Two years ago we tried to go to Houston to visit Lil Mountain Ash’s family for Christmas, but our plane crashed. This year we’re headed there again, but we’re driving, with the dogs, which seems an altogether smarter and more fun way to travel during the holiday rush. In honor of the two-year anniversary of our plane crash, here’s the text of the piece I wrote for Newsweek about the experience…
This will forever be my memory of Christmas 2008: Huge orange flames streaking past the windows. Snow and dirt flying past as we plowed into the ground. The inside of the plane orange with firelight so I could see the destruction: the overhead baggage compartments were destroyed and pieces of plastic hung down, wires everywhere and the acrid smell of burning plastic and jet fuel suddenly thick in the cabin.
We’d been on the way to Houston from Denver to visit my wife’s family for Christmas. My own parents had flown in earlier in the day. We’d given ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport—an extra half hour so we wouldn’t have to go fast on the icy Colorado roads. Check-in was luxurious by most standards. We breezed through security, enjoyed a glass of Chianti and a Cobb salad. My wife noticed a woman boarding with her two children, one of them a toddler, an remarked to me how difficult it would be to manage kids during Christmas air travel. The tarmac was icy near the gates but the as we taxied onto the runway I was relieved to see that it was dry. Things went horribly wrong shortly after we began to take off. At first we were gaining speed just like any flight. A little bumpy. Then a little too bumpy. Then we made a hard, arcing left turn off the runway. That’s when it hit home what was happening. We’d clearly left the tarmac and gone off road. Every bump and dip slammed me into my seat, the walls, and the bulkhead behind me. People erupted into cries and prayers. I was sure it would stop soon but we just kept going. What I recall most is the incredible violence of it, like the roughest roller coaster you ever rode but with a desperate, roaring engine noise that seemed to get louder as we bounced more and more.
Things were flying around the cabin—books, newspapers, bags. After an especially hard bounce the lights went out, and there was this sudden, terrible stillness we saw later what had happened: the runway is about 60 feet elevated above the plains below. We sped over the edge at what one passenger who has military flight experience estimated to be 150 miles per hour. The plane must have floated down to some extent or we’d have nosed in. Instead we belly flopped onto a runway below. That’s when the right engine burst into flames, the fuselage cracked in half. My wife Ashley, in the seat beside me, screamed over and over, “I love you Jeb!”
I pulled her head into my lap, away from the debris I was sure would slam into us. Amazingly it never did. It took a minute to realize we weren’t moving anymore. The engine noise and the wrenching, roaring destruction had stopped. Voices screamed, “Get out! Get out! The plane’s going to blow up! The right wing was entirely engulfed in flame but the fire was still outside the plane. There was a crush at the tail as everyone tried to push through. Ashley and I were out quickly because we’d been in the last row of seats. We clambered over the spongy rubber emergency slides and out into a dark, snowy, windy field. Everyone was running like hell away from the fire. It was surreal. Against the flames we saw silhouettes of people scattering in all directions.
There was a light above us on a hill. I could see buildings. I’d managed to grab my bag, with a phone, sweater and jacket, and I took Ashley’s hand and the two of us ran slipping through the snow toward them. Eventually all the passengers ended up there. It was a runway firehouse and emergency teams were already taking care of the most seriously injured—the pilots—who were on backboards in the kitchen, one moaning and bloody and the other talking on a cell phone. We waited for hours absorbing what had happened. The mother with her child and toddler were there. She was ashen, her baby sleeping so deeply she couldn’t wake him up. They loaded the three of them into an ambulance and hurried them away.
Continental eventually bussed us to the terminal, and then to a hotel in Denver. People were rehashing their stories and guessing at what had happened. A failed left engine? A gust of wind? We booed at the hotel bar when news reports described us as having “exited the runway” – a little disaster management euphemism that belittled our ordeal. This morning we awoke stiff and sore and trudged to breakfast. There was the woman with her child and toddler, the baby bright eyed and smiling. “We’re going to get on another plane and go to Houston,” she said to the older boy. “But no fires this time?” he asked. “No fires this time,” she said. “No fires this time.” – 12/21/08