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James Icarus or Jim as he preferred to be called was twenty-two and the youngest member of the trekking group. He had finished his degree in sociology at the University of California, San Diego, in June and gladly joined his Dad, Dr. Alexander Icarus, for a trek in Nepal. He was six feet tall with dark hair, strikingly handsome Greek features and in great shape after competing on the University's cross country and track teams. He was the first person off the bus.
"Namaste, Welcome to Nepal," said Mr. Soli Chawla, Mountain Travel's trek coordinator for Dr. William Wright's trekking group.
"Namaste," Jim replied, recalling the list of words his guide book on Nepal said to remember. Not even the bite of the late November morning could change Jim's enthusiasm for the trek to the base camp of Mount Everest and a chance to summit Kala Patthar, an 18,000 plus foot mountain. He was anxious to get to Lukla and begin the trek into the Himalayas. Jim was a little tired from his late arrival in Kathmandu the night before and the early morning wake-up, but neither the short night's sleep nor the hot, noisy, bumpy bus ride from the Malla Hotel in Kathmandu back to the airport, the jumping off point for the trek, had dampened his spirits.
The bus had parked next to the back of some hangers and other buildings, opposite the terminal building where he and his Dad had arrived the evening before. His Dad, who had been sitting in the front seat with him, followed Jim off the bus and took a deep breath.
"Namaste," said Mr. Chawla
"Namaste," Alex replied. "It looks like a great morning for a flight, Jim."
"Great morning to be alive. I'm glad you brought me along, Dad. They followed their group to the back of the bus to pick up their duffel bags and then around the hangers. Is that how we're getting to Lukla? Flying?" Jim asked pointing to the parked airplanes just beyond the hangers.
"We're flying, but I'm not sure in what." Alex turned to his friend Dr. Robert Anderson. "How are we getting to Lukla, Robb?"
"Helicopter, I think," Robb said. "At least that's what Bill Wright, our trek leader said last night at the orientation dinner."
"We missed the orientation dinner. Got in too late," Alex replied. "Our flight was delayed out of Delhi."
"I think Bill told us the same thing this morning at breakfast," Robb said. "He showed us a picture of one of the helicopters last night, but I wasn't sure if that is how we're scheduled or not."
"I'm even more excited if it's a helicopter," Jim said. "It'll be my first helicopter ride."
"That should give us a nice view of the Himalayas," Alex said. The sun was just beginning to hit the tops of the mountains. On the ground it was still dark, but Jim could see the big sky beginning to brighten to the east over the terminal.
A giant bat zoomed over their heads heading back in the direction of their hotel.
"Trying to make it back to his cave before daylight," Alex grumped.
"Now there's a bad sign," Robb said. "He was huge."
"That is an ominous sight. I wonder how they get so big," Alex asked.
"By eating twice their body weight in bugs each night like the small bats do," Robb replied.
"If they do, I hope they will have eaten all the mosquitoes so we don't have any on the trek," Jim said.
"I think we will be high enough that it will be freezing at night. I don't think mosquitoes last long in a frost," Robb said.
Jim could hear the faint chopping of rotors in the distance. The sky was steadily getting brighter. Within a few minutes the sky had turned a bright red-orange in the east even though the sun had not popped above the horizon. The sunlight was slowly inching its way down the mountains. Jim looked toward the noise and walked back and forth trying to make sure the rotor sounds weren't a reflection off the buildings and to see if he could spot the helicopter. The rotor noise was getting stronger, even though he couldn't see anything. Finally, he saw a speck against the snow-covered highest mountains in the world.
"There it comes," Alex said, pointing over the terminal building.
The air was clear and crisp. There were only a few large fluffy clouds in the sky that were dark on the side closest to Jim and a brilliant red-orange on the side toward the sun, like they were on fire. There must not have been very much industry in Kathmandu to pollute the atmosphere, Jim thought; only the little hibachi fires that he saw on the way in from the airport last night that the Nepalese used to cook and probably to keep them warm at night. Kathmandu sat in a valley about fifty miles wide, Jim had read in his tour guide-book while flying in. The valley was rimmed on the north with the Himalayan mountains, the upper fifty miles of Nepal. He watched the mountains slowly illuminate even though it was still dusky on the ground where he was standing.
The southern fifty miles was jungle and Jim supposed that the jungle was still warm, not like here. That's where the "neighborly" Bengal tigers roamed and ate an occasional unwary Nepalese citizen. Jim had read an article in Parade magazine, a month or so before the trek, that the people who logged out trees were at high risk, particularly when they sat down to eat lunch. But if they wore a headpiece with a fiercesome mask on the back of their head, the tigers wouldn't attack since supposedly they only attack their prey from the rear. They apparently became confused by the "two-faced" Nepalese loggers. He wondered who had volunteered for the experiment to figure it out! He pulled his guide book out of the side pocket of his backpack and looked at a map. So Nepal was a long narrow country nestled in between China to the north and India to the south. And here he was!
The rotor noise continued to get louder and the silhouette of the helicopter grew steadily, but slowly larger. The trekking party lined up, more or less, so they could all see the helicopter. Otherwise, there wasn't much to see except a spectacular sunrise and the awesome Himalayas! There was a large hangar off to the left about a hundred yards from where they were standing and another one right beside it. There were a couple helicopters parked inside the near hangar; must be for some other flights, Jim thought.
A little farther north, just beyond the front of the second hanger, were a cluster of small and medium-sized prop planes tied down, that looked like they could haul passengers or cargo. The closest one had low wings and had a canvas tied over the windshield to protect it. One airplane had a couple of people undoing the tie-downs and a person in front of it signaling the pilot. As soon as the tie-down people finished and ducked out from under the wings, one of its engines cranked a few times and began turning. After a short time, the other engine sputtered a few times and started turning, too. The airport was coming to life. The plane taxied over toward the terminal.
The morning sun had reached the top of the hangars just as the helicopter was descending toward the airport. Several members of the trekking party stirred around and began putting on their backpacks, but Jim and his Dad and Dr. Anderson just stood and admired the large white helicopter with its black nose and red stripes on the side, slowly descend toward them. It had flown over the end of the runway where a big white Air India passenger plane had just landed and was scooting down the runway. That was where Jim thought he and his Dad had probably landed the night before.
At about one hundred feet above the runway the helicopter leveled-off and slowly crept its way toward the large open area of tarmac in front of the hangars, right in front of them. The Air India plane turned off the runway and taxied away from them, toward the terminal. Jim heard a hissing sound, loud enough to be picked up above the staccato popping of the rotors. Then, there was a loud explosive bang, and a second explosion. Pieces flew off the top of the helicopter and smoke began coming from the engine. The helicopter lost altitude rapidly, plunging nose-down toward mother Earth, quickly. The rotor noise got noticeably louder and for a brief moment it looked like the helicopter slowed, leveled off and was hovering about twenty feet above the tarmac. Flames shot out of the engine as the engine started ablaze. With that the helicopter scooted forward and sank toward the tarmac. Everybody in the trekking party dived out of the way.
Jim sprinted away from the approaching helicopter, toward the front of the hangar. His Dad and Dr. Anderson quickly followed as the imperiled helicopter crashed about one hundred feet in front of the trekking party and about a hundred feet in front of the hangar. Jim looked back over his shoulder at the doomed helicopter, then stopped and turned and watched. The paired nose wheels hit first and broke off, immediately. The burning helicopter bounced up like a bucking bronco. The right rear wheels hit next and the helicopter spun counterclockwise on these wheels, away from the hanger and away from the trekkers, twisting off that set of wheels, dropping the helicopter onto the remaining set of wheels on the left back side. They quickly tore off as well and flipped the helicopter onto its right side.
Jim noticed several Nepalese men running out of the operations building from the corner of his eye. After a pause to assess the crash, a couple of them grabbed the portable fire extinguisher cart sitting next to the hangar and slowly rolled it passed Jim, toward the moving burning helicopter. The spinning rotors thrashed the tarmac like a runaway mixer, creating a kaleidoscope of sparks, like a chisel on a grinding wheel. The tips of the rotors broke off. The remaining spinning parts of the rotor chopped at the tarmac, snapped from the center hub and sparked as they flew across the asphalt tarmac in front of the helicopter and clobbered the portable fire extinguisher cart, breaking the legs and injuring the poor guys trying to help. If it hadn't been for the fire extinguisher cart between them and the helicopter, Jim, Alex and Robb would have been clobbered, too.
The damaged helicopter bounced back onto its wheel-less bottom, spun around and bounced a couple of times before it finally vibrated to a stop, the black nose aimed at the operations building next to the closest hanger. The engine fire bloomed larger, a veritable gigantic candle. Jim could feel the heat and he turned and started to sprint into the hanger.
His Dad, however, turned around and immediately ran over to the two downed men and knelt down. Jim turned, too, and followed. The men were writhing in agony on the tarmac. It looked like the main injuries were to their legs. Alex grabbed a short piece of the broken helicopter rotor lying nearby, padded one end with his stocking cap and put it in the man's crotch between his broken legs. Jim knelt down beside his Dad and held the splint and legs in place while Alex reached into his backpack and retrieved an ACE elastic bandage out of one of the side pockets. He quickly wrapped it around both legs and the piece of rotor, splinting the fractures. A couple Nepalese men were attending to the other man, so Alex and Jim turned their patient over to them. Jim could feel the heat of the blazing helicopter.
Three other Nepalese men grabbed a big fire hose off a real inside the hanger and began dragging it out toward the burning helicopter. Jim watched one of them run ahead and rip off the partially opened door on the side of the crushed helicopter and drop it on the tarmac. People in trekking gear with small backpacks began pushing their way out through the open doorway, stumbling over the broken-off door and other debris strewn in the way of their exit. They ran across the tarmac toward the shell-shocked, on-looking, awaiting trekkers.
Jim grabbed hold of the fire hose and began helping the Nepalese workers pull the hose toward the fire when they were really leaning forward, straining and it looked like they had slowed down considerably because of the weight of the ever lengthening hose and one less man to help pull it. His Dad and Robb Anderson reflexly did the same thing. The Nepalese men pulling the hose almost danced forward. One looked back to see whether the hose had come loose since the unexpected help had decreased their effort to pull the hose. The man near the burning aircraft shielded himself against the fire and ran back toward the origin of the hose in the hangar and began spinning the wheel to open the flow.
The hose filled, going from flat to a stuffed "worm," instantaneously, as water began passing through it and dribble out the end through the nozzle. Within a few seconds it was at full blast and the recoil knocked both the Nepalese men to the ground. They let go of the hose and ran toward the hangar while the end of the hose started flopping back and forth like a wild snake, squirting water all over the tarmac, but none on the fire. Meanwhile the helicopter was nearly engulfed in flames while the final few people were still streaming out of the helicopter door opening yelling and screaming. The last couple of people's clothes were on fire. They ran a little ways, fanning the flames until the other waiting trekkers forced them to the ground and rolled them over and over, extinguishing their burning clothing.
Alex grabbed the middle of the hose, wrapped his arms around it and worked his way up the loose, flopping hose toward the nozzle, controlling the waving hose. Jim and Robb grabbed the hose behind Alex and mimicked him, following hand over hand close behind. Eventually, Alex reached the nozzle, brought it under control and aimed a stream into the doorway of the helicopter, briefly and then at the flaming engine.
A bewildered, soaking wet man tripped as he tried to exit the slippery doorway and fell out of the doomed helicopter and skidded across the wet tarmac on his back. He rolled onto his stomach and lifted his head.
"My son's trapped in there," he cried out as he got up and staggered toward the trekkers pointing back at the burning helicopter.
Jim slipped around his Dad, briefly wetting his woolen gloves, stocking cap and scarf. He wrapped the wet scarf around his nose and darted around the debris and torn off door on the tarmac, toward the door opening of the fiery helicopter.
"Jim, what the hell are you doing?" Alex yelled, but the roar of the fire and the sound of the water drowned out his voice. Alex tried to knock Jim off his feet with the force of the water from the fire hose to prevent him from entering the holocaust, but he only managed to drop Jim to his knees and soak him completely. Jim quickly crawled through the door opening of the burning helicopter. Alex panicked. He didn't know what to do so he continued to pour water into the door of the helicopter and intermittently on the burning engine, above. A few minutes later Jim emerged from the burning helicopter on his left hand and knees dragging a limp bloody youngster close to his chest with his other arm. He stood up as soon as he was well outside the helicopter, cradled the kid in his arms and bent over and quickly carried him away from the fire scene. The back of Jim's coat was on fire. Alex flipped the nozzle to spray and doused Jim long enough to extinguish the fire, but not enough to knock him down again, and then flipped it back to stream and redirected the full stream onto the helicopter again. Jim hurried over to the trekking party his coat still steaming, dropped to his knees and began giving the youngster mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Dr. Bill Wright also dropped to his knees beside Jim and checked the kid's carotid pulse. He started chest compressions.
Within seconds there was another loud bang and the remains of the helicopter exploded, showering flaming parts in every direction, fortunately mostly away from the hangars and trekkers. Alex and Robb were both hit by the blast and fell, scooting backwards while the hose was again free and flopped back and forth, serendipitously extinguishing many of the small burning parts and spraying the trekkers and Jim. Alex crawled away on his hands and knees toward the hangers. Robb lay on the tarmac. Jim stopped his mouth-to-mouth, looked at Robb and then up at a tall dark-haired woman trekker who was standing right behind him. She motioned that she would take over and for him to leave. Jim jumped up, spit out some soot and ran over to Dr. Anderson, helped him stand up and walk away from the carnage. The tall dark-haired woman trekker dropped to her knees beside Bill and took over for Jim, breathing mouth-to-mouth for the youngster. The hose continued to spray aimlessly until Alex finally reached the hanger, turned it off and collapsed.
Excerpted from Melt My Wings by Tom Lee Copyright © 2011 by Tom Lee. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 6, 2012