Only four men survived the plane crash. The pilot. A politician. A cop... and the criminal he was shackled to.
On an icy night in October 1984, a commuter plane carrying nine passengers crashed in the remote wilderness of northern Alberta, killing six people. Four survived: the rookie pilot, a prominent politician, a cop, and the criminal he was escorting to face charges. Despite the poor weather, Erik Vogel, the 24-year-old pilot, was under intense pressure to fly. Larry Shaben, the author's father and Canada's first Muslim Cabinet Minister, was commuting home after a busy week at the Alberta Legislature. Constable Scott Deschamps was escorting Paul Archambault, a drifter wanted on an outstanding warrant. Against regulations, Archambault's handcuffs were removed-a decision that would profoundly impact the men's survival.
As the men fight through the night to stay alive, the dividing lines of power, wealth, and status are erased, and each man is forced to confront the precious and limited nature of his existence.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||7.80(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Carol Shaben won two Canadian National Magazine Awardsa Gold Medal for Investigative Reporting and a Silver Medal for Politics and Public Interestfor articles that highlighted the subject of this book.
Read an Excerpt
Into the Abyss
An Extraordinary True Story
By Carol Shaben
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Carol Shaben
All rights reserved.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19, 1984
Erik Vogel was in over his head and didn't know how to get out. There were half a dozen reasons why the twenty-four-year-old rookie pilot didn't feel comfortable flying tonight, but with his job at Wapiti Aviation on the line—or so it seemed to him—none of them counted. Erik had been in and out of cloud for most of his outbound flight from the small northern Canadian city of Grande Prairie, Alberta, and had watched wet snow continue to fall. The wheels of his ten-seater plane had touched down at the municipal airport in Edmonton, Canada's most northerly provincial capital, just as the last light of day was leaving the murky sky. He was running behind schedule and working hard to make up time. Standing 6'3" with a lean, athletic build, warm brown eyes and a wavy crop of dark hair, Erik appeared every inch a young, attractive and confident aviator. Inside, however, he was scared.
After unloading his passengers and their luggage, he'd crossed the tarmac to the terminal building to collect his outgoing passengers. He glanced at his watch: 6:40 p.m. That gave him only twenty minutes for ticketing and check-in, refuelling, and loading the luggage and passengers for the return flight north. There was no way he'd be off the ground by his scheduled departure time of 7:00.
His only hope was that tonight would be a repeat of last night and that there wouldn't be passengers bound for the small communities of High Prairie and Fairview, which had tiny airports with no air traffic control. He also prayed that by some miracle he'd pick up a co-pilot. As he approached the check-in counter Erik was overjoyed to see Linda Gayle, Wapiti's Fort McMurray agent, already selling tickets. Wapiti retained Linda on a part-time basis for the Fort McMurray flights and she wasn't obliged to help out pilots flying other routes, but tonight she'd decided to do him this favour.
"What have we got?"
"We're fully booked," she replied.
"So no chance of a co-pilot?"
Linda shook her head. That seat had been sold to accommodate another passenger.
His stomach churning, Erik asked the question that had been plaguing him ever since he'd talked to the pilot who'd flown the morning schedule. "Any passengers bound for High Prairie?"
"Four," Linda told him. "Plus two on standby."
A town of 2,500 people 365 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, High Prairie was on the other side of a high ridge of rugged and densely wooded terrain known as Swan Hills. Because the airport had no control tower, regulations dictated that pilots could fly into High Prairie only in visual conditions, meaning when the weather was clear. The pilot on the a.m. sked had warned Erik that there was a lot of snow on the runway and he'd had a hard time taking off.
As Erik stood wondering how the hell he was going to manage the flight, two men approached. One, about 5'10", bull-chested and casually dressed with a hedgehog coat of close-cropped auburn hair, dropped his shackled left hand heavily on the counter. Handcuffed to him was another man. Of similar height, he had a brawny build with an unkempt mop of frizzy brown hair, and deep blue eyes that softened the strong angles of his face. Sideburns stretched like woolly carpets down either side of his cheekbones and above his upper lip, a generous arch of moustache curved over small, even teeth.
"Where do you want me to sit?" the first man asked. Below a prominent brow, green eyes regarded Erik intently as he explained that he was an RCMP officer escorting a prisoner to face charges in Grande Prairie.
Erik swallowed hard. He remembered the story of a prisoner getting loose on a charter flight out of Vancouver and trying to attack the pilot.
"At the very back," he said, regarding the prisoner warily. The man exuded a nervous energy like a charged circuit, and wore only jeans, a wool-lined jean jacket and an open-collared shirt: not exactly appropriate for the weather.
"I'd like to board him first," the cop said.
Erik nodded, then asked Linda to finish ticketing the passengers while he went to the nearby weather office to see if Luella Wood, High Prairie's airport manager, had filed her customary 6 p.m. weather report. She had, and the news wasn't good: the cloud deck was broken at 500 feet and overcast at 900. A visual approach required a 1000-foot ceiling and 3 miles' visibility.
As he walked back to the counter, Erik surveyed the other passengers in the departure area: four men and two women heading home on a Friday night. He stepped behind the counter and grabbed the PA system mic.
"Attention, passengers on Wapiti Flight 402," he announced. "I'm not sure whether we're going to be able to land in High Prairie because the ceiling is so low. If we can't, we'll have to go on to Peace River because they have a controlled approach. If there are any passengers headed for High Prairie who don't want to take the flight, please let me know."
Erik scanned the faces of the passengers in front of him. Regardless of the weather, they expected him to get them home. They weren't going to give him an out. He ran a hand wearily across his forehead, trying to erase the tension that had settled there. He'd done what he could. At least if he overflew High Prairie, it wouldn't come as a surprise.
As he walked outside to load the luggage, an icy wind whipped along the tarmac, wet flakes dampening his face. The airport—a dark triangle of land slashed out of the bald northern prairie—was shrouded in fog and beyond its muted southeastern border, the lights of downtown cast a dull violet glow. A collection of squat buildings flanked the airport's southwestern perimeter and beside them silhouettes of airplanes perched like frozen birds, wings outstretched as if already in flight.
Erik took a deep, shuddering breath to calm his nerves and tried to focus on the positives. He'd warned his passengers about the flight, so there wouldn't be any flak if he ended up taking High Prairie passengers on to Peace River. Linda had done the ticketing, so he'd been able to check the weather—a luxury he seldom had time for. He'd even had a dinner of sorts, eating the untouched half of a sandwich left by a Wapiti pilot who hadn't had time to finish it.
Erik's efforts to stay upbeat didn't last. When he got to the plane, the fuelling service hadn't yet arrived and he had to scramble to get the tanks filled. By the time they finished, he was behind schedule. He hastily piled some of the luggage into the plane's nose compartment and then crammed the rest into the rear hold behind the seats. Though regulations required that he calculate the weight and balance for the aircraft, he didn't bother. What difference would it make? Erik didn't feel he could leave passengers or their luggage behind, and in winter conditions like tonight it would be foolish to skimp on fuel when he didn't know whether he'd be able to get into the uncontrolled airports on his route. He estimated the fully fuelled, nine-passenger flight would be overweight to the tune of about 200 kilograms, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. The queasy feeling in his stomach grew as he walked back to the terminal to escort the cop and his prisoner outside.
When they arrived at the aircraft he watched uneasily as the constable unlocked the handcuff from his shackled wrist and snapped it closed around the prisoner's free one. Erik pulled open the hatch and gave the go-ahead to climb aboard.
Behind the terminal doors, Larry Shaben squinted through thick wire-rimmed glasses at the snow falling in white waves across the tarmac. Forty-nine, with a broad, balding forehead, olive skin and enormous brown eyes, Larry was immaculately dressed in a navy suit and brown ultra-suede topcoat. A second-generation Canadian of Arab descent, Larry was an elected member of the Alberta government and the country's first Muslim Cabinet minister. His executive assistant had driven him to the airport directly from his office at the Alberta Legislature just in time to catch his flight home for the weekend. Now he waited impatiently to board.
The doors opened and the pilot entered, bringing a blast of frigid air with him. It blew the thinning strands of dark curly hair from the crown of Larry's head and he quickly smoothed them back into place. The politician had watched the pilot frantically working to prepare everything for the flight. He was young and seemed on edge. Larry had detected strain in his voice when he'd made the announcement about possibly not being able to land in High Prairie, and had immediately called home to let his wife, Alma, know.
"I'll tell you what ... if we can't land and you have to pick me up in Peace River, I'll buy you dinner."
Though he hated the thought of Alma driving on the highway in these conditions, there wasn't another option. And it was only 130 kilometres. Larry would drive the two of them home after dinner and let her sleep in the car.
It had been a gruelling week at the Ledge, as he and his colleagues often called the Alberta Legislature. That morning the government's fall session had begun. For the next six weeks Larry would spend his days sitting in chambers debating and voting on bills and motions. In preparation for the time away from his office, he had spent the past week working twelve- to fourteen-hour days to get on top of the mountain of paperwork he had to deal with as the Minister for Housing and Utilities.
As he typically did every Monday morning, Larry had flown south from his home in High Prairie to Edmonton, where he rented an apartment five minutes' walk from the Legislature. By Friday, he was so tired that he couldn't imagine driving the twenty minutes across the city to the municipal airport, let alone the four hours north to High Prairie. Now that the weather had turned, the thought was even less appealing.
As he'd dashed out to his aide's car, Larry could feel the chill weight of moisture in the air—unusual for Edmonton, which was prone to brittle cold and clear skies. The city roads had been thick with slushy new snow and Friday night traffic crawled.
When he'd arrived at the terminal Larry had little energy for conversation, but among the cluster of passengers at the check-in counter were some he knew well. One, Gordon Peever, a next-door neighbour whose kids had grown up with Larry's own, was director of finance at a vocational college near High Prairie. Gordon often travelled to Edmonton for work and that morning he'd caught a ride to the city with a friend to attend a meeting. Gordon had planned to take the bus home that afternoon, but for some reason decided to catch a cab to the airport in hopes of getting a flight. He'd worried he'd be on standby, Gordon told Larry, but had been lucky enough to get a seat after a passenger cancelled. Larry also greeted another local resident, Christopher Vince. The young British-born man had recently moved from Calgary, a city three hours' drive south of Edmonton in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to take a government job training social workers. His wife, Francis, a schoolteacher, had just started teaching at the local junior high school, and the two seemed to be settling well into small-town life. Larry didn't recognize the other two men and women in the departure area, but had said hello. As a high-profile elected official, people often recognized him and he prided himself on being friendly and engaging, even at times like this when he felt utterly drained. Fortunately tonight the passengers' attention was elsewhere. They were abuzz with gossip about the rakish man in handcuffs who had just boarded the plane.
Scott Deschamps stiffly stood guard beside the ten-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain, the only departing plane on a barren stretch of tarmac. Snow had thickened the night, and an icy wind sent shivers through him. His prisoner and all but one passenger and the pilot were already aboard. Scott watched a trim, suit-clad man in his mid-forties hurry across the tarmac, briefcase in hand, and climb the few steps to the cabin. When he'd disappeared inside, the pilot motioned Scott to follow. He ducked through the open door and stood near the rear aisle seat next to the exit. The pilot entered soon after, his tall frame bent almost double as he pulled the hatch closed. He turned the handle and looked over his shoulder at Scott.
"Watch me." The pilot's voice was just above a whisper as he inserted the safety pin. "You need to know how to open this door in case of an emergency."
Dale Wells discouraged his pilots from giving safety briefings to passengers because he felt they frightened them unnecessarily, but Erik wasn't taking any chances.
Scott leaned forward to watch and listen. If there was one thing he was confident about, it was his ability to handle himself in an emergency. He gave the pilot a nod when he finished and watched him move up the aisle and settle in the cockpit next to the well-dressed passenger who had arrived late. Scott dropped into the empty seat, buckled his seatbelt and glanced at his prisoner. He was holding his handcuffed wrists in the air in front of him.
"Can't you take these off?"
Scott studied the man beside him. The constable hadn't known what to expect when he'd arrived in the city of Kamloops in British Columbia's southern interior that morning to pick up Paul Richard Archambault, who had a long rap sheet of B and E's and robberies dating back to 1976. As the day had progressed, however, Scott had been surprised to find himself enjoying the company of his prisoner, who had proven to be quick-witted and likable, with a ready if off-colour sense of humor.
He and Paul had been together since early morning and Scott felt like he had a pretty good read on the guy. He wasn't likely to be a danger. Scott fingered the key inside his jacket pocket. It was against RCMP regulations to remove his prisoner's handcuffs, but he felt comfortable with the risk. He fixed Paul with a stern look.
"Okay," he said, "but let there be an understanding: if there is any trouble, the full force of the RCMP will be on you."
Paul nodded solemnly and then a smile cracked the rugged lines of his face.
Scott slipped the key into the lock of the handcuffs, unfastened them, and tucked them into the briefcase at his feet. He turned to gaze out the small cabin window. Falling snow and a veil of cloud muted the city lights. Beyond their glow, the world was darkly smudged. Scott exhaled heavily. It had been an exhausting day. Ten hours had passed from the time he first picked up his human cargo. Since then they'd been bounced unceremoniously from flight to flight. Scott had a confirmed booking for the two of them that morning on a flight out of Kamloops. However, when Scott arrived at the RCMP detachment, the staff hadn't done the paperwork for Paul's release and the men had missed their flight.
Finally, they were on the last leg. Scott had managed to snag two seats on one of the few planes flying north from Edmonton to Grande Prairie that night. The flight was a milk run with three en route stops, which meant it was going to be another couple of hours before he arrived in Grande Prairie. Scott was sick of takeoffs, landings, and the confined space of airplane cabins. He laid his head back and felt something jut into the back of his neck from the rear cargo hold directly behind his seat. He turned to adjust the baggage so he could get comfortable. Above his head, he could see briefcases, small suitcases and a computer monitor piled precariously at a 45-degree angle to the ceiling of the cabin. The compact luggage compartment was completely full and there appeared to be nothing separating him from the cargo in the rear hold. Spotting his garment bag, Scott pulled it out and rolled it into a makeshift pillow. The fabric scratched the back of his neck, but at least it was soft. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep. But sleep wasn't an option. Not yet.
He'd sleep when he got home. The thought carried an edge of melancholy. Grande Prairie didn't seem much like home without Mary. Two months earlier his wife had moved back to the west coast to take a job. He supposed he couldn't blame her. After all, they'd had an agreement. She'd promised to give Grande Prairie three years. She'd stayed nearly five.
Excerpted from Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben. Copyright © 2013 Carol Shaben. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Epilogue: Survivors 280
Image Credits 305
Selected Bibliography 306
A Conversation with Carol Shaben, Author of Into the Abyss
What inspired you to write this book?
What gripped me about the story on which I based my book, were its remarkable constellation of characters and the fateful intertwining of their lives. On a stormy winter night in 1984, 10 people boarded a small commuter plane bound for remote communities in the Canadian north. An hour later six were dead and four men fighting for their lives: a 24-year old rookie pilot who hadn't wanted to fly that night, but felt his job was on the line; my father, a prominent politician; a young cop; and an accused criminal he was escorting to face charges.
That night the dividing lines of power, wealth and status dissolved as these men from vastly different backgrounds struggled together to cheat death. They formed unlikely bonds that would endure a lifetime and prove vital in helping each man transfigure his life.
Quite simply, this was a book that neededto be written because the story of these heroic men and their journeys from tragedy to lives begun anew proved more dramatic than fiction.
Why now, so long after it happened?
Years later, watching my father struggle, it struck me how powerful and enduring the impact of this single tragic event had been on his life. My father often spoke about whether he'd made good use of the 'extra time' God had granted him and not others on that plane. He kept in touch with the luckless young drifter who saved his life. Every year on the anniversary of the crash, my father would check in with the pilot to see how his life was going. Then, twenty years later on the anniversary of the crash, my dad organized a reunion of the survivors. I'd always suspected that what he'd shared with these men the night of the crash was important to him, but I suddenly realized that their connection was much more than a tenuous bond. These men forged unfathomable friendships and it was deeply important to each of them that their lives unfolded in meaningful ways.
How did you come up with the title?
The title of the book, Into the Abyss, comes from a quote by Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who coined the phrase "follow your bliss". He wrote extensively about man's quest for meaning and one of his quotes really captured the inspiring journeys of the men in my book:
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
All of these men had gone down into an abyss the night of the crash. They had watched others die and faced the spectre of their own deaths. And in rising on the crucible of that tragedy and trying to rebuild their lives they had all stumbled before finding the true riches of life.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The research. In reconstructing the story, there were two things working against me. The first was that I'd been living overseas when the crash occurred and I'd missed the whole thing. I read about it in a local newspaperthe most surreal moment of my life. Many clearly remembered the events of that night and the days that followed, with good reason. The government opposition leader and five other men and women from the close knit communities of northern Canada where I'd grown up died in that crash and thirty-four children lost a parent.
But I had no first-hand knowledge. By the time I began my research two decades had passed so I was forced to recreate every detail and emotion from archival materials and interviews. When it came to archival materials, I scoured newspaper and magazine articles, television footage, legal documents and government records and had to submit access to information requests for official search and rescue or other records, often waiting months for replies.
When it came to the interviews there were also numerous constraints. Some survivors were reluctant to share what happened that night or the personal details of their lives; others familiar with the crash were no longer alive to be interviewed.
Finally, I felt a tremendous debt to both the men in this story and the families of the deceased to get the facts right and do no harm. That's a very tall order when you are dealing with people who are still alive. In some cases the children of the deceased are people I grew up with. I also wanted to do justice to the lives of the survivors who entrusted me with their stories, including my father who passed away of cancer before I could finish the book.
There's some of your own story in this book. Was it hard writing about yourself and your relationship with your dad?
Excruciating. In fact, I didn't want to be in this book. I didn't feel this story was about me. It was only after submitting my first draft that my editors told me that by not including myself in the book, I was depriving readers of an important personal connection and way in to the story. They asked me to write a first person introduction to the book and rewrite the final section so my voice could be heard. That was really hard for me to do, as I'd been narrating from the distant and decidedly safer third person point of view.
My editors also told me that they felt that they knew all of the men in this story exceptmy father. They asked me to delve more deeply into his life and character. That was really hard. After all, he was my dad and though he'd been a prominent public figure much of his life, underneath that public image, he was a very private man. What right had I to bare the details of his personal life?
In the end, that editorial decision turned out to be a gift. I came to appreciate my father so much more and had the rare privilege that few children get to truly understand a parent as a person in their own right. So this book also pays homage to my dad and to the spirit of his remarkable life. For that opportunity, I feel very lucky.
Who have you discovered lately?
Clare Vaye Watkins. Battleborn, her debut short story collection was stunning.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
With over 40 years of professional flying with the USAF & airline flying, and countless hours of private plane & corporate jets, I was compelled to find out the forces that would cause a professional pilot to put his aircraft in such a situation that would lead to a crash. Carol Shaben’s description of a young pilot’s desire to log time, even under perilous conditions, is right on. Questionable navigation, pushing weather minimums, and poor management forces are accurately presented by Shaben. This is a must read for everyone involved in aviation, as well as to the flying public who daily trusts they put in the pilot to do the right thing. With today’s advancement in GPS technology, better avionics, and improved management practices, it is hoped that this type of accident would not happen again.
I like to read books that really hold my attention & can't put down. This book had some of that & I still think about the book even though I've finished it weeks ago.
I often don't finish books because they start slow and stay boring. This one hooked me from the beginning. It's a true story, and I recommend this, especially if you are interested in survival under difficult circumstances.....or if you fly on small commuter planes. Lots of human interest.
This story had so much potential. The most of this book is written like a magazine story. The effects of this tragedy are skimmed over and you never really get the emotional effects of this ordeal. Mostly it is a document of accomplishments of the authors father and milestone summaries for the other victim's. Never mentioned was what emotional issues that may have changed the choices each person made. They all have been on a plane since. You think that anxiety of that choice would be important.
This is an incredible story of survival and the odd friendship bonds that occur when tragedy strikes. Two thumbs up.
A riveting book. I could not put it down.
I was captured by this story on the first page. The author wrote of the events with meticulous detail and of each individual with compassion and humanity. I left this book desiring to examine my own life as the survivors were compelled to do. On a technical note, the book piqued my interest in the effects of fatigue and stress on people in high stakes professions such as pilots and surgeons. Thank you for a great read!
The author must have been paid by the word in this unnecessarily long drawn out yarn. This story could be condensed into a ten page essay by a high school english class. The attempts to create drama and ethos were lost in all the wasted verbage. Plane crashes in snowstorm (nothing new about that); passengers die/live; survivors build a campfire and bond; rescued the next day. And this you call the abyss!? I call it a wasted read.
An incredible book. By the end of the book you felt as if you knew each of the survivors personally. Four very touching biographies within a tragic event. A highly recommended read.
Into the Abyss is an extraordinary story of survival. A truly remarkable read.
Reviewed by Robin McCoy for Readers' Favorite I love books like this that put everyone on the same playing field. Money, power, physical ability - you have to work together to stay alive. I don't know what it is, but lately I have been drawn to non-fiction books about death or survival. After reading the synopsis of this book, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the audio version. I often find the audio versions more appealing when I am reading a true story. There is something about how the narrator tells the story that transports you into that time period, as if you have a backseat view of what is going on. This is how I felt listening to Into the Abyss. This true story follows four men: the pilot, a RCMP constable, the prisoner the constable was guarding, and a minister. A nice mix of people with differing backgrounds, right? Well, this is what makes the story so good. Will these men put their differences aside and work together to stay alive until rescuers can find them after their plane crashes? As I listened to the chapters, I loved hearing about the crash aftermath, the rescue, and the lives of the survivors. No one survivor was put higher up on a pedestal. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that the hero, who helped everyone get out safely, was the last person you would expect to step up. If you are looking for a great page turner and love true stories, then you will want to pick up Into the Abyss today.
This book sounded so good, because I love true stories. The first part about the accident and how they survived was interesting, the last half about about the legal stuff was totally boring to me, I couldn't finish reading it.