all on tape. He needed someone to help him write it. As a starving writer, I volunteered. He is the one who carried my equipment back to his seat. We were to meet up after the flight. I realized he was the only person on the plane whose name I knew. I stood up and began calling for him. I didn't think he was there, he seat was so far back, but I thought I would try. I yelled his name five or six times, then gave up and squatted back down.
I finally sat down on my buttocks. My calves couldn't stand the strain anymore. It was cold at first, but then my flesh went numb, so it didn't bother me. I rubbed the lady's legs as she held me in her arms. I felt like I needed to do something for her. I noticed she had pantyhose on and they were ripped and shredded, and sticky. She said she needed to urinate. I said, go ahead, who cares. Within a few minutes I felt something warm spreading over my right thigh.
"Boy, that feels warm," I thought. "Are we a pathetic bunch or what?" In spite of the temporary warmth, I felt like I was going into convulsions. The hail had eased up some, but the rain and the thunder and the lightning still boomed and cracked around us. Once I even thought it hit the plane, or at least the ground very near it. Electricity filled the air, air thick with foreign elements, air unlike anything I have ever breathed before. I knew we would be hit, (but then, there's always tornadoes in this weather....) and then my question of how - how we were going to die - would be answered.
The lady began to pray with me. I followed as best I could and nodded my head a lot. Then she began to sing to me, "Amazing Grace." I tried to sing with her, but my voice was raspy and cracked. Words got stuck in my throat and seemed almost to choke me. The rest of the group started to join it. It was very comforting -- and very sad. It united us all for a few minutes and gave hope to a situation without any. I wondered if the song was reaching the ears of anybody else, or any other group…or God.
We waited. Time ticked away. I saw in my mind Dali's painting of the melting clock, but I couldn't remember the name of the piece. A few times I thought that if I just got up and walked away, then somehow this whole thing would go away. I could go back through the porthole through which I came, and I would be driving my van down Highway 49 toward my children.
"I think we are going to be shocked when we see the plane," the lady said.
"Yeah," I answered, but I was truly struck by what she said. I hadn't really considered that, looking at the ruins from the outside. From where we were, we just saw a dark, crumpled shape engulfed in flames. I wasn't sure I wanted to see it.
After what seemed like several hours (for non-crash people it was only 45 minutes or so), we finally saw the first headlights from an emergency vehicle. It was a fire engine. Someone wanted to know were the hell the ambulances were. The group was losing patience and getting fussy. We wondered if they even considered there were survivors, and became concerned that we might to too far out for them to find us in the dark.
Someone suggested we yell at the count of three. Most of the group hollered on three and many stood up. The lady and I stayed where we were. It seemed to take an awful lot of energy to do what they were doing, and I for one, didn't have that energy. Besides, my voice was only a ragged whisper.
Finally, some of the emergency team noticed us. They shined flashlights on us to let us know they heard us. It was still a few minutes before anyone came out to us. When they did, they were fire fighters. (Where are the paramedics? Is it that bad up there that they can't spare paramedics?) The fire fighters started tending to the more seriously injured. They rest of us just waited. They had stretchers brought out and began transporting the injured survivors.
Someone finally told us what to do. We formed a single line and put our right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us (Why? In case someone fell in a black hole? To look more official? To make stunning rescue photos? And why not the left hand?) . We began walking toward the plane, but to the left. We still went through some waist high water, but it seemed less flooded and mucky than the travel into the swamp. I was glad to be moving. Even with the water, the movement helped warm me just a bit. My right arm was getting tired. It actually made navigating the pot holes more difficult and threw my balance off. I finally dropped it.
As we neared what looked like a small gravel road, just down from the plane the group began to split up. I tried not to look at the plane. I saw more people than I expected. Small groups were scattered around, and people also wandered around by themselves. Some were near the fence, some were near the plane, some were huddled around large bales of hay. I didn't know were to go. No one told me where to go, or what to do. All I knew was I had to get warm.
I started traveling south, I think. I walked slowly and deliberately, still hugging my bag to my chest. The denim from my shorts had absorbed a great deal of water and every time they brushed my legs, or the wind danced around me, I was jolted with the shock of cold. I had to find warmth. I spotted some vehicles parked further away and walked toward them. The first few trucks were fire engines. I just wanted to get near the engines. They should still be warm from travel. But, people were already huddled around engines and even inside the cabs. (How do you get picked to get in the cab? Turn blue? I'm blue…or at least violet.)
I walked slowly pass each vehicle. I felt like a homeless person trying to find an empty doorway on a bitter winter's night. I seemed to understand, at that moment, the pain, loneliness…and humiliation the homeless suffer. I pleaded with my eyes for someone to invite me into a cab. I didn't want to just push my way aboard, I knew some were seriously injured and I didn't want to trespass into their space that way.
Then I saw an old school bus. I think someone told me that survivors were to get on those buses if they wanted to go to the fire house. (IF? IF we wanted to go? What the hell else are we going to do? Ravage through burning remains for a pint-sized pillow and blanket to camp out for the night?) . I boarded the bus very slowly, feeling very animated and detached. I felt hypnotized. We all looked hypnotized. We looked like zombies, orphaned, zoned-out, bloody zombies.
I saw an empty seat next to a woman, it was about four seats back on the left…about where first class used to be on the plane. I sat down anyway. I put my bag on the floor and noticed for the first time that my reading glasses were still on a string around my neck, but that they looked like superman had taken them into his fist and crunched them. (How in the world did that happen? They look as twisted as the plane….)
The woman next to me engaged in small talk. "Silly woman," I thought, but I stared and nodded in my animated way and answered questions when I was supposed to. Then I remembered that I was a smoker.
"Yes!" I thought. "I can find a cigarette and step outside the bus."
A voice from a 1970s comedy came to mind, "Picked a bad week to quit smoking…picked a bad week to quit sniffing glue…picked a bad week to stop cocaine…." With an extreme amount of irony, I realized that the name of the comedy was Airplane. I chuckled to myself and shook my head.
I forced my fingers into my saturated straw carryall. I grabbed bits of pulp and began to work items out of the bag. Once I got the novel out, navigating the mess was a little easier. My fingers searched desperately to find a pack of cigarettes. I found one. As I pulled it out it disintegrated into soggy clumps of tobacco and paper.
"All right then," I thought. "Gum. I have gum. Icebreaker, even."
It was soggy too, but still useable. Gum was better anyway, as I noticed my mouth was extremely dry. Smoke and shock, most likely. I offered those around me gum also. The blue and silver package was passed around until it was empty. I didn't mind, though, it was the first thing I had done for anybody else. I chuckled again at the thought of myself in a Red Cross uniform passing Icebreaker out to all the wounded soldiers.
A few more people boarded the bus. You could tell most people were relieved to be somewhere, somewhere with time and more than two dimensions. Passengers either chatted nervously or stared through dark, empty eyes. I stared a lot, myself.
I heard a voice yell my name. At first, for a split-second, I thought my brain entities had returned. But then I saw man from the layover boarding the bus and heading straight for me with his arms raised.
"Oh God, Sharon!" he cried. "Oh God! I thought you were dead!"
"I thought you were too," I said. I was having trouble remembering his name now.
He lunged forward and landed in my lap like a child making Christmas requests. He threw his arms around my neck and sobbed.
"Oh God, I can't believe it," he wept and stuttered. "I thought about you the whole flight. I took your card out and looked at it over and over again. I decided just before we crashed that I would give you a kiss on the cheek when we parted at the terminal. Oh God! This is just like Titanic! You're here! You're…."
I had been staring out the window as he talked. "Dear Marines," I thought. "Please come get me. Take me away from all this. Please hear me."
Suddenly I felt pressure on my face. He had taken my chin in his hand and pulled my face to look at him. He leaned over and firmly covered my mouth with his. I felt his tongue force through my teeth and my eyes widened. I was stunned. "This is really weird," I thought. "Too weird. What a seriously odd thing to do.…"
"Now I have kissed you," he said proudly. "And in more of a way than I had planned."
He continued to talk rapidly about the irony of everything, and us being together on the bus, and how wonderful things would be from now on. He stayed in my lap. I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say…or what to do.
The bus finally began to move. For some reason it couldn't go forward, something about the road being too narrow to turn around, so the driver had to back out the entire length of the road. I have no idea how long it was.
I never realized we were so close to the river until the driver almost plunged us into it. He slammed the brakes, throwing everybody forward (I asked the man to get off my lap now). People screamed and cried out. In looking out the window into the dark, all I could see were tiny glimmers of light – reflections off water – no ground.
The bus inched a few more feet back, then people in the back started screaming again.
"Stop! For Christ's sake Stop! You're backing into the river!"
Panic was building up quickly. People who had remained calm until now were beginning to lose it. After two more of these episodes, one woman (who I later came to know) threw her arms up and began screaming, "Let me off! I have to get off of here!" The driver stopped to let her out. I thought that was pretty rude, just to leave her out there like that. A man (I later learned was the military man) told the driver to wait, he was going with her.
We finally made it to recognizable airport ground. I don't remember much of the trip to the fire station, although it seemed like it took a long time. I do remember driving by gate windows and feeling exploited somehow. I didn't want anyone seeing us.
We got to the fire house and this time we were directed to go inside. People were setting up mini first-aid stations and tagging passengers according to their injuries. It was like a walking morgue. Supposedly, different rooms were designated for different degrees of injury, but I never noticed this.
I wondered around from room to room. The layover man stuck pretty close to me. I decided I needed a cigarette. I went into the garage and found a worker with a cigarette. It was menthol, but I didn't care. The man found one too, and we went around the corner out of the wind. It was good. I inhaled deeply before realizing that was a mistake. Coughing fits reminded me of the abuse my lungs had already endured this night. I smoked lighter after that
When I went back inside I saw people lined up to use phones. I got in line and told the man to go do something, if he needed to, that was. I needed to call my mother, as well as two other people. When I connected to my mother, she was uncertain as to whether I was telling the truth or not. That possibility had crossed my mind. I was well-known for elaborate practical jokes, meant for April 1, but performed at various times in the year to mislead. It took several retries to get through to the other parties.
Someone told us to sign a list and put vital information on it. I think the list went around some people several times and other people none. Survivors walked from one room to the next, some looking dazed and lost, others looking intense and focused. I saw a man I recognized from the Dallas airport. He still cradled a hard back novel (of which the title escapes me now) in one arm. He was bleeding from the head. I wondered what made that book so special that he hung onto it through all this. It seemed odd.
One man I saw often had his head wrapped up in a soggy, red-soaked towel, face streaked with dried, cracking blood. He rushed from room to room like a medic, getting towels and water. I wondered if someone had told him his head was split open. I wondered if someone should. I never recognize him as the military man from Alaska.
I noticed my crushed glasses were gone. I hurried back out to the bus, hoping it hadn't left. It was still there. I climbed aboard, and sure enough, my twisted specs were on the floor under my seat. I felt proud that I had recovered them.
On my way back in a noticed a very pretty young woman with two very young girls. The girls appeared to be about four and six maybe. Even beneath the streaks of mud and clumps of swamp grass you could see beautiful, silky, golden curls on all three of them. One child still had her pigtails. The small family reminded me of a doe and her fawns. Wide-eyed and frightened, they huddled together, the girls latched firmly to their mother's legs. They all had that "caught in the headlights" look. The mother eyed me with suspicion (or was that a plea for help?). I felt so bad for them. I imagined their big, strong daddy, her husband, coming for them and sweeping the girls up in one arm while kissing the mother gently on the lips. Their faces would beam with joy and relief and the girls would giggle. Then I imagined maybe the father was with them a few hours ago…but wasn't now. I went back inside.
I found a single cup of coffee in the kitchen, then went into the front room. By now I had a sickly green-colored sheet to wrap around my wet clothes. I sat down on as desk and listened to the conversations, which seemed a little more normal now, considering. In spite of what happened, or I suppose, because of, there was a lot of energy in the room.
I noticed a thin woman sitting on the floor with her legs straight in front of her. She was staring off into nothing, eyes dull and dilated. There was something about her. She had on a dress and I noticed she had on pantyhose, all ripped and shredded. And they looked sticky, as if they had been absorbing fluid from injuries. I realized this was probably the woman from the swap.
I went to her and bent down. I put my hand gently on her leg and asked her in a low voice if she was the lady who held me out in the water. She turned her head very slowly and looked at me. Her eyes were hollow and lost. Slowly she began to come back and then recognize me.
"Yes," she said in a thick, slurred voice. "Yes, I think I am."
She reached out to me and we began to hug. She wept and hung tightly to me. I felt like an asshole, because only now that we were safe, was I able to comfort anybody. Still, I gave her a blanket that was offered to me, as she had started shaking again after I spoke to her.
Most of the injured who needed hospitals were taken away first. Then a bus left with people who had family waiting for them. They were going to the Imax Theater. The layover man was on that bus. Family had been notified to pick passengers up there. I had no one. I asked one of the ladies in charge, "So, what do we do now?"
She looked at me like I had three heads. I was really embarrassed for asking what was obviously a very stupid question. Then she snapped her head and said, "I'm sorry, I'm not looking at you because that's a stupid question. It's a very good question. I'm looking at you like that because I have no idea how it answer it."
I said that I could go get my van and go home, and she was going to let me, if that's what I wanted. But I realized, even then in a shock state, that that would be a very dumb idea. I talked her into getting me a hotel room for the night. Someone would take me there.
But somehow, I ended up on the second bus going to the Imax. When I got there the media had already started to gather. I went inside to find coffee, and cigarettes, if I was lucky enough. The survivors sign-in list was going around again. I signed it, and tried to make some more calls. I saw a store off in the corner and went there to see if they had any clothes. They only had sweatshirts. I asked to buy one. The man gave me one instead. I wondered why they didn't offer some to other passengers. I thought they should. They eventually did.
People were getting angry and yelling at the staff. They wanted answers and they wanted them now. The media was in full force now and had to be held several feet back from the front door. I finally talked a woman into taking me to a hotel. I think she wanted an excuse to get out of there. I didn't blame her. As it turned out, several other people went with us. We went to the Holiday Inn across from the airport.
As soon as I got my room, just after 4 a.m., I pulled out a soggy five dollar bill, exchanged it for quarters and found a cigarette machine. I put $3.75 in for my cigarettes, and the other $1.25 I deposited for the fellow behind me, who was short on change.
No sooner did I get to my room and peel off my wet and smelly clothing did the layover man call me. He was at the same hotel. He wanted to come over and see how I was. He was excited and talking rapidly. He wanted to touch and hug, unable to believe we were really alive. He talked a lot about how things were going to be, and how happy we would make each other, and how incredible all this was. I never said much and stared at the walls a lot.
I finally told him I needed to try and get some sleep. He left and I began the futile attempt of resting. Each time I closed my eyes, bright, flashing lights flickered beneath my eyelids. I could smell the stench in my hair, and my ears echoed ringing sounds of thunder. I tossed and turned, but never slept.
I would spend the next 12 hours in the hotel, trying to regroup and rest. What I really wanted was a shower, clean clothes, toothbrush and some BC powders. It would be hours before I saw any of this. I wandered the grounds a bit, not realizing how pathetic I looked. Hair frizzy and matted with mud, feet bare and white from hours in swamp-sogged shoes, clothes filthy and hanging over my body, eyes huge and unseeing, ringed with black.
I talked to a few people, a reporter, some counselors, some other passengers, some care team members. People stared at me as they came in the hotel lobby, business people, smelling sweet, in crisp, white shirts and polished nails. I didn't like it much "out here" with these non-crash people, people going about their lives as if nothing happened, not having a clue how fragile life is. I began to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable and returned to my room. When I got there I felt "safe" again, back in my little cocoon, with the contents from my wet bag spread out across the bed. Wallet, business cards, maps, folders, lipstick, a brush, some tobacco-covered gum. It made me feel good that I had these things, these things I recognized from my life. I remembered a woman from the Imax, I think she went to the Holiday Inn too, She had nothing. No wallet, no hairbrush, no papers. I imaged her sitting alone in a cold hotel room, with nothing around her. Nothing at all, only the ragged blood-soaked clothes that she had worn there. I realized how lucky I was.
I arrived at the restaurant a little early. I wanted to make sure we had a table. Julia and Sherse got there shortly after I did. Then Cyndi arrived. Carla would get there later. We laughed and joked in the way that only women do when there are no men around. We laughed so hard we cried. Sometimes we cried without laughing.
People thought we were obnoxious. I suppose we were obnoxious, but felt we had an excuse. We were all so happy to see each other again. We were all so happy to be together. One of the many things we had in common was the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. We made a list of shared complaints and sat in awe of its length and the matched details. Later that night we got silly with the list, but it was simply part of the process.
As the evening wore on, opinions of us changed. People began to realize from our jokes and our tears that we had each survived a plane crash two months earlier, that we had all, in fact, met that way. We were bonded for life, and these people were somehow witness to that bond…from the outside.