Flying may be safer than driving, statistically speaking, but there’s something about falling from the sky that evokes a deeper sense of dread than the average car wreck. A recent spate of plane crashes — from the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over eastern Ukraine to weather-related crashes in Taiwan and Mali — raises the spectral question: Just how terrifying are the final moments aboard a doomed aircraft? “Flight 232,’’ Laurence Gonzales’s account of the 1989 crash of a disabled DC-10 in an Iowa cornfield, answers that question in harrowing detail.
Gonzales, a pilot and the author of several books about resilience and the survival instinct, is able to re-create the wild, agonizing descent of United Airlines Flight 232 because more than half of the 296 people on board lived to tell the tale. They defied the expectations of air traffic controllers, who knew the plane had lost its hydraulic systems, as well as those who saw the crash and believed no one could have possibly survived it. Astonished rescuers had their own brush with terror when many of the bodies littering the cornfield — not actually dead, as it turned out — rose like zombies and started walking.
In his painstakingly researched, excruciatingly gripping narrative, Gonzales offers a second-by-second chronology of a disaster that took mere minutes to unfold. He depicts the chaotic scene inside the plane from every perspective: from the cockpit, where pilots fought to control an uncontrollable plane, to the cabin, where flight attendants who realized the hopelessness of the situation struggled to keep hope alive.
Passengers said tearful goodbyes to the loved ones traveling with them and wrote frantic last letters to those not on board. One man, fixated on the practical, scribbled a few lines before bracing for the crash: “Whoever finds this note, I have a new life insurance policy. The papers are in my guest bedroom closet.”
The book is a white-knuckle read, so vividly detailed that it’s like watching an accident in slow-motion and being unable to look away. One of the Chicago-bound plane’s engines blows apart just after the flight attendants have cleared tray tables of a lunch of chicken fingers. When the plane lands, too hard and too fast, on an abandoned runway in Sioux City, it breaks into pieces, catapulting some passengers into the air, still strapped into their seats. Others are killed when a fireball roars through the cabin.
Interwoven with scenes of the crash are vignettes from the investigation into its cause: a tiny defect in a titanium fan disk that caused the disk to shatter, sending a burst of shrapnel into each of the plane’s three hydraulic systems. But the focus is clearly on the human drama, in which bravery and heroism play an uplifting counterpoint to fear and loss.
There are the pilots who refuse to accept the death sentence that hydraulic failure implies, and who guide the plane to relative safety through sheer force of will. Then there are the passengers who take immeasurable risks to save others, sometimes through devastating sacrifice. One man uses his body to shield a 9-year-old boy who is traveling alone, absorbing the fatal impact himself and sparing the child.
Gonzales conducted scores of interviews with survivors and witnesses, many of them still deeply affected by the crash. It is no surprise that a number of the survivors refuse to travel by air anymore. Some even avoid eating chicken fingers because of the painful memories associated with what they believed to be their last meal.
The narrative isn’t strictly linear; it sometimes jumps back in time to tell another survivor’s story. The drawback to seeing the crash through so many pairs of eyes is watching it replay again and again, each time from a different angle but always with the same outcome. Just when you think you’re clear of the wreckage, you find yourself strapped in again at the beginning, with a different seat assignment this time.
While industry standards changed in the aftermath of Flight 232, making it unlikely for a similar defect to rip another plane apart, Gonzales’s graphic images are likely to linger in the minds of frequent fliers. The next time a flight attendant delivers the pre-takeoff safety spiel, you may even put down the book you’re reading — preferably not this one — and pay rapt attention.
Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about Williams syndrome. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.