No death is as sure as that of a plane crash. I have heard terrifying stories of planes crashing and killing all people on board. Forget Hollywood movies. In real life, when planes crashed, one out of one million survived. Today, I was on a plane that the pilot just informed us was going to crash-land. What difference does it make? Death was certain!
We left Lagos at exactly 12:30 p.m. Our flight was 45 minutes to Kaduna. At exactly 1:17 p.m., the cockpit was communication with the Air Tower to prepare the runway for us to land. It was that we would never land. The pilot did not know. No one knew. A couple of seconds later, it became clear. The pilot said the plane could not land. There were a lot of technicalities that the crew felt explaining to us was pointless, so the basic thing the pilot told us was that the tires did not deploy. It was the truth, sounding so simple, yet terrifying. “We ask all passengers on board to remain calm. We are turning back to Lagos.”
As if the tires would deploy in Lagos, we turned back. Immediately, tension had rose among the passengers to a point one could smell it. As we turned on our way back to Lagos, I reasoned the pilot must have thought it wiser to let us have the burden that it was and begin dealing with it. And this was when he said what finally sent violent waves of fear and horror ripping through everyone on board. If all efforts failed on arrival in Lagos, the pilot told us he would have to crash-land the plane. But could it have been that he only thought it wise enough to let us know the worst-case scenario and prepare for it or everything had gone completely wrong in the cockpit? The afternoon owned a blistering November sun and now, the ineffectiveness of the plane’s air-conditioner was clearly felt. Sweat came out freely, tension rose even higher and fear roamed ominously, notifying us that death was next.
I am a calm old man. Sixty-seven. Death could have come earlier. It wasn’t too early by the Nigerian standard of life expectancy. Yet, I was afraid to die. Dying is a terrible thing. But death from an accident was that cruel. A group of people had already congregated in one corner and prayed what I had not seen before. They were now drenched from sweat that had pumped out with that same intensity with which they fired prayers up to God, begging for His mercy, begging for His intervention, insistent on how much more of His children they still were. The flight attendants had asked them to return to their seats and strap their seatbelts. But this was not time to follow instruction; it was time for miracles. Miracles that only forceful prayers could fetch. It turned to warning.
These people’s God was more powerful that warning; more powerful than instruction from flight attendants; more powerful than seatbelts. In death, there was nothing like religion. Muslims responded to Christian prayers “in Jesus’ Name” and Christians responded to Muslim prayers without thought. I had begun to mumble a prayer myself. I did not shout like the others. My palms were bared, resting on my thighs, opened to the heavens, my eyes shut. Suddenly, I felt a firm grip to my left palm. The mallam beside me had grabbed my hand and was vibrating from the somberness of my prayer. Fear is powerful—fear of death had destroyed differences, joined people in one faith; in one tribe; in one race; in one form—human beings, afraid to die. Could this have been what really struck me?
As I opened my eyes, I saw what made me weak, drained all form of toughness in me and made me weep. Holy Jesus, I was not aware that there were five infants—if any of them was too old, maybe eighteen months—on this plane. Their parents held them high up, standing in a line along the passage and wept to God. I saw the sincerity in their eyes, I saw the pain, I saw the despair, I saw the misery. Why should they die, Lord? What did they know yet or have done to suffer such ill fate? Why they be the ones to suffer the consequences of a failed system? Why not all the self-glorifying politicians in Abuja? Why weren’t they the ones packed up in this plane, set for destruction?
From these babies today, I’d understand what it was meant by life being so short. As short as eighteen months. When my daughter’s first pregnancy ended in stillbirth, I had felt it. Everyone felt sad. It’d have been worse if we had heard it cry, and such tender, joyous noise had to be snatched away. None of us could live to remember this horror, but this build-up was in itself the most brutal aspect. The agony was unbearable.
One of the flight attendants appeared again. The passengers were too terrified to notice her. She was herself horrified from the sight of the infants being offered to God as an appeaser for His compassion, for His mercy, for His forgiveness. I stood and walked to her. She did not like the look on my face but load as heavy as a wrecking ball must have stuck to her feet.
“Go in there,” I said forcefully in her face, pointing toward the cockpit, “and tell those pilots there are babies on this plane. Tell them to do whatever they can to land this plane.” As if the terror in my voice unshackled the wrecking ball attached to her feet, she scurried toward the cockpit and asked herself in.
I myself did not know what came over me thereafter. Been aware of those innocent infants has provoked something so intense in me that I did not know when I had bulldozed my way after the flight attendant. The next moment, I was pounding my fist on the cockpit door. It took quite a lot more of angry pounding before the door fell open. It was only ajar but I had grabbed and pulled it open, and then barged into the cockpit.
“Get back to your seat, sir,” the co-pilot said. The terrified attendant had made to close the door, but I had waged an arm against it, holding it wide.
“Can you land this plane?”
The two pilots gazed at each other in confusion, as if, if they couldn’t, I was going to relegate them and take over.
“You have to go back to your seat, sir,” the co-pilot insisted. “You are distracting us.”
“Drop to a height people could go out of this flight on parachutes.”
They all looked at me as if I had brought strange matter from Mars. It was then it downed on me. “What? You don’t have passenger parachutes? Holy Jesus Christ!” When my shock subsided, it did just after fifteen seconds, I said, feeling myself sounding odd, yet knowing it was what could be done, “Call for air transfer.”
“There are one hundred and fifty three passengers on this plane,” the pilot said defensively. “It will take two hours to get people off this plane by air transfer, that is if we can. We don’t have enough fuel to stay in the air.”
Now I spoke with sweltering anger. “If you get one, only one person off this plane, you saved a life. There are innocent infants on this plane. Get them off this plane!” I felt myself sounding like an angry President ready to declare war.
“If you know within you that there is something you would have done but did not, and those children die, know that even in death, their blood will be on yours as it will be, also, on all those whose actions have factored this disaster.” I said this calmly. It knew it struck as I staggered back to my seat.
Hopes of a miracle, anyone at all, that could lead to the plane just settling coolly on the runway had risen to a point that I could picture the plane swelling with it, but on approaching Lagos, such hopes came dissolving the same way heat could melt butter, and soon all hopes of a miracle were dashed. Fear replaced hope in its most dominant capacity. All efforts had failed and the plane was coming down. And the faster the pilot got to the ground, the better—the better? There wasn’t any glimmer of hope of landing now. Whatever happens was the worst-case scenario. An announcement came from the cockpit that we would drain fuel, and then crash-land. This time, tears broke. I looked at the infants. My gaze narrowed tenderly on them. Emotion flooded me. And again, I wept. God, please, for their sake! Flight attendants had appeared again, and managed to make everyone sit in his seat and strapped.
The plane came down in a swoop. There were terrifying screams that must have reached to the ends of the earth. Eyes were shut, hugs even tighter, the screaming even louder. The plane slammed against the tarmac and veered, its weight pulled off from one side and heaved on the other, causing the right wing to rip off instantly, before it shifted sharply again in a swerving move onto the other wing, ripping it too. Even with the wet tarmac, sparks emanated. My eyes were opened, my hand in the mallam’s, clasped tight together as if held by a vise. We all jolted jerkily. Someone’s belt had ripped off, sending him crashing chest first into the back of the seat before him.
It knocked him back and there, the man lay motionless. The plane tore across the tarmac wildly, the scraping noise of aluminum and wood mixed up to produce a horrifying grating noise. The plane caught the nose of a private jet, smashing it. Some of the windows of our plane shattered, and glass came flying in like missiles. A ragged pieced slashed across a young lady’s throat, killing her instantly as blood spurted out. Instantly nauseated, I did not know when I threw up. Like a mad bull on rampage, the plane went on smashing into other planes. In another dangerous swerve, the tail slammed into a building and sent the plane rolling madly. And myself, that was the last I could see, hear and feel.