Last week while preparing to leave after a ten-day island vacation, we (Betty Ann and another couple we vacationed with) were present when a small plane attempted to land at a very small airport and narrowly avoided disaster.
Just plain luck
The news that supersedes all else is that there was no fire and all passengers, including several children, made it out of the plane okay. That fact alone, stands as the true blessing of the day. So with that very good news I can now, gratefully, move on to the drama of human events and the rest of the story.
At tiny airports and airstrips, everyone knows one another, and while they have their modest official “divisions” set up for immigration processing, baggage checking, ticket agent and security screening, there’s lots of cross-talking and island bantering going on among employees and regular passengers. There may be the occasional hum of a prop plane cranking up, but the squawking of shore birds outside and the distant whirl of a powerboat cruising by at the end of the single runway dominate the audio landscape. Add to this the feel of the wind blowing off of the water and through the tiny terminal and birds jumping above in the rafters, by comparison , offers a very different sensory experience than either L.A.-X or JFK International airports.
With check-in behind us, we settled in for what we thought would be a half-hour wait for our plane to arrive when the muffled sound of an approaching plane could be heard. Suddenly the noise grew unusually loud and just as quickly turned into a deafening roar followed by a loud “bang” and what sounded like tires screeching on pavement. Everyone, including employees, stopped what they were doing and looked up and within seconds workers began screaming and running for the exits.
The Human Response
Now for sure, I’m a firm believer in, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” so when people in uniforms started running, you don’t have to ask me twice! And knowing that the runway was not more than twenty-five feet from the terminal and that most of us couldn’t actually see the airstrip from our side of the building, the frightful question struck me, and I’m sure others too,”is that incoming plane gonna hit the building?”
We bolted, leaving everything behind, out into the front of the airport building. And that’s when we saw the plane at the end of the airstrip. having just careened off to the side, through a fence, its front landing gear snapped and nose dug into the dirt, but otherwise intact. It came to rest, literally, not more that 30 feet from the back of a row of bungalows. Employees, seemingly all of them, were running about, arms flailing, and screaming “Sweet Jesus, oh sweet Jesus, no!”
At that moment there was no way of knowing if anyone aboard the plane was injured or worse. And the immediate fear of fire or explosion was uppermost in everyone’s mind. Barbara, our traveling companion, who is also a nurse practitioner, sprang into gear and offered her medical services—repeatedly but nobody seemed to be in charge. A tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire prevented anyone from running onto the runway to help. Employee cell phones immediately began ringing as family and friends from all over the island began calling to check on their loved ones, which was certainly understandable in such a small community. A few more minutes passed before an older model fire truck emerged and made its way down the runway. But by the time it reached the plane, people were opening doors, jumping down to the wing, and lifting their children to safety. That sight alone, seeing people deplane, turned tears into smiles followed by shouts of praise to the Almighty by islanders and airport workers alike.
No one’s in charge
By now any semblance of order had evaporated. All of us, passengers, employees and a handful of island folk who had rushed to the terminal were mulling about, walking back and forth through security as the metal detector beeped and blinked away with nobody paying attention. I walked back inside to get my photo gear and returned to the front of the building when it dawned on me…with the tail of the damaged plane protruding into the only runway, we weren’t going anywhere. We were stranded on Union Island with no way off and no way to catch a connecting jet some eighty miles east in Barbados.
It was a beautiful sight to see the passengers on the crashed plane slowly walk up the runway in our direction before disappearing into a room on the other side of the terminal. And within a few minutes more, another unexpected sight appeared….
…which I’ll share in my next post.