The news caught my eye on Monday morning. Maybe it is because we are travelers, maybe it is because we were going to fly from Rio de Janeiro to Paris a just few months ago (we eventually bused back to Buenos Aires), or maybe it is because it was an Air France flight. Who knows: some news just hit home.
The first press releases were quite mysterious. Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro had left Brazil at 19:00, local time. It was expected in Paris about eleven hours later and never made it. It suddenly disappeared off air traffic controllers’ radar screens at about 1,000 kilometers from the Brazilian coast. Early Monday morning, there was still some hope, mostly because planes have a kerosene reserve.
But a few hours later, the mood was low on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as it became clear the plane was not going to show up. Passengers nationalities were being released as officials set up a crisis team in the Parisian airport. There were 228 people on board, and none expected to be found.
I went to work and I couldn’t get the tragedy out of my head.
First, the families. Given the unexpected nature of the disaster, the plane was first announced as “delayed”. Eventually, families, relatives and friends were told the truth. Can you imagine the nightmare of waiting for your loved ones at the airport and finding out they would never be arriving? The sudden shock and the lives that were changed forever, in a single second? I can’t. The thought of it send shivers down my spine.
The look on people’s faces at Roissy was one of disbelief, helplessness and incomprehension. What happened? Nobody knew for sure, which made the news even more disturbing. A lost plane? When we think of plane crashes, we think of landing or take-off crashes, and those are usually, well, on land. Images of these accidents are shocking but there are real, here, right before our eyes. But what happened above the Atlantic Ocean will remain somewhat mysterious and unreal.
And I was thinking of the passengers too. Hopefully, hopefully, whatever happened happened fast. But deep down, when the news first came out, I thought of a horror flick I had seen a few years ago, Open Water. In the movie, a couple of scuba divers are left behind stranded at sea because the tour operator forgets them. They try to survive in the shark-infested waters, dehydrated and scared.
And even if there was very little hope for the plane passengers, I kept on thinking of that movie. What if the plane crashed in the sea and potential survivors were stranded in the Atlantic Ocean? I prayed the rescues would located the wreckage quick enough.
The following day, parts of flight 447’s wreckage were found 650 km northeast of Fernando de Noronha Island. These debris confirmed the worst hypothesis: there were no survivors and the place had indeed crashed into the ocean.
The cause of the crash remain unknown. Finding the black box won’t be an easy task since it must have sank pretty deep. Meanwhile, there are so many hypothesis that it’s hard to know which ones are actually likely: could the plane have been stroke by lightning? Experts say that planes are designed to handle such events. Could it be just a combination of unfortunate events, triggered by the weather?
Speculation is rampant. Sure, it is weird to see a plane disappear, but I have very little patience for the usual conspiracy theories. A meteorite, the aliens, a geo-magnetic hole (what the hell is that?), a cosmic ray (same question), a portal to another dimension… I read them all. We have this visceral need to know and to understand, especially when the news is shocking. Rationalizing, imaginating, speculating — we are all aviation experts suddenly.
I don’t know what happened to flight 447. I doubt we will ever do. Nor that we will know how the passengers and crew reacted and felt in these fatal few minutes. We have to accept that we can’t understand and predict everything. But we can feel sad and empathetic.