Inspired by a true fear
I’m going to die on this plane.
“You’re being overdramatic,” my mom would say in her thick twang of a Texan accent, and then reassure me with a comment about God watching over me and praying that I get to my destination safely.
Dying in a plane accident is a family curse. My grandfather was killed when my dad was twelve as he was flying home on a business trip. His plane, a small commercial airliner that would look puny and weak compared to the monsters in the sky today, basically fell apart while flying through a bad storm. Everyone was killed. Eighty passengers, five crew members. My dad, he’s still alive. His job allowed him to travel all over the world, for business; the paycheck, for pleasure. I asked him one night how he has the courage to fly all over the place for his job knowing about what happened to his father.
“Well,” he shrugged, as if he’d been asked the same question several times before, “I just think of it this way: whenever a plane crashes, I know that they’ll learn why it happened, and find a way to prevent it from happening again.” I took it as advice, and since then it has been my security blanket for whenever I stepped on a plane, which was frequent.
Dying in a plane accident isn’t really a family curse. It’s just more exciting to think of it that way. I’ve flown my entire life, since as long as I can remember, from the first time I flew by myself and all the way up until now, and so far nothing has happened to either my dad or me. I have never really had the fear of flying. Until recently. As in, the past year. It was something that developed out of the blue, an allergy, and everywhere I went, it was a dark raincloud that hung above my head. Every day I was plagued with the fantasy (if you would call it one) of boarding a plane, and something would go awry that would bring it down in fire and twisted metal. I want to call it irrational, but I don’t think it is. I mean, here I am on a plane once again, and the thought of it going down has burrowed deep into my conscience and left a trail of all the ways this tin can of sardines could malfunction. Deep down inside, I knew that I would get to my destination safely. Like Dad said…
It was a full flight of 374 passengers on the United Airlines Boeing 747-400. I was sat on the right side of the cabin in Row 56, Seat I—the middle—and four rows from the back near that one bathroom that always smells.
I watched a documentary when I was a child about a commercial airline that had crashed into an icy river, and only about eight people of everyone on board survived. They had all sat in the back of the plane, which was the only portion that wasn’t underwater. Ever since my innocent, young eyes had witnessed the tragedy, I had always assigned myself seats in the back. The safest part of the plane.
In the window seat was a middle-aged woman, shorter than I with black hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Wires of hair poked out and looked like they tickled her worn face, one with a few too many wrinkles; a hard worker, but a happy one. She had hard, brown-almost-black eyes, but the corners of her mouth curved a little too far upward for her to be an old, cold bitch. I noticed a white rosary hung delicately from her neck, and for a quick second, her eyes darted at me. She slowly grabbed her rosary, and I looked away.
I attempted to avoid invading Rosary Lady’s personal space as I peeked out the window. The workers on the tarmac loaded the cargo hold with luggage, tossing the bags in carelessly one at a time. The airplane cabin smelled sour, as two babies a few flights earlier that day had regurgitated their mother’s milk, and even though the stains were almost unnoticeable, the smell was hardly similar. The air conditioning blew out warm air, and the acrid, rotten onion smell of sweat rendezvoused with the very spoiled breast milk in the hot climate of Los Angeles. It was a flight to Sydney, a place I’d always wanted to visit and had tediously saved my money for. It was a fifteen hour flight over the Pacific Ocean, and I lifted my glistening wrist to check my watch. 7:30 PM. I looked forward to take off so I could finally get some sleep.
I always remain awake during take off. It’s a ritual that I have always followed since I was a teenager, feeling the rumble of the wheels on the tarmac as we sped faster and faster down the runway, finally lifting off the ground and hearing the wheels fold into their compartments, watching the ground lift away, one mile at a time. I feel like a NASA control commander every time, waiting in anticipation for the ship to finally rise away from the launch pad, for the famous Houston, we have liftoff!
The plane taxied across the tarmac and the flight attendants rehearsed their script of emergency procedures for the umpteenth time while I pretended to pay attention. When I felt my stomach jostle as the plane lifted from the earth, I attempted to finally get comfortable. I looked at Rosary Lady, at Christ between her breasts as he peeked out from her hand that still grasped him, maybe a little bit tighter this time. I had read somewhere that in some cultures, whenever the plane lands safely, all of the passengers cheer as they celebrate another safe trip in someone else’s hands. I wondered if there were some cultures that did the same for taking off.
As the plane ascended, the cabin began to cool, and I closed my eyes to fall asleep.
I awoke to a quiet cabin, dark except for the nighttime lighting, an ocean blue glow that allowed enough light to see your way down the aisle but not enough to be a distraction. I felt like a kid again, and I was in a submarine exploring the expansive depths of the seas, basked in the dying blue glow of the sunlight as it attempted to break through the dark, open water. I sat up straight and wiped a bit of drool from the corner of my mouth. Rosary Lady was reading a book, halfway finished.
I checked my watch. 11:32 PM.
Around me sat a full load of passengers, some asleep, others reading, others quietly talking to one another. A baby cooed a few seats ahead of me, and the mother would quietly shush it to prevent a temporary meltdown of snot and tears.
Across the aisle, a large man sat asleep in the aisle seat, emitting a loud, sudden snort of air every minute or two. Sleep apnea, probably, I thought. I would hear my parents do that whenever we would visit the mountains, so high up where the air was thinner and made it slightly more difficult to breathe. The air outside of the plane was way thinner than where we stayed though.
I looked out the window and was greeted by flashing lights of the airplane’s right wing. Red flashes, then white flashes. Red, then white. The wing’s silhouette sliced through the large cloud that engulfed us, a storm that was decided to be passed through as we boarded the flight. More white flashes, quick and sporadic.
My heart began to flutter nervously, and I looked ahead of me, concentrating on the moving heads of the people sat before me, rocking side to side simultaneously as the plane swooped through the incoming storm.
Ding! The ‘fasten seatbelt’ flashed on, and the overhead speakers crackled as a flight attendant began the routine announcement.
“As you may have noticed, the captain has turned on the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign, so at this time we ask if you could please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts, and make sure that all loose belongings are securely stored in the overhead compartments or beneath your seats. Thank you.”
Rosary Lady looked up from her book as the cabin began to tremble. Christ swung slightly side to side like a pendulum.
For the next ten minutes, the cabin gently jerked as it battled the strong winds, the furious lightning that flashed as if I were a celebrity attempting to ride through a storm of paparazzi, the rain that you could almost hear over the hum of the engines. The baby a few rows ahead let out a long, shrill cry every minute, and the mother tried her best to keep it calm. She sang a lullaby to the shaken child, and it traveled throughout the deathly silent cabin with every passenger now awake, and alert. The mother was no louder than how she would sing in the privacy of her own home, but I could hear her clear enough that if it weren’t for the turbulence, it would put me right back to sleep. My palms grew sweaty as I gripped the armrests tighter. Like Dad said…
My stomach suddenly hopped up into my chest, and the entire cabin erupted into cries as the plane dropped dramatically in altitude. The fuselage moaned in the stress of the turbulence, a sound almost ghostly with the frightened passengers’ screams accompanying it. Rosary Lady now had Christ in a death grip as she held her rosary up to her chin, and I made a bet with myself that she was praying.
The white fluorescent lights flickered on as the plane continued to rattle and rock and dip and lean. I could see everyone holding on to their seats, or the seats in front of them as I soon did. I glanced at my watch. 11:45 PM. I looked at the row across from me and saw the large man, his eyes squeezed shut and his face red, his hands even more red as he gripped the bottom of the armrests for dear life, and his knuckles so white I could’ve sworn I saw bone.
A mechanical groan split through the air as the plane dropped again, and then fell to the right. I watched everyone’s bodies bounce to the side, their arms gliding through the air almost like a choreographed dance number. We looked like nothing more than ragdolls as the laws of physics acted on us, strapped into an out of control piece of machinery. Several overhead compartments snapped open, and carry-on baggage of all kinds spilled out onto the aisle and onto the passengers. I shot a glance out the window, enough to see the lightning illuminate the right wing as it sliced through the murky sky.
The plane dropped, and screams traveled with it. I was weightless. My stomach contents splashed against the top of my gut and threatened to spray from my mouth. The arms of every passenger freely floated upward, marionette puppets with invisible hands standing them up for a show.
The screams were cut off suddenly, and the passengers fell backward into their seats as the plane curved upward and attempted to level out. Ceiling plates above each row unopened, and a tangled mess of yellow and clear plastic obscured my view as the oxygen masks bounced from their compartments. Rosary Lady and I struggled to grab a mask as the plane rocked violently side to side.
I finally managed to pull a mask over my mouth and nose, and I pulled the strap around my head. Rosary Lady had grabbed her mask and held it to her mouth—good enough. The cabin threatened to tear apart at any moment as the fuselage creaked in the storm that was only getting stronger. Flames sporadically shot out of Engine #3 like the spark from a gun, and the machinery emitted a dying squeal as it dumped smoke into the already cloudy sky.
I looked over at the large man in the aisle seat across from me. He didn’t have a mask on his face as he held onto the seat in front of him for support. Vomit gurgled from his mouth, splashed across his face, dumped into his lap, cascaded onto the people in the seats in front of him. Whichever direction the plane shook, the vomit squirted in that direction. The smell hit me instantly, and the entire cabin soon smelled of undigested food and stomach acid as passengers began to regurgitate their last meal.
The plane had become almost quiet, as most passengers had oxygen masks covering their mouths. It was surreal, and almost serene, how such a terrifying situation could be so silent. Or maybe my brain blocked out the sounds of the dying plane engines, the crackling fuselage, the rumbling stampede of thunder.
Maybe it’s the kind of family curse that skips every other generation. The thought passed quickly in my head.
Engine #3 exploded in a flash of flames. The wing peeled away from the cabin, opening the can of sardines in a mess of smoke and sparks and fire. A fuel line exploded, and the blast erupted into the cabin several rows in front of me. The unfortunate passengers caught in the blaze separated into pieces, limbs tossed through the air like tinker toys with strings of meaty, red ribbons flailing behind them. A sudden blast of cold air whipped around my body. My eardrums nearly blew apart as the air pressure suddenly changed from the gaping 15-foot-wide hole in the fuselage where the wing once was.
I watched in horror as several rows of seats were yanked from the floor and tossed out into the open sky. My oxygen mask ripped off my face and allowed me to scream, but it was impossible as the air was immediately sucked from my lungs, a feeling similar to being punched in the gut. Those near the exposed fuselage sat almost lifelessly, their burnt arms and legs outstretched and pulled toward the black hole from the immense suction. Seatbelts ripped from overuse and stress, and more passengers were snatched from their seats and pulled into the icy air.
The missing wing caused the plane to tip to the right, and everyone clenched the seats in front of them with tight grasps. The cabin twisted and rotated, and I soon realized that we were upside down.
The plane dipped downward and everyone fell forward from their seats, still alive and very conscious. Fire from the explosion licked into the cabin and filled the air with burned flesh and hair. Smoke snaked in through the exposed fuselage and made the inside hazy. The interior lights gave one last flicker before they went dark, and the cabin was illuminated by the burning wing. The only thing I could hear was the sound of the shrieking engines as the plane dove down, down, down.
I somehow managed to catch my breath, fast and in small quantities, and I noticed that I was in the emergency position for times like this: bent forward, arms on the seat in front of me, forehead against arms. Rosary Lady was in the same position, and she was reciting The Lord’s Prayer out loud, which only made the entire situation that much more surreal. I snuck a peek at my watch. 11:49 PM. Time really slows down as you’re on the verge of dying.
The engines screamed louder and louder.
A rush of hot air blew my hair back and made my cheeks flutter as the front of the plane exploded into a massive fireball. My eardrums instantly ruptured from the blast and emitted a ring similar to the dying engines, and everyone was painted in a fiery orange. Rosary Lady’s prayers to God went silent as we were all thrown backward into our seats despite gravity pulling us downward only seconds before. The force from the eruption nearly tore the plane to shreds, but the cabin held, and the walls were painted in velvet red as the passengers at the front of the plane were turned into a bloody pulp of human meat.
The safest part of the plane, I had always thought, and was almost right.
The blast of the explosion wasn’t enough to turn myself or half of the other passengers inside out, but a wall of flames rushed through the confined space of the cabin. The heat reached the end of the plane almost immediately, and the inside of my lungs burned. A plasma of oranges and reds and yellows and charred blacks spilled from one seat to the next. The passengers who were still conscious threw their hands up to their faces to protect themselves from the fiery fate that swallowed them up in seconds.
The safest part of the plane.
The flames surrounded my body, flicked into my nostrils, and my insides boiled. As the plane continued spiraling downward, the flames continued to eat me away. My flesh peeled back and my body bubbled and burned, a pain that lasted for eternity, or maybe for only a few seconds. Either way, it was enough time for me to have wished I’d sat in the front of the plane this time.
Everything went black.
I woke up and saw nothing but darkness.