On Wednesday, 28th July 2010, at around 4pm Japan Standard Time, I was sitting in Narita airport, waiting for a journey that would carry me a significant way around the world. I was, however, not as excited as I could have been. I couldn’t shake the fact that I was leaving a comfortable life, leaving my girlfriend, leaving my cats, leaving my motorcycle… I couldn’t look forward because I was so focused on all that would cease to be a part of my present.
Boarding was uneventful, as had been my flight from South Korea’s Incheon to Japan’s Narita. I waited and waited and finally moved my bags onto the hideously crowded peak-season airplane, and took my seat in the middle of a five person aisle, right at the centre of the plane. My heart sank a little as I realised I’d been given the worst seat on the plane.
I didn’t look around at my fellow passengers. I don’t like people, for the most part, and I find my life is a little easier if I simply pretend they don’t exist. I had no idea then that these faces would become so familiar to me; that these people would become my friends, allies and enemies in the coming days.
Instead, I picked my book from my bag and decided to read until take off. If I did that – I knew from experience – I’d soon be flying and in no time at all the drinks cart would arrive. I’d order my standard two free beers and a glass of red wine, and pretty soon I’d forget that I was sitting in the worst seat on the plane, hurtling across the Pacific Ocean towards a country whose immigration department I knew had me blacklisted.
As the plane took off there was nothing unusual; nothing to suggest what was about to happen. I’d been on dozens of flights on all kinds of aircraft and looking back I realise that the take off was probably one of the smoothest I’d ever encountered. I didn’t note that at the time, though. You never think about things when they’re going exactly as their supposed to go.
I remember noting the man and woman to my right. The seating was terribly confined and their American-size bodies were folding over the sides of their chairs. His was spilling into my space, and I rued the fact that we’d just left Asia – a land free from the curse of obesity.
They were noisy, too. The sort of outspoken Americans that give the rest of the country a bad name. If I had to pick an accent, I’d say New Jersey, but I’m not terribly good with accents. It grated, though. Their inane comments broke my shield and interrupted my reading.
I yearned for the drinks cart, fearing, however, that when it arrived it would not be staffed by cute young Japanese girls, but instead by fifty-something American woman with take-no-shit attitudes, who might even dare ID me or cut me off before I even came close to my record of fifteen free beverages.
It was not long, however, before things began to take a turn towards the notable. The flight and its mild annoyances had only been level for a short time before everything went wrong. I can’t say exactly how long it took, but we had reached cruising altitude and the pilot had informed us that it was safe to get up and walk around.
There was a tremendous explosion. Not the ear-piercing rip of a firework or the deafening clap of a gun, but rather an almighty thud. It was as though someone had slapped me in the side of the head with an open palm. The sound was immense, but it very definitely came from outside the airplane.
Immediately the lights went out and the plane plummeted. My stomach rose into my throat and I felt an overwhelming sense of pleasure – as though riding the wildest rollercoaster imaginable. People began to scream and cry and I began to smile to myself, then let out a tiny laugh.
I didn’t think for one moment that I was about to die, although I was pretty confident that the plane was falling straight down into the ocean. I thought it would crash into the water and be destroyed, and that everyone else on board would be killed. I, however, would not die. I was invincible.
The plane banked sharply left and continued its route towards the waves as the screaming and crying persisted. We all looked out of the windows to our left and watched as the water not only became visible, but crashed closer and closer at the edge of the wing.
Soon we were flying low over the water, but no longer falling or banking. The lights were back on and the plane seemed to be flying well enough, although it felt as though we were pushing through mild turbulence.
The pilot’s voice came over the speakers: “Folks, as you’ve probably already noticed, we have encountered somewhat of a problem… It seems that one of the plane’s engines has exploded.” In spite of his strong, nearly confident voice, a high-pitched wail rose up from the passengers. “This isn’t as bad as you might think. We are going to have to attempt an emergency landing, and there is a chance that we will all survive.”
The pilot stopped talking for a while. Everyone stopped talking. There was an occasional sob, but no one spoke. Up front we could see the flight attendants huddled and crying. They were not the tough old American women I’d expected. They were inexperienced young Japanese girls, given jobs for their looks rather than their skills. If we attempted any sort of emergency landing I knew they would be of no use. They could cope with the grabassing of drunken businessmen, pour a mean drink, and speak numerous languages, but when faced with the possibility of death they were useless.
I was still smiling by this point. We were flying low enough, I thought, that a crash would not necessarily be fatal. We had successfully dropped from above the clouds to a short dive from the ocean and I could imagine us plunging in and some of us being plucked from the waves by rescuers.
It would make a great story, I thought.
The large woman who was possibly from New Jersey, sitting two seats to my right, asked, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and swiftly punched me in the side of the head. I grinned stupidly at her and shrugged.
“I just can’t see us all dying,” I said.
And indeed I couldn’t. My life has read thus far much like a work of unbelievable fiction. I am a magnet for trouble, for the weirdest of situations, but I always walk away. The final chapter has not yet been written.
The pilot spoke to us after another few minutes. He said, “Folks, it looks like we’re all set to make an emergency landing. However, if we go down with this much fuel on board we’ll be too heavy and there’s a good chance we won’t make it… So, if the one remaining engine holds out I’m gonna try and dump the remaining fuel.” He paused. “This will be an unpleasant landing and things can go wrong, so, ‘yknow… You might wanna offer up a little prayer or make peace with yourself or something…”
I have no idea how long we were flying, but knowing that we were heading back towards land seemed to stall the fears of the passengers. No longer did they expect death at any given moment; now they waited for some traumatic event in the near future. I could tell they wanted to stay in the air as long as possible. Getting off the plane meant hitting the ground and we had no idea whether that would go smoothly or not.
The last thing I can recall the pilot saying before we began the extremely short decent into Narita airport was this: “Don’t worry too much if you see flames, folks. The emergency services have been alerted and they are ready for our landing. They’ll take care of it.”
Indeed, dozens emergency service vehicles were visible all along the empty runway as we drew closer to the ground. Nobody spoke and only the sobs of the flight attendants were heard in those last seconds. I couldn’t stop grinning, though.
The plane hit the ground awkwardly as white knuckles clenched anything to hand, eyes closed tight, and somewhere a baby finally awoke and cried. We bounced a little and it felt just like the plane was about to veer off the runway, but eventually it drew to an awkward stop.
In seconds we were surrounded by fire engines. My view was obscured by my fellow passengers as they rushed suddenly to the windows, but from what I gather they got a quick glimpse of the promised flames before fire fighters managed to extinguish them.
Everyone cheered, unaware that the real nightmare had not yet begun.
It was exhilarating; a thrill unrivaled. If I’m honest with myself – totally, utterly honest – I would say that coming close to death is about as alive as I’ve ever felt. Whether clinging to some cliff as a child, or skipping between buses on my motorcycle as an adult, I’ve always felt a greater affinity for existence when faced with the prospect of something entirely different.
The fact is that five minutes in hell is heaven compared to an eternity in purgatory. Even a nightmare can be enjoyed when taken into perspective; when viewed as an adventure of the imagination. But nothingness and uncertainty are, for me, intolerable.
We were on the plane for hours. I’m not sure how many hours, exactly, but the pilot kept updating us on the situation: First we weren’t allowed to leave because fire engines were circling the plane, making sure it wasn’t liable to explode or catch fire again. Then we were informed that immigration didn’t want us back in Japan, as we’d all had our passports stamped for departure.
After hours on the plane we were allowed into a confined area of the airport, without food or drink, for another few hours. This time there was no pilot to keep us updated. We were lost, with only the occasional garbled message over the speakers.
When eventually we were told we would be put up in a hotel, I was the first in line to get out of the airport. I ran as fast as I could to beat my fellow travellers to the immigration gate, where we were given entry stamps in our passports. I remember thinking, even then, that these people were my enemies. After the crash and the waiting we were all desperate for sleep. Nobody wanted to be last in the line of three hundred displaced, pissed-off foreigners.
The bus ride to the hotel took about two hours – allowing us the briefest of sleeps – and the following morning we spent two hours travelling back. We were all in higher spirits, chatting inanely to one another, because we thought that we would all be sitting on a plane soon enough. Two short hours on a bus and then United Airlines would push us quickly back through immigration and onto another plane…
Of course, that was wishful thinking; the delirious idiocy of the travel-fatigued mind. The reality would unfold over the following twenty-four hours, during which time we all stood in line with our bags, unable to go to restaurants or even the restroom, and denied any sort of complimentary food or drink. We were lied to consistently by a little man with impeccable English, and who began every sentence with, “Sorry guys, but…”
Peak travel season isn’t the best time for three hundred exhausted, dehydrated, starved, deceived travellers to be assigned new seats. Our line snaked around half the departure terminal, waiting for cancellations. Every flight to North America was booked solid.
When it was my turn to stand at the front of the line and find out where in America I would be sent, the little man who’d been lying to us all day turned the line around to another kiosk, and I found myself suddenly at the back, staring at faces I’d come to loath simply for being near me, and for wanting the same limited seats I wanted.
I complained, very quietly and politely, and was sent to the business check-in to make amends. At the business check-in they said they couldn’t process me because I wasn’t a business-class passenger. I was sent back to the back of the line.
I complained again, very quietly and politely, and was eventually sent to the front. “Here’s your boarding pass,” the woman said. “Your flight departs in five minutes. Run.”
When I miraculously took my seat on the plane I found I’d been placed in business class. It was a small consolation. Then I looked at my ticket: I was no longer heading for San Francisco. I was destined to spend the next day standing in line in Seattle.