There’s the group of people you see at the baggage check-in. You scan the crowd, wondering how many of them will be on your flight. How many flights can one airline have leaving one airport at the same time, after all? There’s the young couple with a baby and far too much luggage, the rich older couple with no baby and far too much luggage, the gaggle of scruffy students, a whole herd of businessmen in indistinguishable rumpled dark suits, carrying either a laptop or the Wall Street Journal.
You move through the airport check-in process in this instacrowd of fellow-travelers, beginning to bond with them in preparation for the flight. Oh, good. The couple with the baby will be on this flight. There they are at the gate, handing the baby Cheerios which it flings onto the carpet in a 4-foot circle around them. Most of the students aren’t on this flight. This is the time of year they’re all heading toward somewhere coastal, and you’re not. But most of the businessmen are with you, ensuring that you will both not have to talk to anyone on the plane and that you will not get to use at least one armrest.
Now it’s a matter of narrowing down who’s going to sit near you. Not the baby. Please, not the baby. But it’s a couple. The man and woman each pull out something to read and talk neither to each other nor you. You sit by the window and put your jacket over your head and think that you might sleep for the two and a half hours it’ll take to get there. Maybe more. It’s raining now.
You won’t sleep. The plane jumps up and down in the air, a prop at the end of a string held by a small child bent on childish entertainment. The captain does not turn off the “fasten seat belt” light, and you wish that there were more straps to keep your head from hitting the seat every time the plane dips. The flight attendants can’t serve beverages and are still sitting in their fake little seats, their fake smiles rigid on their faces. The baby is hysterical.
The feeling of falling, powerful every time the plane dips, then less so as it recovers, comes on and does not stop, although no instructions have been issued by anyone. The sounds of the plane’s engines are being drowned out by the sounds of the passengers wondering what’s happening, gasping at each new jolt, someone near you has begun crying softly.
You take the jacket off your head and see that it’s the woman next to you who has put down her book and is now snuggled into her partner’s chest. He has wrapped his arm around her and is stroking her hair, looking around the cabin for someone to do or say something. The captain comes on the overhead to say that you’re experiencing “extreme turbulence” and that any passengers not in their seats should return to their seats at once and buckle up. He is going to land at the nearest airport.
The plane is going down. It’s below the clouds now, and you can’t see much out the window because the rain and ice are pelting it so hard that the windows are curtains of water. You hope there’s an airport below you to catch you.
There isn’t. The pilot announces that he’s making an emergency landing, and barks at the flight attendants to do something airplane jargony. The flight attendants do not move. There is nothing for them to do.
The jolts come harder and faster and it’s difficult to tell exactly when the plane hits the ground, except that the noise coming from the other side of the plane is the loudest thing you have ever heard. Even so, is this really happening to you? Things are being thrown around the cabin – women’s purses, paper coffee cups, magazines, and you wonder who will clean up the mess. The seats at the front of the plane suddenly seem to be going uphill, like you’re at the back of a roller coaster heading upward. People are screaming, but now the noise has a distant, tinny quality to it. Someone has gotten out of his seat, and he flies into the air and lands two rows back on top of three people who scream and try to push him away. A section of overhead bins toward the front cracks, breaks, falls onto the heads of the people below it who put their arms over their heads and scream. And now you’re wet and cold because the plane is sideways with a large hole in it where the rain whips in. You’re all still moving. The plane is still skidding along the ground, and it seems you’ve all been strapped to a bullet fired at the ground for an impossibly long time. You feel both weightless and leaden, and you can’t tell whether you’re breathing.
And then the cataclysmic noise stops, and all you can hear is the rain, and people crying. So many people are crying.