categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside
You always wonder how you might react: calmly, a stony demeanor; screaming, rivulets of tears streaming down your face; praying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” There I sat, seat 21D—the aisle seat which is clutch for airplane travel—as smoke poured into the cabin through every vent onboard. I pushed the home button of my iPhone and saw that it was just before 2 p.m. CST. My hands were numb but I pushed the shortcut to my mom’s cell phone. No service at 30,000 feet. “Call me ASAP,” I wrote, and pushed send: Delivery Failure.
Minutes earlier, a thud had reverberated through the fuselage. Turbulence makes me queasy but not uneasy and I didn’t look up from the game of Solitaire I was intently, though fruitlessly, playing. The BANG and flash of light two minutes later gave me pause, however, and as I looked over the cabin to the wing at row 18 another flash lit up the plane. The engine was on fire! Smoke filled our cabin and women and men alike gasped and began pawing at the ceiling waiting for the oxygen masks they had been cheerfully told were located above their heads.
Boarding only half an hour earlier I had watched a man stand in the aisle and watch a mother struggle with her bags and her infant son without offering his assistance. Air travel is a drag: the name of the game is sitting in semi-conscious apathy until landing. The stewardess skipping you during beverage service is the ultimate insult. Life happens in a stupor as a metal tube hurtles passengers at 750mph through the sky and they wait to be able to click Airplane Mode off upon landing.
The smoke in the cabin dissipated slowly but that didn’t stop the middle-aged African-American women two rows behind me from ripping their life preservers out of plastic and huffing as they filled the yellow tubes with air. A baby cried as his mother clutched him to her chest, rocking back and forth, prayers slipping through her lips. A man in the last row began praying out loud, calling on his Lord, telling God that today could not be the day he met his maker. All air travel etiquette abandoned: phones buzzed and rang as my fellow passengers reached out to those they love. Paralyzed, I studied my phone, not a tear in my eye, willing Verizon to send a text message, trying to reach my mom and my best friend from my aircraft as it sunk.
As stewardesses ran up and down the aisle my phone buzzed. “What?! Okay, it’s fine. They’ll get y’all taken care of. I love you.” The plane lurched: limping on one engine, smoke still lingering above our heads, we sunk to 25,000, 20,000, 18,000 feet. One hand on the shoulder of the elderly man across the aisle and one hand grasping the leg of the Ethiopian women to my right, I closed my eyes. Calmly positioned in 21F my seat companion began to explain aerodynamics. Middle-aged and bearded, wearing a picnic-plaid button down, he reminded me of someone I know and trust. He began to detail, precisely, why we were going to land at Dallas-Fort Worth unharmed. Shudders shook the Ethiopian woman’s body but we both listened quietly as he explained that planes could fly on one engine; that Texas had a plethora of straight highway to land on; that the situation was simply out of our control.
It was as sudden as the explosion of our No. 1 engine: the passengers aboard Spirit Flight 165 became a collective, vulnerable entity. Race, gender, economics, religion, age: none of it mattered anymore. A mother of two gently handed her infant son to her seat companion as he slept. No one screamed or cried. Relationships formed instantaneously as the waiting game began. Could the plane survive? Would the compression system blow? Was the pilot capable of landing our damaged plane safely? Hands of different colors and ages interlocked across the aisles until the call came to assume the emergency landing position. With a wink the man in 21F turned his face into his folded arms. I gulped one breath and did the same.
The wheels bounced once, again, and finally stuck as we skidded onto the tarmac at Dallas-Fort Worth International. An hour after departure we were once again safely on the ground. Clapping, cheering, whooping, hollering! Relief laced with incredulity filled the cabin, prayers began in earnest, and I felt the first tears trace a switchback down my cheek.
Through a haze of adrenaline, tears, and phone calls to my worried and protective mother I re-booked myself onto the replacement flight though the very thought of flying was enough to heartily replenish the tears on my damp cheek. A fellow passenger offered me tissues and I silently stared at my phone, willing the time to pass, willing the plane to arrive, willing myself the courage to board it. Suddenly sock-clad feet appeared in my line of sight. My best friend’s mom had talked her way through security and was standing in front of me, still holding her shoes, arms extended. Sobs came blubbering up through my body as I collapsed into her embrace, but for the first time since the engine had blown out of the wing it seemed as though the terror might finally be over.
Sitting on the tarmac at DFW, the fire trucks, the tow in to the gate, and disembarking the plane are all a blur. But the man who had previously ignored the young mother carried her bags into the terminal and hugged her as we all made way to our new gate. The man in 21F escorted my seatmate onto the gangway. A service man in uniform assisted a handicapped woman from the plane. It’s an odd part of the human existence, but tragedy in joint experience incites a comradely spirit: as the initial terror settled into deep-seated fear human kindness, goodness, and humanity prevailed.
Madeline Roorbach is not Dave Gessner’s niece, though she’s an Ultimate Frisbee star. She attends Emory University in Atlanta.