“You’ll have to excuse me, but I need a moment.”
My heart was racing. Eyes wide open. Lump firmly planted in my throat. Shaken. I knew this would be a unique experience for me. I just hadn’t planned on this reaction.
Eric paused and looked at me. Silent for just a moment, his face transformed from stoic presenter to that of a compassionate friend.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve seen this so many times, I forget how it makes you feel the first time you come face-to-face with it.”
We were standing alone in the hangar at the training facility for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Each year, there are roughly 2,000 accidents and incidents involving aircraft. Some are minor mishaps of little consequence. Others are major crashes involving loss of life. The folks at the NTSB are the detectives responsible for finding out what happened so it doesn’t happen again. I had come here to teach a two-day problem solving workshop to an assorted group of corporate and government leaders.
Now I was the one being educated.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” my guide prompted. “We have about ten minutes before security will need to shut the building down, but take your time.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled.
We approached the craft with reverence. Thirty steps and we were standing beneath the wing of a Boeing 747 wide-body jet. Or what would have been the wing. I was in awe of its enormity. Like looking up at a football field worth of Astroturf rolled into the shape of a giant burrito.
Eric shifted back to presenter mode.
“The NTSB was responsible for determining the cause of the accident. It was the longest, most extensive investigation in the history of the agency. Four years. We were able to recover over 95% of the plane and piece together what happened. ”
His tone didn’t fit the situation. It was so matter-of-fact. Yet here I stood, looking up at the most incredible, tragic puzzle I had ever seen. An enormous wire frame had been constructed in the shape of a 230-foot-long jet. Then, piece-by-piece, the engineers had combed through the wreckage, identifying each item, and lashing it to the frame with strands of wire. Three hundred tons of plexiglass, plastic parts and metal. Some pieces as small as your fist. Others the size of a Ford pickup.
Right where they were supposed to be.
* The investigation in progress. I couldn’t take any photos, but this gives you the idea.
The wings were reconstructed and set off to the side of the plane, detached. Some pieces were missing, but in their place were swaths of heavy paper cut to the proper shape with notes like, “See part B347”
Eric explained how the investigation was conducted. Engineers started with a list of potential causes and ruled them out one-by-one. For instance, witnesses to the tragedy report seeing a streak of white through the sky, like a missile, prior to the plane going down. So, investigators looked for evidence that might support the claim that the flight was downed by terrorists. Blast effects. Metal bent inward instead of outward.
They found little to support the conclusion, and a whole lot to refute it.
Ultimately, it was determined that the cause of the accident was most likely an explosion in the center wing fuel tank caused by short in an electrical wire that ignited the fumes. I stood near the location where the blast likely occurred and saw some of the smallest pieces of wreckage, and bundles of wires hanging haphazardly.
I spent a few minutes asking questions as we viewed the plane from a variety of angles. It was fascinating. The meticulous detail. The effort and expense to solve the mystery. One is left with a profound sense of respect for the men and women responsible for bringing closure to the event, the victims, and their families.
As we walked around the aircraft to the other side. I followed Eric up two flights of black metal stairs. At the top, I turned to the right and froze.
We were standing on the passenger level. The view was familiar. Nearly every week, I barrel down the center aisle on a plane bound for my latest business destination. Denver. Seattle. New York. I walk past rows of seats, trying my best not to bang a knee with my rolling purple suitcase, or smack a noggin with my backpack. Some passengers look up and smile. Others have their noses buried in books.
But this plane was empty.
There were ten seats in each row. Three on both the right and left sides, and four in the middle. They were upholstered in fabric of red, blue or gold. Some were upright. Others were reclined. Many more were contorted into unrecognizable shapes. Ceasing to be seats, and now just twisted metal and cushion, looking like an unmade bed.
I stared. It wasn’t until Eric spoke again that I realized I had been holding my breath.
He explained how there were three debris fields off the coast. One field was the wreckage that first fell from the sky. Pieces from the plane that were nearest the center fuel tank. The nose of the plane was found further along the flight path in a second field area. Eric continued, looking out over the seats.
“The third field was where they found the majority of the wreckage. The back two-thirds of the aircraft. When the explosion happened, the wings were still attached to this back section of the plane. At the speed the plane was traveling, investigators estimate that the craft still had lift. Climbing another two to three thousand feet before descending and crashing into the water.”
He paused and turned to face me. My expression must have displayed sheer horror, as Eric looked me directly in the eye. The corners of his mouth curled under. He broke eye contact, looked at his shoes, and simply said,
* The NTSB Graphic. The red field is the area by the center fuel tank. The yellow is the nose. The green is the aft portion.
I glanced over my left shoulder toward the front of the plane. The nose was reconstructed in another area of the hangar, so the forward cabin was just a 20-foot diameter hole opening to a cinder block wall. I looked back toward the seats.
Now the plane was full.
I saw 230 people in the seats. Eyes wide open. Their last minute. Staring out the front of the plane into a blue sky. A French hockey player. An American composer. Sixteen members of a high school French club from Pennsylvania. Mothers. Fathers. Sons and daughters.
They all packed their bags for the journey of a lifetime. Suitcases filled with the items to sustain them on their trip. Suitcases recovered and returned to family members who will never see their loved ones again. People who would trade all of their own possessions for just one more minute. One more chat. One more laugh. One more embrace.
Eric and I stood alone. He left me in my silence. I asked no questions. But voices surrounded me, asking questions of their own.
“Is it worth it?”
“Do you love them?”
“Do they know it?”
“Why are you waiting?”
I silently descended the steps. It was time to leave. After all, the building was closing and I had a flight of my own to catch. But the voices lingered.
Seven hours later I pulled into my driveway. Arriving home well past midnight, I was weary from travel. I entered the quiet house, pacing down the hall. Even in the dark, I could navigate without stubbing a toe.
I stopped first at Audrey’s room. She was sound asleep. Her favorite blanket named “Toasty” tucked under her chin, and her lips puckered in a permanent kiss. Tiny nose on a tiny face.
I leaned forward and smelled her hair.
Then into Jake’s room, where he lay sprawled upside down. Head where his feet should be. Not a blanket in sight. The legs of his pajama pants pulled up as if they were shorts. It’s a loveable, funny quirk of his. Along with the puddle of drool on the sheet.
I rubbed his back and he mumbled in his sleep.
Finally, into the bedroom. I turned out the light on Gabby’s night stand. She fell asleep while reading. Such a lover of books that she fights for every word before her eyelids win the battle.
I slipped between the sheets, kissed her on the cheek, and ran my fingers through her hair. She sighed a deep, heavy sigh of contentment and nuzzled closer. I stopped for a moment when I realized that I had left a bag out in the car. For a moment – one fleeting moment -I contemplated retrieving it. But then I heard those familiar voices.
Don’t worry about the bag.
The last minute starts now.
And everything is right where it should be.