Three Hours of Fear and Hope
(The inside story of Flight 292)
By: Kenneth Miller
Zachary Mastoon thought he was finished with his fear of death. In the past few years, he had lost his mother to cancer and a friend to suicide. He’d been travelling in Thailand in December 2004 when the tsunami claimed more than 200,000 lives across the region; by chance, he was in another part of the country when the big waves hit. He believed that when his time came, he would take it calmly. But as he watched the news reports about JetBlue Flight 292, his eyes filled with anxious tears.
”Some of the experts were saying there could be a loud crash, a large fire,” he recalls. ”Others were saying it’s not a big deal at all.” For the 27-year-old electronic musician, the debate held more than academic significance: Zachary Mastoon was aboard the crippled plane, hoping he would make it home to Brooklyn, and the oddsmakers were squabbling on his seatback screen.
On September 21, 2005, a mechanical glitch on a medium-sized airliner seized the attention of millions around the world. Among them were the plane’s passengers, who followed the live coverage via satellite TV being fed to the cabin. Hurtling towards an emergency landing would be harrowing enough, even without the added stress of starring in a bizarre reality show. But that was where Zachary Mastoon and 139 others found themselves on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday afternoon.
Almost every air traveller has at some point wondered: What would I do if my plane ran into serious trouble? How would my fellow passengers behave? The ticket-holders on the 3.17 pm flight from Burbank, California to New York City, and their loved ones on the ground, had three long hours to grapple with such questions – and their very real fear.
Experts say that when disaster threatens, about 50 per cent of people manage to hold themselves together and function well; 25 per cent go into shock and become withdrawn, and another 25 per cent become hysterical. ”For someone with a pre-existing issue – a divorce or another difficulty – this could be a trigger for a significant reaction,” says psychologist Robert Scott, the chief trauma specialist for the Los Angeles Fire Department. In general, however, says Dr Don Nance, director of the Counselling and Testing Centre at Wichita State University, ”you cannot predict who is going to freak in those situations.”
The first signal that something was amiss occurred about 15 minutes after takeoff, when the pilot – a calm-voiced North Carolinian named Scott Burke – came on the intercom. ”For those of you who may have noticed,” he said,”we are flying in circles.” The plane’s front landing gear had failed to retract, Burke explained, and he would keep everyone posted as he investigated the problem. Few worried until he performed a low flyby of the Long Beach Airport air traffic control tower so that observers with binoculars could get a close look. Fire engines and ambulances were lined up below, clearly visible from the aircraft’s windows.
Moments later, a woman sitting towards the rear of the cabin yelled, ”Hey, we’re on TV!” While waiting for the pilot to report on the Long Beach tower’s diagnosis, passengers began flipping between the all-news channels. That’s how many first heard that the nose-gear wheels were skewed at a 90-degree angle, and that there was a chance the plane could spin right off the runway when it tried to land. Some wept or prayed. And many began reaching out to one another.
For Mastoon, hunkered in the rearmost row, help came in the form of a large plastic water bottle. ”Take a swig of this,” offered his seatmate, a 40-something real estate broker. ”It’s leaded.” The man had smuggled aboard a litre of vodka and tonic, and as Mastoon drank, his courage returned. There are two ways you can react to this situation, he admonished himself. You can be really negative and freak out, or you can say, This is completely out of my control. If I’m going to die, I don’t want to spend my last two hours biting my nails and watching TV. Mastoon took out his camera and snapped some digital photos of the televised image of the plane. Then he switched to Comedy Central, and spent the next two hours laughing.
At the front of the cabin, Lisa Schiff was floundering in the negative. An Los Angeles gallery owner, Schiff, 34, had never been a nervous flyer. But when the captain confirmed the wheel trouble and said the plane would have to make an emergency landing, she says, ”I started to fall apart pretty quickly.” Panicking, she tried to call her mother on her mobile phone, but couldn’t get a signal. ”I was aching to hear her voice,” Schiff recalls. ”I wrote her a text message saying not to worry – if something happened, I would be watching over her and my father and my brother.” She typed messages to other family members, to friends and business partners, to her boyfriend and an ex-boyfriend, even though there was no signal to send them with. She couldn’t stop crying. The seat beside her was empty, and she felt utterly alone.
Suddenly, a hand touched her shoulder. A dark-haired young woman named Christiana Lund was smiling at Schiff over the headrest. ”It’s going to be all right,” said Lund, 25, an aspiring singer who had recently moved from Los Angeles to New York and was flying back with her cat. ”Do you really think so?” Schiff asked. ”Or are you just saying that to make me feel better?” Lund insisted that she meant it. Says Schiff: ”She just reached around and held me for a while. It was the most comforting thing.”
Lund, in fact, was less tranquil than she appeared. ”I was in denial, really,” she says. She tried to believe the pilot’s assurances that there was little danger and to disregard the worst-case scenarios on TV. Still, she would soon type a text message on her phone to her younger sister, saying, ”Pray for me.” Although she hungered for information, she couldn’t watch the news shows for long without needing to get up and walk off her nerves. On one such stroll, she ran into a flight attendant, who saw the tension in her face and gave her a warm hug. So did Taryn Manning, who co-stars in the film Hustle & Flow, and Manning’s publicist. Lund returned to her seat, feeling ready to contend with whatever lay ahead.
In row 22, Sam and Janel Meza were talking about their past. Married for 35 years and the parents of three grown children, the Mezas, both 56, are pastors of the Living Hope Community Church in Mission Hills, California. ”If there’s anything I’ve ever done that you haven’t forgiven me for,” said Sam, ”I ask you to forgive me today.” Janel couldn’t think of a thing. ”Sam,” she said, ”there’s no-one I’d rather enter into eternity with than you.” The couple sang Psalm 34, with its line, ”The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.” Beside them, a hip New Yorker grimly clutched his water bottle. ”Look out the window,” Janel told him. ”Do you see the angels?” The young man looked. ”I see them,” he whispered.
In truth, the angels who most impressed the Mezas – and many other passengers – were the six members of the flight crew. As the plane circled low over the Pacific Ocean, burning off heavy fuel to make a controlled landing somewhat easier, attendants circulated in the cabin. They were generous with jokes, reassuring words and pats on the shoulder. When they began to redistribute the plane’s weight, passing carry-on luggage to the rear in a kind of bucket brigade, Janel was again moved to prayer. ”I said, ‘Lord, that’s how I want to be, fulfiling our purpose. If you give us an opportunity to land, that’s how we want to live.’ ”
The flight attendants soon moved some passengers rearward too. Lisa Schiff found herself beside a woman her age, who was as distraught as Schiff had been not long before. To calm her new seatmate, Schiff spoke of a psychic reading she’d once had. ”I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to live to be 84, so we’re all good.’ ” She held the woman’s hand for the rest of the flight.
Christiana Lund wound up next to an elderly couple who’d been through an emergency landing 44 years before. ”They said, ‘If we survived that, I’m sure we can survive this,’ ” she recalls. But far below, on a Los Angeles freeway, her father was wrestling with a darker memory: an Alaska Airlines flight that crashed in January 2000, killing all aboard, while attempting an emergency landing at Los Angeles Airport.
Richard Lund, 54, a background photographer for TV and films (he shot the Manhattan skyline that hangs behind Jay Leno on The Tonight Show), was driving to a set when he heard on the car radio that his daughter’s plane was in trouble. ”I thought, Whatever’s going to happen, I’ve got to be there,” he says. He sped to his office, told his producer he couldn’t work, and then headed north towards the airport, where newscasters said Flight 292 would be arriving within the hour.
Richard sobbed as he weaved through heavy traffic, thinking about what life would be like without Christiana. The previous night, she’d come home late from a friend’s TV shoot, and he had gone to work early that morning without saying goodbye. In desperation, he now called his daughter’s mobile phone and left a message: ”Chrissy, I don’t know if you’ll ever hear this, but I just wanted to tell you that I love you.” Then he barrelled down an exit ramp near the airport, hoping to find a vantage point where he could witness either his worst nightmare or his greatest reprieve.
On the plane, the crew had given passengers their final instructions for the emergency landing. To avoid injury if escape slides were deployed, women wearing high heels were asked to remove them. Those carrying ID cards in their hand baggage were advised to place them in their pockets. (The attendants didn’t mention that this would make it easier for bodies to be identified, but many people figured it out for themselves.)
As the descent began, everyone assumed the emergency position: feet flat on the floor, head between legs and arms wrapped around the knees. Flight attendants began chanting, ”Brace! Brace! Brace!” and the passengers repeated the mantra, drowning out the engines.
Parked on an industrial street, Richard watched the jet roar overhead; then he lost sight of it behind a warehouse. For agonising minutes, he listened to the radio for news of a crash. But the JetBlue pilot knew precisely what he was doing. At 6.19 pm, Scott Burke brought Flight 292 down on its rear wheels, and then settled the nose as gently as a mother laying her newborn in a bassinet. Twenty ambulances were standing by on the scene, along with 24 fire engines; many of them chased the plane along the 3300-metre runway. The front tires burned away, filling the air with acrid smoke, but the landing gear held firm. When the craft coasted to a stop, near the end of the tarmac, there was a deep silence on board.
Finally, Burke announced, ”There is no fire,” and the cabin exploded in cheers. Christiana wept for the first time that day. She called her father’s mobile phone, told him she was safe. She phoned her mother, who was at a wedding in Minnesota. Last, she checked her voice mail, listened to her dad’s farewell message and could barely breathe for bawling.
Father and daughter found each other in the baggage-claim area, and clung together for a while. Then they joined several other passengers near the entrance to the terminal, where a horde of reporters and cameramen jostled for a sound bite. The next few days were crazy for the ”survivors,” as some news outlets took to calling them. There were interviews and limousines and JetBlue freebies, and for many of them a nerve-racking but uneventful flight to New York. At last, though, life returned to something like normal. Mastoon went back to his sampling equipment and turn-tables, Schiff to her gallery, the Mezas to their church, Christiana to her songwriting – and to her night job as a cocktail waitress.
By then, the investigation of the near-disaster on Flight 292 had uncovered some startling news: At least seven other Airbus A320s had suffered similar malfunctions in recent years, though all had touched down safely.
Still, no-one on board Flight 292 walked away unaltered. ”There’s something really great about flirting with death,” observes Schiff, ”…if you don’t die.”
As Christiana Lund puts it: ”I’m more focused now. I want the people in my life to know I care about them. And I don’t want to waste any more time messing around. I want to take advantage of every day.”