The plane crashed rather matter of factly. No great build up or suspense. No time to pray to God or tell someone you loved them. No crosses kissed, signs made, hands squeezed or knowing glances exchanged. The takeoff was fine; it was very smooth actually. There was no sudden lose in pressure or altitude, no engine failed and there was no human error. When they collected the mangled black box, no cries for help were heard, no concerned voices from the pilots. Indeed, all that could be heard were the very regular numbers and coordinates and checks and whatever else pilots say as a plane takes off.
There was nothing more to it, though everyone wanted there to be more. They wanted to understand something that made no sense. But there was nothing to make sense of. The plane simply took off, flew for a bit and then crashed into the side of a mountain. Everyone on board was simply alive and then they were dead.
I could have easily grabbed a bag of pretzels from where I was sitting. Maybe even have grabbed one of those half-sized sodas, made to look even more odd and misshapen because of the metric system. I sat in a single seat opposite the flight attendant station on a 55-seat plane. Eighteen rows of one seat to the left of the aisle and two to the right, and then me. It was strange, I admit, that I had this seat as there were only 18 passengers, though I doubt as many of my remaining friends and family members and the friends and family members of the others would claim, that it was divine intervention.
18 passengers, two pilots and two flight attendants. It was the early flight, 7:05 am, which is why it was so empty. The 8:05 am flight was always a full ride as many workers made the 45 minute commute from Barquisimeto to Caracas for their jobs in some business or another or in the government. It was the train from Fairfax to DC. If this flight had been a train derailment on that run, it would have been more tragic and received more media coverage. The more people who are negatively effected by something, the more tragic that something becomes. If I am being completely honest, the only reason it was more than a thirty second story on the six o’clock news here in the U.S. was because of us Americans on board. All the news outlets got a good week and a half out of that little, unexplainable crash and then it lingered on in our collective consciousness for decades to come for obvious reasons. It certainly didn’t help matters that the media explained the unexplainable crash anyway, chalking it up to the unsafe nature of third-world travel at first and then speculating that the crash was a terrorist attack, possibly orchestrated by Chavez, himself. Some historians now even go so far as to inversely analogize that senseless plane crash to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
I was in Venezuela over the long Thanksgiving weekend, flying down on Wednesday and Thursday and flying back on Sunday and Monday. Cincinnati to Miami to Caracas to Barquesimeto and back and back and back. You still can’t fly directly to anywhere out of Cincinnati all these many years later.
I was down there for my childhood friend’s wedding. It was really the second wedding. Same girl; one marriage; second wedding. One for his people up here in the U.S. and one for her people down there in Venezuela, but those who knew both or were particularly close to one went to both weddings. The wedding was as outrageous as one could hope. A remarkable spread, and enough liquor for all involved to forget. After some parading around in masks there was a dancing competition I still wish I had had at my own wedding. I went to both because my friend had been my friend for almost ever, and because I was the only one of his friends who was there to see him fall in love. That is a big thing. You carry those people with you forever; those who were there to see you at your happiest, at your best, at your most true and revealed self.
We grew up together as part of a group of six friends, not in Cincinnati, where I lived at the time of the flight, but in Newark, Delaware where all six of us spent the first eighteen years of our lives. I then left and the rest stayed. Joseph, my marrying friend, would be the only other one to leave, moving with me on a whim when we put the names of a bunch of cities in a hat and pulled out Madison, Wisconsin. This, of course, is where he met the girl he would marry in Barquesmeto a day before the plane flew into the side of a mountain. After meeting her, courting her, and engaging her, he took her back to Delaware. I left Madison a little before they did; walked a couple thousand wooded miles of the Appalachian Trail, found love on the AT, walked with her, laid done with her in fields and high plateaus, and then went to Cincinnati with her. We didn’t have much money so she did not come to Venezuela with me.
When planes take off I like to look out the window and watch things get smaller. My wife, she would always close her eyes and hold my hand; tighter with every shift and lurch. I followed my routine on that flight, only without my wife’s hand. The ground and the town became small quickly and the sky was turning a lighter blue. Then green crept into my view in a way that seemed out of place. I turned to look out the windows on the other side of the aisle. I saw brown and green and then felt the mountain. The plane split open right at the line of the wing and the cabin, hitting with such force that what was back went forward. This included me. I don’t know how my seat was ripped free. No one else’s did. But the metal base ripped free and clean and the angle the plane hit the mountain shot me out head first through the gaping hole in the side of the plane. I kept slowly flipping, while racing forward. By the time I hit the ground I was perfectly angled for landing with my seat back parallel and then touching the dirt of a narrow hiking trail surrounded on either side by massive trees and boulders. I flew perhaps fifty yards and skidded another fifty, finally coming to a stop only seconds after looking out at a light blue sky and thinking about those pretzels and those funny little cans. I wish I could explain it better, but that was all that happened.