As hundreds of rescue workers waited on the ground, United Airlines Flight 232 wallowed drunkenly over the bluffs northwest of Sioux City. The plane slammed onto the runway and burst into a vast fireball. The rescuers didn’t move at first: nobody could possibly survive that crash. And then people began emerging from the summer corn that lined the runways. Miraculously, 184 of 296 passengers lived.
No one has ever attempted the complete reconstruction of a crash of this magnitude. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, crew, and airport and rescue personnel, Laurence Gonzales, a commercial pilot himself, captures, minute by minute, the harrowing journey of pilots flying a plane with no controls and flight attendants keeping their calm in the face of certain death. He plumbs the hearts and minds of passengers as they pray, bargain with God, plot their strategies for survival, and sacrifice themselves to save others. Ultimately he takes us, step by step, through the gripping scientific detective work in super-secret labs to dive into the heart of a flaw smaller than a grain of rice that shows what brought the aircraft down.
I feel like I’m becoming a connoisseur of disaster non-fiction. There are several ways to approach the genre, depending on the author’s bent and the available information. Gonzales is a researcher and journalist at heart and his careful attention to detail shows throughout the book. The prose is workman-like but it does the job.
The story is in turns gripping, scary, and touching. The touching bits sneak up on you, too – I found myself getting farklemt several times on my commute. It wasn’t drawn out or long, but a quick punch to the heart strings.
Sheryl Dieber, a nurse at St. Luke’s, was ministering to a six-year-old boy in traction. The boy motioned to Dieber to come close. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he said. “Get closer.” She moved closer. “Come closer,” the boy insisted, and Dieber leaned in. “Come closer,” the boy said again, and she put her ear right up to his lips. “My mommy died in the plane crash,” the boy whispered. And together they wept.
Gonzales jumps around in time, talking about different passengers’ crash experience in the middle of more technical or legal sections. For a while I liked it because it broke up jargon and let me see the crash from different angles. By the end of the book, though, I was crashed out.
I learned some amazing things (titanium is super fickle, they used to disfigure bodies while identifying them) but nothing has stuck with me in the few days since I finished. Flight 232 exposed some problems with the airline industry and disaster response, and they were mostly fixed. Mental shrug.
While Flight 232 is a decent read it lacks some of the oomph of other disaster books. I didn’t gain any particular insights into the human condition or any lasting societal implications. It was a plane crash, an isolated event. And then you move on.