At least a dozen years ago I volunteered for a Saturday airport emergency preparedness exercise. Involving a simulated plane crash, a real airline flight crew, real emergency responders from the airport and surrounding agencies, the Red Cross, you name it. I was one of the “passengers” and the organizers made us all up to look appropriately injured.
It was a cool-to-cold clear fall morning as we assembled, got our makeup (moulage) applied, and eventually took our seats in the aircraft. It was an old 707 which was parked out by a hanger and had been stripped of its engines, etc. I took a seat in the first-class area near the front.
We sat for a little bit, then the flight attendants grabbed bullhorns and called out that we’d crashed, and we had to evacuate. I headed for the closest exit, which was in front of me, but the flight attendant there in the aisle yelled to us, “this is blocked, you have to go back!” So we turned and went down stairs (no chute in this case) out onto the concrete around the plane. We were guided away from the aircraft and then sat and laid down to wait for the first responders.
It was so quiet. So very quiet. And it seemed like such a long time until we heard the first sirens. It couldn’t have been very long, really, but my God it seemed like a lifetime. And nobody was hurt, nothing was burning, it was just a beautiful day out on the north end of a major international airport next to a big hangar.
I remember bits of the rest; I got evacuated by helicopter to Denver Health in midtown, then took a loonngg bus ride back out to the airport with the others who’d been transported there. (Note: if you get hit, shot, knifed or run over in Denver, you *want* to be taken to that ER, believe me.)
Ever since then, people, I really do pay attention to the emergency instructions when I get on an airplane. I note where the emergency exits are, in front of me and behind me. When I fly I don’t wear flip flops, fancy dress shoes, or any clothing that I can’t climb, bend, crawl, and run like hell in. I remind myself that if we get into any emergency evacuation situation the ONLY valuable thing I had better try to take off that plane is my own sweet self, and there’s nothing in my carry-on bag that I’m willing to die for. I usually put my main ID including passport in a pocket. And figure that anything on my notebook PC that hasn’t been backed up? I’d better be able to live without.
I swing between preferring an aisle seat for the ability to get out immediately for routine (bathroom) reasons and in any emergency, and quaking at the thought of being brained by some idiot’s overstuffed carryon luggage falling out of an overhead bin above me, which is less likely if one’s in the window seat.
The lessons of that Saturday are so well-ingrained that I don’t often think of it. But I did this afternoon when I read this piece in Newsweek by a passenger who was on Continental 1404 in Denver last night. The headline: “A sudden, terrible stillness.” And I remembered the quiet, lying on concrete waiting for sirens, with time to realize that this is how it happens, only often in the dark, in the rain, in deep cold or awful heat, after a car wreck or a plane wreck. The reporters and photographers get there after the emergency crews, the flashing lights and sirens, so we always see the vehicles, the uniforms, the flashing lights, in the news coverage. What we don’t see on the news is before that, between the crash and the response. The stillness, the isolation, that awful waiting when you are praying that help is on the way.
Seriously, people, I enjoy flying, I believe it’s safer than driving, and yet I don’t show up in flip-flops and silly clothes for it. I can only hope and pray that if I am ever a passenger in a commercial aircraft incident that’s survivable, the flip-flop quotient on that particular flight will be really really low.