The Brancatelli File



August 4, 2005 -- At about noon on Tuesday, the day nobody died in Toronto, I wrote myself a note as a teaser for a future column.

"What," I scribbled, "would it take to make life on the road fun again?"

Less than five hours later, I flipped on the tube and saw what looked like the tail of an Air France jet and a lot of smoke. CNN anchor Miles O'Brien claimed that the smoking ruin was what was left of Air France Flight 358. A licensed pilot, O'Brien speculated about wind shear and microbursts and the horrendous conditions--rain, wind, hail, lightning--in which the Airbus A340 was attempting to land at Toronto/Pearson Airport.

And then I saw a fireball. Big licks of flame cutting through the smoke. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, a frequent flyer, one of us, blurted out the obvious: "That's an ominous sign."

And in my head, I heard what I always hear. I heard Jim McKay broadcasting from the 1972 Olympic Games saying somberly, "They're all dead. They're all gone."

I checked the calendar, just to be sure. August 2. Amazing.

I picked up the telephone and called Jerry Chandler. He literally wrote the book, Fire and Rain, about Delta Flight 191, which crashed on approach at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. It was the first time most of us ever heard about wind shear.

Delta Flight 191 went down on August 2, 1985. Twenty years ago to the day.

Chandler, a gentle man with a passion for planes, and his wife, a gentle woman who hates to fly, were on the road, visiting with a new grandchild. I told him what was going on.

"This can't be happening again," he said instantly. "Especially not today."

And then, an hour or so later, the Canadian Broadcasting Company began to report that there were survivors. Moments after that, confirmation from Toronto Airport officials: They're all alive. They're all still here.

He didn't say it that way, of course. But that's what I heard, in Jim McKay's voice: They're all alive. They're all still here.

A miracle. No other word is appropriate. The Miracle of Flight 358. An instant and wonderful cliché.

I've heard from a lot of flight attendants and pilots in the last few hours. All their E-mails burst with justifiable pride: This is what we do. This is what we train for. This is why we matter.

They are right, of course. Only a superbly trained crew could have evacuated a fully loaded Airbus in about 90 seconds and gotten them all away with just a few dozen minor injuries. Real pros, well trained. Dedicated people who saved their passengers.

But I'm sticking with miracle here. I'm a guy who thinks every flight is a miracle anyway. I don't really know how those suckers fly, so every time they land and take-off safely, to me, we're talking miracle.

And, boy, did we need a miracle just now.

It goes without saying that life on the road since 9/11 has been miserable. But it was miserable before that, too. And, like I said, the soundtrack in my head is always Jim McKay: They're all dead. They're all gone.

When you hear that at the age of 19, as I did, you assume the worst all the time. And, sadly, there's been very little contrary evidence in the subsequent 33 years.

Jim McKay has always been right. They're always all dead. They're always all gone.

But not on Tuesday. For all the fire and rain in Toronto, there was a miracle. They're all alive. They're all still here. An honest-to-goodness, Jonah-in-the-whale, part-the-Red-Sea miracle.

We are not used to miracles on the road. I wrote this once, after American Airlines Flight 1420 went down in Little Rock:

"Every crash diminishes us and we remember that now. And we can't run away. We've got to take our fear, rational and irrational, and our concerns, logical and otherwise, and bury them at the bottom of our carry-on bags. We've got to lie to our kids and our lovers and our families and tell them that we don't worry about stuff like this. We have to make believe we're invulnerable. Every crash diminishes us and we have to make believe it doesn't."

But Tuesday we got the miracle. There was a crash and we were not diminished. They survived and walked away. We survived right with them.

Today or tomorrow or next week, we will still be afraid. We will still have to bury that fear at the bottom of our carry-on bag and make believe it is not there. We will still have to lie to our friends and lovers and kids and families and make believe about our lives on the road.

But now we have The Miracle of Flight 358. That's something. Maybe that's everything.

By the time The National, the CBC's evening newscast, got on the air Tuesday night, several of the survivors had told their stories. A guy named Rolf, Champagne glass in hand, was interviewed in front of his house.

He was first off the plane because he was sitting next to the emergency exit. He jumped, landed, walked to Highway 401, the super-highway that borders Toronto/Pearson, flagged down a passing motorist and got a lift back to the terminal. And, damn, he said, this was the first time he had ever filled in his customs forms correctly.

You know, like it happens every day. Evacuate, walk to the highway, hitch a ride back to the terminal and bitch about your customs forms.

The Miracle of Flight 358. They're all alive. They're all still here. They're angry about their customs forms and there may not be enough Champagne to make the point.

Nearing midnight on Tuesday, the day nobody died in Toronto, I took the note I scribbled about making life on the road fun again and tossed it into the circular file.

Fun, after all, is probably too much to ask for. I think we'll all settle for a miracle.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.