Sunday, November 7, 2010
"Ill Never Again Board a Plane With a Giraffe on it!"
I have a great story to tell when a stewardess comes up to me and says "are you able to open the emergency door in case of an emergency?" I nod and say "well, I have opened one." I am sure they don't hear that every day.
In 2000, I was working for the US Peace Corps in Tanzania. The country is massive, and I travelled most of it supporting and training Peace Corps volunteers and their host country counterparts. We trained our volunteers in Arusha, quite a distance from my office in Dar es Salaam. I found myself flying back and forth quite a bit during their three month training period. It was on one such flight that I got to find out all I ever wanted to know about airplane safety.
It was near the end of the training period, and a coworker and I were to fly back to Dar es Salaam. Me made our way from the town of Arusha to the international airport some 50 kilometers away. The airport itself is near the Kenyan border, an attempt I suppose to draw business from both countries. It is nestled between Mt. Meru and Kilamanjaro, two majestic peaks. To add to the effect, the airport is on the very edge of the Serengeti. It is truly the most beautiful setting for any airport I have ever visited.
We boarded the 737 for our one hour flight. Our seats were just behind the exit row which overlooked the wings. As we prepared to taxi, I found myself morbidly watching the engine under the wing. I had flown hundreds of times, and I wasn't nervous, just watching that engine. We quickly made our way out to the runway, and the pilot instructed us in Swahili and English. I remember seeing a young Arab couple with three young children a few seats in front of me. The kids were having fun, and it was all their parents could do to keep control of them.
As the jet started to lumber down the runway, my attention was drawn back to that engine. It seemed to take forever to get going, and finally the front end of the aircraft began to nudge upwards. At that very moment, I heard a loud boom and saw a plume of smoke pouring from the engine. The next ten seconds felt like an eternity -the captain shut the plane down and locked up the brakes. We skidded for quite awhile, turning sideways. As quickly as it began, we were stopped at the end of the runway, the nose of the plane sticking into the grassy field that was never intended to receive a jet. Several of the oxygen masks had deployed and there was a strange silence. We all just sat there quietly. After a few seconds, the captain came on the loudspeaker and told us to evacuate in two languages. There was an urgency in his voice. When his voice faded, the pandemonium began. People started yelling and jumping over seats. My friend patiently stood up and got into the aisle to move back to the rear exit. I started to follow, a bit scared, until I remembered the family a few rows ahead. I tried to push my way forward when I noticed two people having a hard time opening the exit door over the wing ahead of me. I pushed two others aside and grabbed the door. It was harder to open than I had thought. When the door swung upwards, smoke from the tires poured into the cabin. This accelerated the madness around me. I suppose the passengers thought the plane itself was on fire. I stepped back to let people out, and a group of wazungu (westerners) pushed forward past everyone frantically racing to get out. I guess they didn't want to die in Africa, but I was surprised how little regard they had for the women and children around them.
I pushed forward again and reached the family. The father was patiently trying to carry a newborn while shepherding two young kids and his wife to the rear of the plane. I got in line behind them and followed them out. When we got to the back of the plane, we faced the daunting task of jumping out onto the escape ramp. I asked him if he needed help, and he said yes. He had me jump out first to then help "catch" his two children while he jumped with the baby.
I took my shoes off and jumped, sort of having fun. As I began to stand up, I felt a shooting pain through my shoulder - a European woman had evidently pushed past the family and jumped too soon with her high heels on. She rolled off of me and crawled screaming out onto the runway. I turned around and grabbed the two kids as they bounced down the ramp/raft. Once the family was all down, we walked a few hundred yards to where the other passengers were congregating. After about ten minutes, we were told we could go back on the plane to get our carry on baggage if we wanted to. I was one of only two passengers to take them up on their offer.
I learned that day that karma sometimes exists. Two of the westerners who had scrambled out the wing exit had been injured, one breaking his leg. They thought the plane was on fire, so they went out to the furthest point on the wing to jump. The wings swept up, and they had long plunge to terra firma.
We were taken back to Arusha, and those of us who still wanted to catch another flight later were put up in a nice hotel. I saw the crew come in the lobby and they were very shaken. I supposed we had all come very close to a terrible conclusion. My friend did not come to the hotel, she opted for a very long bus ride back to Dar es Salaam. When I asked her why, she replied "I'll never again board a plane with a giraffe on it!" I understood.
I had to wait three days for another flight. The official word was that there had been a tire blow out on take off, but when I returned to the airport, I saw the plane in an open hangar with my favorite engine removed. I would later learn that if the plane had gotten off the ground and the engine had failed, we probably would not have survived.
Fifteen years later, I was sitting in an exit row on a flight to California. The stewardess came by and was chatting with me. When she got around to her obligatory admonition about the responsibilities related to occupancy in an exit row, I agreed then told her I had opened a door before. She smiled and went on her way. Later in the flight, she came by and asked me where and when I had opened an exit door. I related the basics of my story to her and she got very excited. She told me that she taught safety to flight crews, and she had reviewed that very incident in her training. A small, small world.