6:45 to Impact. Robin Fech pushed the PA button, turned to face her twenty-six passengers, and said, “The cockpit crew has confirmed we have an emergency. We have an engine failure.” She announced that the plane was headed back to Atlanta. She sounded firm even if frightened.
Chuck Pfisterer, in 6A, thought, Yeah you’ve got an engine problem all right!
Fech reiterated that the plane could fly on one engine. She also told passengers they needed to prepare, just in case. She did not deliver the lengthy formal emergency announcement she’d learned in training. She’d always thought it too long, slow, and boring. But she delivered the essence of that announcement, in her own way.
Make certain your seat belt is low and tight, she said.
Place your feet flat on the floor and review your emergency card.
She explained the brace positions. For all but a few passengers sitting by the bulkheads, that meant crossed wrists against the seat back in front of them, forehead pressed against the wrists. Fech insisted that each passenger demonstrate the brace position.
“You’ll have to prove this to me,” she said.
She asked if there were any questions. No one had any. She cleared off the kitchen galley and then moved up the aisle, saying, “Let me see it.” As passengers assumed brace positions, Fech lifted an elbow here, pushed down a head there. She had been trained to do it. She just couldn’t believe she now had to do it.
She had convinced most passengers that a safe landing was possible. In the fourth row, Ed Gray, on his way to Muscle Shoals to schmooze DuPont with his colleague across the aisle in 3C, Barney Gaskill, imagined a foam-covered landing strip and a bouncy ride in.
In Row 9, the young deputy, Tod Thompson, thought back to childhood fears. He wrestled with rationalizations. A roller-coaster ride once scared him as a boy. But he’d held on then, things had turned out okay, and he’d thought at the time, That wasn’t so bad, was it? It will be the same thing now.
Thompson craned his neck to see the left engine. A few of the left-side window shades in the middle rows hadn’t been shut. Thompson saw the twisted metal. His partner, Charlie Barton, looked out to the left wing, too. He saw what Thompson saw, and spoke not a word.
Charlie Barton went quiet, totally quiet.
Thompson didn’t want others in the plane to know his fear, least of all Charlie Barton.
The plane shook in the clouds, side to side. Thompson reminded himself to think like a lawman: Stay clear-headed! Do what you’re told! He tightened his seat belt, listened for the flight attendant’s next words. Then he closed his right-side window shade, as if the sky would no longer exist if he couldn’t see it.
In the seventh row, David McCorkell believed the plane would land just as the flight attendant said it would. Once, McCorkell had been a passenger on a plane that landed in a blizzard as fire trucks lined the runway. When that plane landed safely, every passenger applauded.
Air travel was a way of life for McCorkell. He left home in Minnesota each week on Sunday or Monday and flew to another city to train grocery chains how to use software programs. Then he flew home on Friday, washed his clothes, paid his bills, and started the cycle all over again.
This was David McCorkell, vice president of training, his life and his livelihood one and the same. At thirty-seven and twice divorced, he had the worn appearance of a man who no longer had the time, or inclination, to dream big dreams: a thick Teddy Roosevelt—type mustache, big enough to hide behind, eyeglasses that sometimes slid down the bridge of his nose, and shoulders that slouched.
The plane’s shuddering tested McCorkell’s nerves. He wanted to see the left engine. He leaned into the aisle, looked past Chuck Pfisterer in Row 6 out at the left wing. He saw the propeller blades. They were dislodged and bent and he noticed that they weren’t turning.
The passengers’ silence made him tense.
He looked at his watch: 11:45 a.m. Central time. In Gulfport he had planned to rent a car and drive to Mobile, Alabama. But now that this plane was going back to Atlanta, he worried that he would lose a half-day’s billing. At eight thousand feet and dropping, his plane attempting to enter a right turn now, David McCorkell thought, I’m going to be out a couple hundred dollars.
The right engine, that’s the first noise Alan Barrington had noticed after the propeller shattered. Barrington sat on the right side, in 6C, behind the good engine. He figured the pilots must have turned it up a few notches to compensate for the dead left engine.
The right engine revved louder than before, and lonelier.
Barrington looked at his emergency card as he awaited his chance to demonstrate the brace position for the flight attendant. He read about flotation devices and exit rows. He looked at the little drawings on the card and thought, If we crash, this card won’t do me any good.
Barrington noticed that the man across the aisle, Chuck Pfisterer, could see out on the left wing. This was the same man who had sounded so distressed with the flight attendant moments ago, the man who had mistakenly sat in Barrington’s seat before the plane took off, about thirty minutes ago. Barrington thought he saw tears in this man’s eyes.
And that prompted a scary thought: He’s got a better view than I do, and he’s got tears in his eyes. . . .
From the Hardcover edition.