Today I am grateful that I am safe, that Jim and I are safe, and together.
It’s fair to say that we had the biggest travel scare of our life last night. We were travelling home from Phoenix where we enjoyed a few warm days’ escape from the bitter Midwest cold. Our flight from Phoenix to Chicago was delayed and chances were good we would miss our onward connection to Moline (that’s a whole ‘nother story – we usually fly out of Cedar Rapids but drove the extra 35 minutes to Moline so we could get out of the snow on Sunday). We rebooked from Phoenix through Dallas to ensure no missed connection to Moline. The Phoenix-Dallas flight was just fine. It was the next one that is what we hope is a “once in a lifetime” experience.
We were a few minutes late leaving Dallas for Moline, like 10 minutes so not a big deal (it was approximately 8:20pm). We took off just fine (that’s an accomplishment, we knew, because on our outbound travels, the first of 3 planes we were on to get out of Chicago to Phoenix aborted midway through take-off). Jim and I were working away about 30 minutes into the flight when the cabin lights switched on and our amazing flight attendant, David’s commanding voice said “Everyone make sure your seat belts are tightly fastened. Turn off all electronic devices NOW. And listen to me. This is important. I need your full attention.” Something in his voice said it was very important, and sent our hearts beating in overdrive.
David showed us how to assume the safest position (arms wrapped under your knees and your head tucked to your knees, into the best little ball you could make sitting in a seat). He required that we all demonstrate it for him. And, we did. He ensured that we all knew how to respond before he told us that there was smoke in the cockpit and we were going to immediately return to Dallas. Jim and I took in the full meaning of the question we were asked when we took our exit row seats: “Will you help in the event of an emergency?” Yes. We studied the exit row door instructions. In our fear and uncertainty, and grand sense of the vulnerability of life, we held hands and tried to find our ‘calm’.
The situation escalated not long after the plane turned around. David continued to take command of American #3400. We were going to have to make an emergency landing. He asked us to look the person next to us in the eye, and, to ensure we find that person on the ground. Yep, this was serious, very serious.
The pilot and first officer got the plane on the ground in Greenville, Texas, about 75 miles east of Dallas and we landed at the small Majors airfield. We came to a quick stop after landing – the pilot was serious about getting us off the plane as soon as he possibly could. He was uncertain what was going on with the plane because there were no clues from his gauges, just a sure knowing something wasn’t right given he was quickly losing visibility through the smoke and had to put on his mask because of the chemical-laden air. David immediately ordered us to evacuate. Jim opened the emergency exit door at Row 12 of our little Embraer regional jet, and led us out onto the wing. A surreal moment, standing on the wing of the plane at night in some unknown place, not sure if you are going to make it to safety. (Visions of plane catching fire and taking us all up in a ball of flames…)
We helped others jump down off the wing and onto the ground and then we all gathered in the field away from the plane, as instructed. You could feel the gratitude in the air that filled the spaces among us. We felt blessed to be alive, and safe, although we still weren’t sure what was going to happen with our plane. Emergency crew eventually arrived (did I say that Greenville is out in the middle of nowhere?!). We remember checking the time as we hung out in the field and waited (about 9:15). We were cold and somewhat giddy for being on the ground alive. We had all followed instructions to leave our personal belongings on the plane so we were coat-less and chilly (cold would be having to stand outside for any time in Illinois or Iowa). When it seemed safe enough (the plane apparently was not going to start on fire), the crew retrieved our coats for us. We had plenty of time to take it all in, standing in a damp field, Jim and I clinging to each other, in part to stay warm, in part as a celebration of being alive, and together.
Some people took photos despite instructions otherwise and tweeted so it wasn’t long before our situation was on the local news.
We were escorted by the great team at the L3 Communications to the recreation center on their premises (apparently it’s a civil landing strip on the grounds of their property) so we would be warm (now it’s about 9:45pm). They brought us food and water from the plane, and then someone must have made a trip to a local 24-hour Wal-Mart because soon there were cold drinks and an abundance of snacks (probably 11pm by this point). Then came bags with burgers and fries for everyone from Whataburger (now close to mid-night). We were not going to lack of nourishment.
At about 1am, a nice bus arrived to make the 60-minute drive to DFW. I used the time to catch up on the work I had hoped to do on the flight home, mainly I think it was to take my mind off of the situation. While waiting in the rec center, Jim had booked us a room at the Grand Hyatt at DFW Terminal D. We must have crawled into bed about 3:30am. Not surprisingly, we were stilled keyed up and it took awhile to fall asleep. Jim also had the brilliance to get us seats on the 9:50am flight to Moline the next morning– he’d done this from the airfield shortly after we were safely off the plane and on the ground. At the time, I thought it was weird but given that other passengers were rebooked through other cities (like Albequeque!) or not leaving until dinner time, I was grateful for his foresight.
Grateful. Yes, very grateful. (Except the 8 flights on American Embraer planes that will be making over the next 2 weeks for work meetings!)