CoastalEast Air Flight Number 617
The woman’s body convulsed. She woke with a gasp. It was as if she suddenly recalled why and how to breathe. The screech of roaring engines at full thrust thrummed in her ears. The noise was so loud it made her body vibrate in a similar pulsating rhythm.
A second later, a different shiver coursed through her. She couldn’t think. Couldn’t remember …
Even trying to remember was like moving through a fog. Nothing was visible. Nothing made sense.
The overwhelming wall of sound seemed to take her over, as if her body was in the grip of its rhythm.
She clenched the arms of … what? A chair?
Where am I?
She opened her eyes, slowly focusing on the blue panel directly ahead of her: a small flat-screen television that featured a tiny icon of an airplane pictured against a map of the East Coast of the United States.
The screen changed, the map now showing a larger airplane over a jagged blob tagged with “LGA.”
I’m … on a plane?
A male voice from an intercom tried to cut through the shrieking engine noise. “Ladies and gentleman, the pilot has informed me that we’ve been cleared to land. Please turn off and stow all portable—”
The plane bucked and the passengers groaned en masse.
Where am I going?
“—electronic equipment. We apologize for the turbulence.”
Where have I been?
“Please return to your seats, make sure your seatback is in an upright position, and—”
The plane pitched sharply to the right and dropped a good fifty feet. She gripped the arms of the chair and fought the small wave of nausea that seized her stomach. The other passengers reacted with universal sounds of alarm including groans and more than a few screams.
The flight attendant’s voice lost its cultured polish. He swore “Oh, shit…” into the uncovered microphone. Then the sound cut off.
What was happening?
Now the attendant barked into the mike, “Fasten your seatbelts, now!”
She unpried a hand from the chair arm long enough to reach down to discover the safety strap was already pulled tightly across her lap. Nevertheless, she tugged the free end of the belt harder.
If tight was good, tighter must be better.
She glanced to her right at the sleeping man seated next to her. Slumped against the window, he was evidently the sort of seasoned traveler who didn’t let a little turbulence disturb a good nap. At least he wore his seatbelt.
Was he a stranger? Did she know him? Were they traveling together? Questions pounded at her, slamming into the blank wall of her memory.
I don’t even remember getting on this pla—
The aircraft lurched again, resulting in another chorus of screams from the passengers. Two young men on the other end of her row laughed and raised their arms as if riding on a roller coaster.
And yet neither the rough ride nor the noise woke the dozing man next to her.
Glancing past him, she looked through the small window, expecting to see rain lashing the glass, or bolts of lightning slicing through angry clouds … anything that could be considered an unfortunate but logical cause of the plane’s erratic movements. But she saw nothing unusual. She looked down at Manhattan, where the tops of very tall buildings clawed a cloudless blue sky like fingers searching for a handhold.
It was at that moment when she realized that the small window at the end of her row was actually part of an exit door. She stared blankly at the instructions on how to open the door in case of emergency, but her mind was too confused to absorb much detail. The directives and graphics printed there mostly boiled down to open door, throw it aside, and get the hell out.
If the situation warranted it, she would do just that.
The plane shuddered again, this time with such violence that several unbelted passengers slammed into the ceiling. Her mind supplied the sound of breaking bones but she couldn’t have heard anything over the now-unsteady roaring of the engines. Several of the overhead bins burst open. Their contents spilled out, flying around and striking unsuspecting victims.
Shouts of concern or surprise transformed to screams of pain and fear.
The man next to her awoke. “What th’ hell?”
She had no time to answer. Another sharp motion slammed her to the left, then to the right, and then, God help her, turned them all upside down.
The sound of screeching metal, screaming people, and explosions replaced the engine roar.
Suddenly, whole chunks of the airplane tore loose as they slammed into something hard. The plane bounced, maybe even cartwheeled several times, before settling upside down.
Something hit her hard on the head, then blackness.
She must have passed out for a moment.
When she awoke, she heard no screams, no panicked pleas for rescue by man or by God. Either the explosions had affected her hearing or everyone else was dead.
She was afraid to look around to see which it was.
But she had to do something.
As she hung from her seat, her fear and panic shrank into one small, highly condensed knot in her stomach. Something deep inside told her that she wouldn’t have a choice of fight or flight.
If she wanted to live, she’d have to do both.
Bracing herself, she took a good look at the wreckage of the plane she still couldn’t remember boarding.
She took stock of her options for escape. Where the right wing had been attached to the fuselage, there was now a great gaping hole. She could see flashes of daylight through it. But it was ringed with tangled metal and sparking wires. The smoke boiled through the opening, rapidly filling the cabin. Despite the decreasing light, she could see that the seats just one row ahead of her had been torn away.
Then she smelled burning. The smoke reeked of plastics and wiring … and the unmistakable stench of burning flesh.
She looked forward.
The first-class section was engulfed by an inferno. And then the sound of water rushing in, along with a great wave of burning fuel washing down the center of the plane, racing toward her. But not here yet, not yet …
“Hell! Time to move!”
She reached over the bloody body of the man who had been sitting next to her, trying to ignore that fact that most of his face was now missing.
Before she could reach the exit-door handle, the plane shifted with a groan of metal on metal.
She clutched the arms of her seat. At least she was no longer hanging upside down. She was on her side, with a gaping hole in the plane threatening to drown her.
The ragged hole dipped so close to the water’s edge that oily waves lapped into the plane.
The metal of the remaining fuselage groaned under the stress. She could see cracks forming in the plastic and metal sides of the jet. It was breaking up under the pressure, and sinking fast. No time for the door, she thought.
She coughed, struggling to breathe, somehow aware that there were toxins in the smoke. Between that and the rising water, she had to react.
Using her legs to brace herself, she released her seatbelt. It took all her control to stay in place and not plunge into the smoldering water, filled with broken pieces of airplane, luggage, and people. She had one, maybe two chances to swing herself toward the gap in the metal before the smoke, the fire, or the water killed her.
Using strength and dexterity she had no idea she possessed, she took a deep breath and launched herself toward the gap just as the plane shuddered once more and rolled over again.
As she struggled through the hole, her shoulder hit something hard, slowing her momentum. But she managed to continue forward, propelling herself like a world-class caver through the tangle of conduits, wires, and cables that lined her escape route.
Her progress jerked to a complete stop when something wrapped around her ankle and held her fast—a deadly tether anchoring her to the plane. It was almost as if the plane were refusing to allow her to leave, but insisted she perish along with the rest of the victims.
Refusing to give in to her rising panic, she reached back, groping blindly through the murky water in hopes of reaching the snare. Somehow she had to find a way to get loose, so that she could surface.
The loop bit even harder into her ankle as the plane shifted once more. The sinking plane seemed determined to drag her down with it. Rather than paralyzing her with fear, the revelation pushed her into overdrive.
Fear or hesitation would kill her.
Once she touched the cable twisted around her foot, she realized it was metal, not something she could easily saw through or break. The only thing she could do was to try to untwist the cable by maneuvering herself.
Her first turn was in the wrong direction and the cable grew even tighter. She turned the opposite way. With each revolution, the noose loosened. Finally, just as her lungs threatened to burst, the cable released and she was able to push herself free.
She swam for the surface and her last hope of survival.
Breaking through the waves, she was rewarded not with clean air, but with more inky black smoke.
She coughed and gasped for breath, battling the minefield of burning debris, razor-sharp pieces of metal, the contents of a hundred suitcases, and the broken bodies of those who had once owned those items.
She strained to hear the sounds of fellow survivors yelling for help. But she heard nothing other than the groan of metal from the airplane that threatened to disappear completely beneath the water’s surface.
As water filled the inside of the airplane, the small currents it created gently tugged at her.
Not again, she thought.
With a few hard kicks, she moved far enough away from the plane to escape the pull. When she turned around, she found herself mesmerized by the sight of the sinking plane. Any sane woman would have tried to put as much distance as she could between herself and the plane.
But something in the back of her mind insisted that she watch. Even worse, her brain insisted on analyzing the mechanics of the situation.
Water filled the fuselage even farther. The intact wing rose up in the air as the water-logged broken wing caused the plane to submerge sideways into the water.
She squinted through the smoke and spotted the outline of New York City.
We went into the river. The Hudson, I guess.
Time to get out.
She rolled over and kicked harder, pushing herself farther away from the plane. But in the process, she bumped into a metal suitcase, mostly intact, that bobbed on the water’s surface. Grabbing the suitcase by its broken handle, she attempted to pull it close and take advantage of its buoyancy, but it was slick with oil and difficult to hold.
Something else floated nearby, obscured by the smoke. She swam toward the object, recoiling only when she realized it was the body of a man, floating facedown.
Rest in peace, she thought automatically.
A light breeze stirred the smoke that clung to the water, creating clear patches, allowing her to see more. More destruction, more bodies, more random objects floating in the water—a child’s doll, a ball cap in perfect condition, a mangled pillow, a shoe …
… a seat cushion, which could also double as a flotation device.
She took a stroke forward and grabbed it.
With the cushion strapped in place, she pushed herself through the water with scissor kicks, trying to ignore the increasing number of bodies and body parts that blocked her way.
Small sounds started to creep into her consciousness—sirens in the distance, voices that seemed miles away. And something closer—a small burbling sound. It sounded almost human. She stopped, trying to determine where the noise was coming from. Behind her? Swinging around, she took another look at the items she’d passed by. She spotted the doll, now floating precariously close to the airplane, directly beneath the sinking wing.
It was wearing a blue outfit.
She peered at it. Did that thing just move? Or was she just seeing the results of the toy being buffeted by the occasional wave? Then she spotted one little hand moving, the fingers flexing as if trying to latch onto safety.
The plane lurched with a moan of failing metal and some of the cables that held the broken wing aloft snapped. Now it swung loosely, as if waiting for the last support to fail before tumbling free. If it fell, it would land directly on the baby.
One more innocent victim …
Not if I can help it.
She began to swim hard and fast toward the child, abandoning the cushion when she realized it was slowing her down. The airplane continued to sink, sliding faster into the water, dragging other debris along with it. Even if the wing didn’t separate from the airplane, it would be mere seconds before the undertow sucked the baby beneath the water’s surface.
She swam harder, dodging debris.
Twenty feet, ten feet, five feet …
Too late. The wing shifted in the water, pulling at the small bundle and dragging him under the water.
Taking a deep breath, she dove beneath the surface, letting the moving water drag her down. She reached out, her fingers grazing the child’s chilled flesh. Then she grabbed the torn jumpsuit he wore and pulled him close.
With a strength she shouldn’t still possess, she fought against the current and pushed to the surface. Once they broke through, she kept the baby’s face above the water as she swam away from the churning, boiling spot where the plane had once floated.
Searching her memories, she tried to recall if she knew how to give artificial respiration to a child, but the baby made that moot by opening his mouth and releasing a weak mew of a cry.
“It’s all right, sweetheart.” The sound of her own voice startled her, as if she’d never heard it before. How could that be?
She kissed the baby on the forehead as she cradled him close to her side above the waves. “You’re safe now.”
The baby responded with a strangled cry that sounded more pained than upset.
Then his cry turned into a coughing barrage as he tried to breathe. To further complicate things, she realized each rip in the child’s little jumpsuit exposed a bleeding injury. Some cuts looked small, others looked threatening.
No time to lose, she thought.
“Hang on, kid.”
The sounds of sirens and voices grew closer and the smoke dissipated. She shielded her eyes from the sudden, brilliant sunshine and saw something large and dark closing in on their position.
A voice shouted, “We’re coming. Hang in there.”
The baby stopped coughing and, perhaps, even breathing.
“Hurry! The baby … I think he’s stopped breathing. Hurry!”
There was a large splash and someone swam toward her with powerful strokes. “I’m coming.” It was a man’s voice. A strong voice.
Then the rescuer reached her. As he approached, he called out, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“No, but the baby is. I think he stopped breathing.”
The man reached for the baby, but she had a difficult time releasing the child. Cramping muscles, she told herself, not a reluctance to let go.
He knows what he’s doing. He can help. Let him take this responsibility, she whispered to herself.
After he gently extricated the baby from her arms, he cradled the baby in the crook of his arm. The man’s relief seemed as strong as hers when the child moved and cried out.
“I’m so sorry, kiddo,” he crooned. “I know it hurts. But I’m glad you’re breathing.”
He turned to her. “You hurt, too?”
“No, I’m glad he’s breathing.”
The man managed a smile, then glanced beyond her. “Looks like our ride is here.”
She turned in the water and was startled to see a ferry boat floating a short distance away. A handful of people stood at the rail in the bow, gawking.
“A commuter ferry?”
“We were the closest boat. Can you swim that far or do you need help?”
“I can swim.” She proved it by doing so.
The man glided alongside her, saying quiet words of reassurance as he held the child’s head out of the water.
“The baby’s too young to understand you,” she said between strokes.
“He can understand the tone. Right, kiddo? I could be reciting the Gettysburg Address to him and it wouldn’t matter so long as it sounded reassuring.”
He managed a watery smile. “Just watch. ‘Four score and eight years ago—’”
“‘Four score and seven years ago.’”
He smiled at the baby. “I hope you grow up to be as smart at she is. ‘Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent…’”
When they reached the boat, the gawkers turned into helpers with outstretched arms.
She was dragged aboard the boat like some strange fishing catch. She sat up, dripping and gasping, safe at last.
The ferry passengers crowded around her. She owed them her life for the timely rescue, she supposed.
But their insistence on patting her as if their gestures were reassuring was more than a bit irritating.
Why do they have to touch me?
She hid her surprise when her rescuer held out the baby. “I suspect he’d rather have you hold him right now.”
She looked at him and then at the baby and made no moves. “Why? You’re doing a fine job.”
The look of astonishment on the man’s face confused her for a moment, then she suddenly understood. “Oh … I’m not his mother.”
Something twisted in her gut and a sharp pain sliced through her head from one temple to the other. “At least I don’t think I am.”
The man’s concern deepened. “Think? You don’t know?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Thoughts and images whirled in her mind like a merry-go-round revolving at warp speed.
She didn’t remember getting on the plane.
She didn’t remember where she’d been.
She didn’t remember anything until a few moments before the crash occurred.
This wasn’t her child. Was it?
After a moment of empty-handed soul-searching, she added, “I don’t really know.” She reached blindly behind her and found a chair. The people standing around her helped her sit.
Her rescuer’s expression softened. “I think we need to get you two to shore and to some medical attention.” He knelt down to her level. “What’s your name?”
She drew in a long breath as if she could draw in knowledge at the same time. But the question stumped her.
What was her name?
She knew what color the sky was. She knew the Gettysburg Address well enough to correct an error.
But a simple question like What is your name?
She didn’t have a clue.
She expelled the breath that she finally realized she was holding.
“I-I don’t know. I don’t know who I am.”
Copyright © 2011 by Ice Touring, Inc.