Life is Beautiful
Chapter I: The Crash
I remember all of the emotions, the trees whipping by, everything happening so fast, dad yelling Here we go!, and mom screaming Stop it! I remember my brother Zachary looking back at me, his eyes bright with fear as I prayed, God please…
I remember the sense that something was coming; you know its coming and wonder do you live.
I remember the violence of the plane plowing into the ground as we attempted an emergency landing in a roughhewn field…Boom, boom, boom…and then nothing but an unnerving silence.
I can’t tell if I blacked out or merely paused with my eyes closed in the stillness of those first few moments, but awareness comes slowly and then in a rushed breath of shock and revelation, Thank God I’m alive.
My eyes open to an eerily lit silence where sunlight and shadow intermingle making it difficult to see into the new geography of the plane’s interior. My head and body buzz, and my mind trips on the dissonance of dangling upside down; held a few inches from the ceiling of the plane’s cabin by my seatbelt.
Taking stock of my body I soon notice that I peed in my pants and there is a small cut on my left arm. Looking up, one foot is missing its shoe and my eyes squint into bright sunlight that passes through a relatively large doorway next to me that was torn open.
The only noise to break the silence is the erratic popping of electricity; the final groans of a dying airplane.
I move my arms first and then my legs, which causes small shards of glass to fall from where they’re lodged in my clothes and upturned seat. I tilt my head back toward the ceiling beneath me and it is covered in broken glass.
My hair dangles down away from my face, but the position of my body and the way sunlight cuts through the cabin makes it difficult to see much of the plane. In those few seconds I realize that I am okay and begin to think that maybe we are all okay; that the crash wasn’t so bad.
I take a few deep breaths and reach down to my waist and tug on the seatbelt clasp. It releases and I tumble a foot or so down onto the ceiling. More by instinct than thought I crawl on my hands and knees toward the large, incandescent gap in the plane’s fuselage next to my seat.
The plane is a Cessna Caravan with a single propeller on its nose and wings attached to its roof rather than the underside of the fuselage. The interior is tight, but there is enough room for four rows of seats with a thin aisle running up the middle. Each row has three seats, one on the left and two across the aisle. My seat is on the left, across the aisle from my parents and toward the plane’s tail.
I pull myself out through the doorway onto the underside of a wing and almost immediately a blast of intense, humid Guatemalan heat scorches my back. Shifting my body to see where we’ve crashed, my bare knees scrape on rivets fastening an aluminum skin onto the wing.
The world outside of the plane is punctuated by waves of late August heat and a landscape and flora that are nothing like my home in Wisconsin, nor anything I have ever seen at age 19. Near the plane, which came to rest at the edge of a field, is a row of palm trees and low, thick bushes. The dirt is baked brown and what grass there is looks more like tufts of straw. In the distance, the haze is etched with lush, green mountains. The far edge of the field, probably about 250 yards away, is bordered by thick tropical rainforest.
Turning to look toward the front of the plane I see the crumpled body of one of the pilots lying in the dirt about ten feet from me. There is a male and female pilot, but I can’t tell which one of them I am looking at. I recognize the white uniform shirt, but his or her body is folded in half so that the pilot’s legs are twisted around his or her head. The face is smashed and bloody making it completely unrecognizable.
My heart races and hands tremble as I realize that the persistent unnerving silence, no human voices whatsoever, means there are more bodies. I think of Zachary, mom and dad and stand to go back into the smashed, upturned body of the plane. The strong, raw odor of airplane fuel drifts around the fuselage in a thick invisible cloud.
My legs and body are weak and unsteady. My muscles shake so that I feel as if I’m shivering. It is hard to move as quickly as my mind screams that I should. I look into the plane through a mix of light and shadow. The interior is a maze of inverted seats and the only person I see is mom dangling upside down. Her face is scratched and bloody, and she is straining to undo the clasp on her seatbelt.
My silhouette in the sunlit doorway cuts across mom’s face. She looks up at me. Her eyes are wide with panic, I’ve never seen her so afraid.
“Sarah! I need help…”
I climb into the plane and crawl to mom. It was a small space to begin with, but the altered configuration of the plane’s cabin makes it even more claustrophobic and difficult to move around in. Her face is near my own as I reach past her hands to pull on the seatbelt’s clasp. I tug expecting her to drop down as the seatbelt releases, but there is nothing.
“Please Sarah, please…” she cries.
“I’m trying mom…I’m trying…”
I pull the clasp again and again, but nothing. With each tug mom becomes more and more frantic.
“Sarah, help me, Sarah…” she pleads over and over.
The smell gasoline is strong and the incessant pop of electricity as the plane’s heart ground down makes me afraid the plane could explode at any moment.
I move my body to reach underneath her and I see across to where dad’s seat should be. Instead, there is a flattened wall with one of his legs jutting out, motionless.
“Come on dad!…Let’s go…Dad, dad…Please dad!…Let’s go!…” but he is silent. It is hard to fully explain the sense of loss. I love him so very much and now he is so suddenly gone and incapable of helping me ever again.
“Sarah, we have to get out of here…”
“Okay mom, I’m trying…”
I tug on mom’s seatbelt over and over, but I can’t get it to let go. She is desperate for me to save her and I’m desperate to save her, but I can’t.
I look down at dad’s leg once more and feel the loneliness of the situation hit me. It sucks the wind out of me and I feel like I can’t think, I don’t know what to do. This day began with a dreamlike quality that is now thoroughly a nightmare; one that I never imagined as a little girl lying in bed in the dark.
I’m alone in a destroyed plane with the crushed body of my father beside me. I need to save my mother, but nothing works and the smell of fuel grows stronger as electricity continues to erratically spark and pop around me. Where is Zach, I need to find Zach.
I pull my body back and look down toward the front of the plane, but I can’t see past the second row of seats. Beyond those seats the plane looks like a crumpled piece of paper; it is a wall of wires, cabin and fuselage. On the other side of it are the remaining pilot, two other passengers, and my brother.
“Sarah, Sarah, Please!” mom gasps in feverish bursts as she tugs on the belt with one hand and attempts to push her body upward to relieve some of the weight with the other.
Though I hear her, there is nothing I can do. Not only is the front of the plane completely collapsed on my brother and the others, but there is a fire and the flames are beginning to burn Liz as she emerges from unconsciousness.
We met Liz and the other volunteers that morning on the tarmac as we prepared to leave Guatemala City for the small village of Sepamac in eastern Guatemala. The flight was only supposed to be about an hour and once we landed our small crew was to begin work building a school for the people of Sepamac. For me it was a step away from a failed college try while for dad it was another stride in his path to redemption.
Liz was one of the leaders of our small group and I really only knew a few scant details of her life. One is that she was in her late 30s and the other is that she was married with young children waiting for her at home. I remember her excitement, which was shared by all 12 of us, as she entered the plane and took a seat directly in front of mine. Throughout our brief flight she explained what we would be doing, described the people we were to help, and did her best to make us feel comfortable in this new and very different place.
Now she’s dangling upside down, held by her seatbelt, and will soon burn to death if I do nothing. I crawl through the broken glass littering the ceiling of the plane toward her.
“Sarah! Where are you going! Sarah come back!” mom pleads as I move away from her.
“I have to get Liz mom…”
Liz doesn’t seem to recognize who I am. Her face is bloody and raw, she is in shock and confused. Fighting against the pain she tries to speak, but all she can manage is to mumble incoherently and rock her head back and forth.
“Sarah, come back…”
“I can’t, I can’t help you right now mom…”
The fire is burning Liz’s legs. I pull on her seatbelt, but it won’t come undone. I move my body to gain more leverage and tug as hard as I can, but nothing happens. The heat of the fire is burning against my skin. No one else is coming to help and other than my mother’s frantic pleas and the popping of flame and electricity there are no other sounds of survivors or any other people. It is horribly quiet.
I feel like I am being enveloped by the strengthening fire and the destroyed interior of the plane. I turn slightly to my right and lying only a couple feet away is a member of our group. I don’t know who it is. I can only see his motionless body from the neck down. His head disappears under a wall of wreckage.
The smell of fuel is more pungent and a deep black smoke emanates from the fire. I turn to Liz and give her seatbelt one last try, but the fire is too hot and there is nothing I can do for her. I turn in the cramped space and go back to mom.
Again I tug and pull on the clasp to mom’s seatbelt, but I just…God, I can’t do this, I can’t do this on my own…
“Mom, I have to get help. I can’t help you,” I say working my way toward the doorway.
“Sarah, don’t go…get me out…where are you going…Sarah…”
Climbing out into the bright Guatemalan air I’m once again hit by scorching tropical heat. I step toward the back of the plane and there is a shot of pain from my ankle. It doesn’t feel broken, but the pain is distracting and slows me.
I limp past the twisted body of the pilot and nearing the tail of the plane I see that fuel is pouring out onto the ground from a large gash in what must be a fuel tank. I have no idea of where I’m going or what I hope to find. My mind is simply focused on saving mom.
I come around the back of the plane and look up toward a row of palm trees. In the distance I see two dark skin men pulling Dan, one of the volunteers I’d met that morning, away to safety. Dan is alive, but grimaces as they pull on his shoulders and drag him over the rough ground. His legs are twisted and one foot points out at an odd angle.
I can’t remember seeing or hearing the two men in the plane and I have no idea how they managed to get Dan out. I try to call out to them, Come back…help me save mom, but before I can gather my breath to yell there is a man standing beside me speaking Spanish.
He is very short, I feel like a giant next to him. He is wearing a white hat and shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and belt. I reach out and try to grasp his body with my hands and push him toward the plane, “My mom, my mom, you have to get my mom…”
I can see his wide brown eyes so clearly as he calmly says in heavily accented English, “No…nonono…no…” Behind me I hear mom screaming for her life, Oh my God, mom is burning, mom is burning to death right now.
I try to push him again, “Please, my mom, you have to help me get my mom,” but he calmly says No…nononon…no. I am completely helpless as he gently, but insistently holding my arms and guiding me away from the plane.
Mom is screaming, “Help me…please…Sarah, Sarah…help me…” as the man in the white hat sits me down on a dirt roadway lined by thick bushes. I’m about 200 feet from the plane and the flames are really coming. I can only imagine the pain of burning to death; knowing that your daughter just walked away from you.
I close my eyes to escape the image of it all. A hand touches my shoulder…and then another and another. I open my eyes. Standing around me are about twelve people; men, women and a few children. Each of them places a hand on me and begins to pray in what I think is Spanish. Their accent is different from anything I’ve ever heard before and some of the words don’t seem to be Spanish.
I’ve never been touched or prayed for in that manner. I bow my head…
…and the plane explodes.