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On Plane Crashes

I worry about plane crashes.

How terrible it must be to witness one. You’re racing down the highway, new-growth pine on either side blurring brown-green as you zip by, wheels growling over asphalt as the wind clears its throat. Just then, another sound rises behind you, a roar that swallows the din of the radio, the thump of the engine, rising till its all around you.

And then it’s past you, doppler shifting as its shadow looms over four lanes of faltering traffic. You squint at the glint of metal, fuselage blinding in the sun, as rows of dull windows stand out like an ellipse. The plane passes low, close to the road, but not so quick that you don’t glimpse the people inside, a choir line of frightened faces screaming shredded harmonies.

In a flash it’s gone, roar fading as shadows sweep the rolling hills, and the whole thing disappears beyond the trees that skirt the road. But your eyes remember the shape, blotted on your vision with ink so permanent it’ll never wash out. You realize you’ve been staring up too long, and your eyes drop back to the road where cars skid along the shoulders, kicking up gravel, drivers awed into rubbernecking.

In the distance you hear a muffled boom.

Imagine: the farmer in the cab of his combine as it rolls across the hillside, its cutting bar and threshing drum beating grain from chaff. A flicker of movement grabs his attention just in time for the fireball, and as the red light engulfs him, he winces away from the shine autonomically, like Moses must have done. The sound, though, takes its time, skipping across meadows and fallow fields, picking flowers as it comes. Black columns rise as the aircraft carcass burns, the stench of melting plastic and burning jet fuel mixing with wheat and something sweeter. He dials 911, but so have a hundred other people, even some on the plane. It’s the training they got as children. And there’s nothing the operator can do.

The farmer kills the engine of his harvester and sprints towards the wreckage, the day-to-day work of the farm forgotten, and already he can hear sirens on the road, but there’s no question he’s closest. He charges past broken luggage as they puke out clothes and shoes, books and toys, past charred seats, two at a time, oddly-shaped charcoal still strapped in. Everywhere the smoke is blinding and choking, and everywhere the grass is burning, and all he can hear is the fire. There’s not a single cry for help.

In the end, the farmer collapses on a hillside a hundred yards away, where he sweats and shivers and retches. At last he understands his part. He’s helpless. He’s witnessing the last act of a play that started hours or weeks or years before, when whatever binary bit of the universe flipped to cause the accident–a cause they’ll spend years puzzling over, coming down to a bent washer or a dirty valve or a bird strike. He is a member of an audience that will soon grow to include first-responders, investigators, journalists, and loved ones until it encompasses the entire world. And together, all they can do is watch it burn.

As terrifying as it is, I’m not afraid of being in a plane crash. I fly infrequently and aircraft seldom fall from the sky. And I’m not worried about witnessing a plane crash either, like the farmer did above. The thing that terrifies me is that everyone on that plane can trace the cause of their deaths to a single decision they’ve made.

Dad feels homesick, so he wheels his chair to the ancient PC nestled in the corner of the living room. He pulls up Firefox and checks his email, and, on a whim, he flips over to an airline aggregator, where, to his surprise, the prices are good.

His heart flutters when he types a request for three coach-class tickets–for his wife, his daughter, and himself–not because he has any inkling of what’s to come, but because he always gets that feeling when he buys something expensive.

He reads off the number of his credit card, double checking the digits, and makes sure he has spelled their names right. And with a final mouse click, he kills himself. And his wife. And their little girl. He bristles with excitement for seeing old friend and his parents, but it’s wasted. He’s never going home again.

This is what frightens me. That I could have killed myself and would never know it. Some innocuous decision I’ve made might, six months from now, smear me across a tarmac or drown me in a lake.

Like my dad’s cousin Kent. He was 31 in 1983, and he, his brother, and their friends were having a party. The vinyls were spinning and beer was flowing, and Kent had just gotten a new handgun. He brought it out to show it off, and accidentally blew the back of his head off instead, there in front of everyone. The physical cause of his death was obvious, but what decision led him there? When he bought the gun, all shiny and new, did he see it as a hobby, something to add to his collection or show off at parties? Which decision exactly killed Kent? The decision to buy it? To leave it loaded in a dresser drawer somewhere? To show it off?

All those people killed in the Malaysia Airlines crashes found their flights by different means–they booked online in their pajamas, or through travel agents, or simply got bumped at the check-in desk, but they were all going to the same place. Their decisions to fly were made at different times and places, but the results were all the same. They just didn’t know it.

I’m afraid that I’ve already chosen. Or that I will.

And that’s why I worry about plane crashes.

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