As time passed, I kept wondering about the people who were aboard that plane – who they were and how they were doing. We’ve all wondered what it’s like to go down in an airplane. Nine minutes, twenty seconds is along time. In a falling plane, what does a person think or do with that much time? It is an experience that provides a rare window through which to examine the ways ordinary people behave in crisis, allowing us to see what moves some to courage and perhaps others to cowardice under extreme stress.
We live so much of our daily lives at the surface. But here was a dramatic and extraordinary story with resonance that went much deeper. I never forgot about the heroic crew and passengers on that flight. About two and a half years later I began to pursue this story.
The 29 people on this plane deserve to be remembered. There are many remarkable people – good, decent, and surprisingly complex individuals – surrounding us every day. Unless they’re celebrities, we don’t take note of them. So often, accounts following a crash are a list of names of those who perished and nothing more: “Captain Ed Gannaway, 45, Dublin, Ga.” I wanted readers to know who lived between those commas and understand their courage and strength.
This book is about our will to survive, and our will to care. There is tragedy here, also redemption and triumph. Six children already have been born to ASA 529 survivors.
She willed herself to live through the first month, the second, and into the third, determined to raise her four-year old son, John. Doctors and nurses, fearing infection, cautioned her against a visit, but she insisted. Her body was wrapped in bandages, her head shaved, and her arms were locked at the elbows. When John entered her hospital room with his father, he walked past her to the window. Jennifer’s heart sank. Finally, John sat in his dad’s lap, alongside Jennifer who sat in an armchair. Jennifer spoke to him. It took a few moments before John looked up and said, “It really is you, Mommy. I can tell by your eyes.” He reached out and delicately stroked his mother’s hand. Her eyes filled with tears. This was the moment she had lived for.
There were three categories of responses: the spiritual, the intellectual, and the physical. By that, I mean passengers thought about their relationship with God, their loved ones, and about what they might experience physically if their plane crashed. One man silently prayed that his wife would have the strength to raise their four children without him. Another frequent traveler, twice divorced with two teenage sons, realized his sons didn’t even know where he was as the plane was falling. He was furious with God for allowing him to die alone without a familiar hand to hold. A woman passenger tore the cover from her paperback to write a last note to her two sons. Another man wondered silently, “Will I be sucked outside the plane if the window breaks?”
The people on this plane were remarkably valiant in ways large and small. One man fled the plane and ran to a safe distance. When he looked back and saw others beginning to emerge, several on fire, he risked his life and went back to help. Several men in the burning fuselage stopped to help another passenger they didn’t know, delaying their own escape through fire to the field beyond.
Every interview produced tears. Some were mine.
A: It says that we are in very capable hands. There are a lot of people, many of them in the aviation industry, who are looking out for us. At every turn, the passengers aboard ASA 529 discovered people waiting to help: the pilots and flight attendant, air traffic controllers who cleared the airspace so the plane could make its emergency retreat back toward Atlanta, the emergency/rescue personnel, and residents of homes ringing the field who ran toward the fire and tended to them. Many of the ASA 529 survivors have returned to flying. As one said, “If I had been in a car crash, I would still get in a car again.”
A plane crash is an aberration. An aviation expert at M.I.T. studied aviation accident rates during the 1990s and determined that you could fly on a U.S.-based regional airline once a day without dying in a crash for eight thousand years. Flying is not perfect but it is, by any definition, safe.