Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Today I turn 9 years old. My Air Transat flight 236 story.

Today is my 9th birthday.  Admittedly I'm in my early thirties but I do celebrate a second "unofficial" birthday. From time to time people also ask me what nationality I am. I was born first in Canada and then in Portugal. Let me explain.

We all have experiences in our life that shape who we are as people and who we become as adults.  Like everyone else I've had milestones and events that have influenced my way of thinking and made me the person that I am today.  Some of those events are private and we like to keep it that way.  Many of my friends don't know that I was once an ambitious young man that was in medical school on the way to changing the world (even if I wasn't truly happy).

9 years ago something happened that shook me to my core, broke me down into nothing and opened my eyes.  This event was something so big and significant in my life that it's hard for me not to get emotional while thinking or talking about it so I've kept it private.  It's something I share with my family and a few close friends.  If you've met me in the last 8 years, chances are this is something you don't know about me. Today while reminding my wife about my "birthday" we chatted and I began to think.  Why should I not share this story with friends and other people?  It might influence someone to see things differently.

So what's this big thing that I have to have a second birthday for?  I died and was born again.  It's not a religious thing or some new age thing.  It was the real deal.

Here's my story.

I was an over optimistic med student when I found out my favorite uncle was diagnosed with cancer.  He situation quickly worsened and I took a leave of absence.  He was in Portugal and I knew I'd go see him for the last time.

Mom, dad, lil sis and I booked a flight to visit Ti Chico.  Little did we know that my uncle could survive my entire family.  This is how it all began.  It was an Air Transat transatlantic flight from Toronto to Lisbon.  We would later on find out it was Air Transat flight # AT 236.  It's an overnight transatlantic flight that's about 8 hrs long.  Energy was mixed.  I was excited to go visit Portugal and see family while somber to see my uncle in the state he was in knowing it would be the last time.  Flight 236 departed at 8:42pm with 306 souls on board.  All were unaware that in less than 6 hours their lives would be changed forever. 

It was a smooth and comfortable ride.  We had dinner, the lights dimmed, and the TV monitors were playing some outdated movie that I didn't want to watch but couldn't turn away from.  My dad and mom had fallen asleep, my sis and remained I awake.  I remember one of those candid camera shows being on the tiny display, I think it was called "Just for Laughs."  We were in the delirious state that lies between almost asleep but we were awake enough to laugh at what we were watching.  Everything was great, boring and expected.

Next came the unexpected.  It was pitch dark outside. All of a sudden the plane started to shake violently, quickly followed by what felt like when you go down a roller coaster and your stomach ends up in your throat. The plane was dropping and pulling us out of our seats.  Adrenaline kicks in, passengers are violently woken up and screams come from every direction.  I lean over and see flight attendants panicking while putting on their life vests.  I scream over to them, "what is going on?" they seem to ignore my question.  Flight attendants scrambling to put on life vests.  This I've never see.  I catch a glimpse of one of the flight attendants eyes.  There was a very honest and human look in them that you can't disguise.  I knew that something had gone horribly wrong and something really bad was going to happen.  A flight attendant comes out and starts, "Attention, everyone reach under your seat and pull out your life vest," panicked Portuguese passengers shout back, "o qe?" which means, what, in Portuguese?  Followed by a plea for her to speak in Portuguese.  She starts out, "Attencao passageiros..." and then breaks down and starts to cry, she could not deliver the message.  My attention shifts to the fact that the comforting engine hum is eerily gone.  Where has the comforting hum of the engines gone.  Something has gone very, very wrong, the plane continued to shake. 

All lights turn off, TV's off, P.A. system off, emergency lights light up the floors marking the emergency exit door.  What the hell is going on? Is this a joke? Another clearly tense voice takes over and tried to address the 300+ passengers without the aid of a P.A. system.  "Everyone put on their life vest and prepare for emergency ditching at sea."  Huh?  What the hell does that mean?  Are you kidding me?  Disbelief.  "The captain has informed us that we are two hours away from Lisbon and we will not make it.  We are preparing for an emergency ditch at sea.  When you hear BRACE, BRACE, BRACE, lean against the seat in front of you, fold your arms and brace yourself."

WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT?????  Oh my God, what is happening.  We're going into the cold and black Atlantic?  Now?  Why?  Is this a Joke?  Are we part of that Just for Laughs show?  Stop playing, come on.  No joke.  I was in denial.  This fully loaded Airbus A330 was going into the ocean and all I knew was that my poor family were there with me.  It hit me.  This wasn't going to go away.  This was it.  This really was it.  The end.  Unimaginable death by catastrophe.  We were going to be that statistic on the safest form of transportation.  The disgusting thing was I was going to see my entire family suffer a miserable death.  That was the part that made me want to puke.  People cried our to Our Lady of Fatima and deals were publicly being made with God.  I looked back and saw a young couple cradling their newborn with a life vest around it's body.  I really wished I could have puked.

I couldn't think of anything worst that could possibly happen.  It couldn't get any worst.  What could be worse?  It's going to happen now.  I thought my dad was going to have a heart attack and thought, I hope he dies in peace before we crash.  Terrible thing to think.  My sister couldn't breath and cried uncontrollably; she was in shock.  My mom was in a similar state.  I was numb with anger, I wanted to cry, break down, give up.  There was nothing left but to accept and let the course run itself.  We gritted our teeth waiting for impact.  Adrenaline did interesting things to me at that time.  I accepted with anger that we were going to die, accepted that there wasn't a thing in the world I could do but wait and watch my family die.

My mind had quick conversations with it self.  I made peace with God and with myself.  Realization, acceptance followed by an anger I've never felt before.  Angry that I had worked all my life to get somewhere hoping that I would finally be happy sometime in the future. I was trapped in the rat race.  Angry that I had not really "lived" life.  I had not experienced anything.  Nothing really when you think about it.  I found myself wanting the simplest of things.  When you loose everything you find that you would be happy to have anything.  "Take everything, leave me naked without anything.  Let us live and I will feel like the richest man in the world if we can live past this."  Then I'd think, "o.k, let me not die without feeling my feet on firm ground just one more time."  Who lets a man die without letting him place his feet on the ground one more time.  Such a simple thing and I couldn't have it.  "Please, that's all I want, just to feel ground, concrete, or dirt.  Give me one second with my feet on the ground and then you can take me."  It's interesting what currency you find most valuable when you see it all about to end.  You're willing to have nothing for the rest of your life, be homeless, suffer a terrible disease and still be grateful if you could live that for just one more day and know that your family is o.k.

I couldn't accept that I had no power and that I couldn't do anything.  My mind still going 1000 miles a minute.  It was incredible how clear things were, how long every second felt like, I could see, feel, and smell EVERYTHING.  I found myself going through every imaginable sequence of events that were about to unfold.  We were seated in the front of the aircraft.  "If we nose dive in, the plane breaks just behind us if we don't die on impact, I can pull my mom and sister's buckles simultaneously, grab and pull their life vest cord and send them up, hold on to seat so I don't float up, go across the isle for dad as the plane falls into the sea, pull my cord."  I'd reach over to both their seat belts while memorizing the distance.  What if the plane skids in the water?  My mind recalls random video sequence of a plane ditching near a beach, it rolls, breaks up and almost everyone dies.  There were survivors but this was literally off a beach in daylight.  We were two hours away from land, it was pitch black and it was the cold Atlantic ocean.  Even if we were to survive the impact we were two hours away by plane from land, a helicopter and boat would take considerably longer.  "O.k, plane breaks at the tail, we have slightly more time before water comes in but we have to find a way to an opening very quickly."  This was followed by many more grim scenarios.  Mind speeding through everything.  It was driving me a bit crazy.  We were told to take off our shoes earlier.  I thought to myself, "if I take off my shoes I won't be able to use them to push off sharp metal, ect, if I need to I can always take them off later."  I thought, if my glasses are on my face and I hit the seat in front of my, I could loose my vision and I will not be able to help my family so I put them in the seat back in front of me.  I then thought, I might need them to find my family among other passenger's faces so I put them in my pocket.

SWOOSH, loud sound.  What the heck was that?  A Portuguese man calls for help, he had pulled his cord and the life vest had inflated.  He kept asking for help until someone helped him relieve the pressure.  "When the hell are we going into the water, I'm so tired of this, just get it over with, we're going to die, I get it," I thought after what felt like an eternity but were only a couple of mins.  I was tired of all the loud cries, I wished it was quiet, I wanted peace.  I had to be strong.  I couldn't change what was going to happen.  The only thing I could do was be strong for my family.  Try to ease their pain in our last few seconds alive.  I turned over to my sister who was still in shock, looked at the poor old guy across the row, I locked eyes with him and told him in Portuguese that we would be alright.  I hoped he believed me but it looked like he was about to have a heart attack.

Next I did the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.  "Look at me Belinda, look into my eyes, we're going to be alright," I told my lil sister, she knew were weren't going to be o.k.  "Hey! Look at me!  I said everything is going to be o.k.  Would I lie to you right now?  Would I?  No.  I swear to you I will not let anything happen to you guys.  We're going to be o.k."  I don't know how I did it but I tried so hard to make her believe me that I think she did.  She seemed to calm down a bit.  I was going to watch my lil sister die, I wanted to cry, I wanted to die.  I wanted to be human like everyone else on that plane but these were my last moments, our last moments, I had to make it count.  I wasn't going to change the world, I wasn't going to cure cancer but I had done something more important.  I felt like I had given my sister air, given her some peace, given her some clarity to do what she needed to do for herself in those last few moments.

"Come on, when's this going to be over I thought," every few seconds.  "Please just make this end right now God, make it quick, don't make me see and hear them suffer."  It was torture like no other.  I'm unable to explain it.  It's that car crash you see about to happen. You're going to crash into that tree, panic, gasp, split second, terrible feeling, crash, screams, pain.  The moment before you crash happens in a fraction of a second but feels like minutes.  Our seconds were turning into minutes, waiting for impact, you see it coming, but there is a lag, an eternity before impact.  On an airplane you can't look ahead to see exactly when it will happen you can just look out the side window.  I remember my mind going places that I thought were unimaginable.  At one point I thought to myself, if I had a gun with 4 bullets I would put my family and myself out of misery.  Just to end it without us all suffering what we knew was coming.  What a terrible thing to feel and think.  "Just get it over with.  I Can't deal with it.  Can't be strong for much longer, need to let this rage out of me," I thought.

Later on we found out that those white knuckle, torturous last few seconds which were filled with terrible thoughts waiting for impact stretched to fill an unbearable 32 minutes of misery.  I still can't explain how terrible it was waiting, expecting it to be any second now and that going on for 32 mins.  It felt like an eternity of waiting for a very bad thing to happen.  During these 32 minutes the plane never stopped shaking.  You could hear the plane cut through the air, no engine noise, muttering of prayers, crys, pleads.  The whole time.

CLUNK! Something falls, oxygen masks.  The cabin was not pressurized I guess.  The air was a bit thin and had a distinct smell.  My breathing has been fast, heavy, deep and hard ever since seeing the panicked flight attendant.  We put on the masks.  My mind has a flashback to the movie fight club.  "Oxygen," says Brad Pitt, "you know why they put oxygen masks on planes?" Pitt opens up the emergency leaflet and points out to Norton.  "Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you're taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate. It's all right here. Emergency water landing - 600 miles an hour. Blank faces, calm as Hindu cows."  The masks weren't calming me down, I took mine off, I was breathing too hard, it felt like there wasn't enough oxygen coming out.  I was hoping what Brad Pitt said was true so my sister would be calm like those Hindu cows.  I think it did calm her down.  It really was like a drug.

By this time the sun started to peek from the horizon and then I forced myself to look out the window.  I had to be brave.  I had to keep my eyes open.  I had been on roller coasters, terrified, closed my eyes, hoping it to be over then regretting having done so.  This was it, I could see us dipping towards the water, quickly.  The plane was going way too fast when looking at the water it was blurry from the speed and bumps.  "O.k, here it comes, shit, here it comes," teeth grinding.  I let out what I thought was my infamous last "F" bomb and kept my eyes open watching, ready, seatbelt pull, life jacket cord pull, ready...ready and then the captain pulled the airplane nose up..wait...I see land.  What? Euphoria? No, we're going too fast, mind quickly switches from crashing into the Atlantic to crashing into a mountain or worst into a village killing more people.  Images of burning plane, scortched flesh quickly go through my mind.  This is terrible.  We're going way too fast, the plane is shaking, pitching and rolling. Here we go, coming down quick again, shit, here it goes, oh shit, the wing tip is going to hit.  I see what seems like a runway, shit, wing is going to hit, it's going to hit, here it goes, if the wing tip hits the runway at this speed, we will go into a roll, oh no. "BRACE BRACE BRACE" someone calls out.  BOOOM it feels like the head of a hammer coming down on concrete, plane bouncesoff the runway and starts to go up again, split second again, CRASH, terrible sound, stomach going to throat then back to feet, scraping sounds, vibrations so intense that you can't see straight, blurry, screams, cries, you can feel something tearing beneath your feet, skidding, skidding, stop, please stop please STOP!
Creaking sound, burning smell, momentary pause of silence, confusion.  What is going on on??  We were two hours away from Lisbon?  We hear a flight attendant yell to get out.  Jet fuel + fire=explosion.  Go mode.  Mad panic, doors open, slides deploy. Mom, sis, seatbelt pull, grab them push them in front of everyone, "Run, go and don't stop, just keep going!" I screamed, hold back mob of people, grabbed dad's seatbelt, pull, "Go!"  I follow.  It was like the scene of a movie.  Unbelievable, surreal.  Firetrucks speeding towards us, men in space suits putting out fire with huge tubes spitting out foam.

I start running towards my parents savoring what I had begged for.  Euphoria, panic, anger, adrenaline pumping high.  Feeling of ground under my feet, both concrete and the fresh, cool, dew covered grass.  Bliss, happiest moment of my life.  Family was o.k.  Nothing else mattered.  People still running.  "Keep going guys!" I yelled.  I looked back at the airplane and saw a man on the ground, I didn't think, I just ran back towards the plane.  I could die now, it really didn't matter, I was so happy my family was alive with just a couple of scratches on them.  I ran to the man laying on the grass and spoke to him in Portuguese.  "Sir come on, the plane is on fire and is going to explode."  He didn't move.  "Come on, you have to run...are you o.k?  He was conscious, and I couldn't understand why he wouldn't get up and run.  He said, "I can't, I'm a paraplegic."  Someone had helped pushed him down the slide, and he had toppled down a few yards from the slide next to the grass.  "Where's my wife, I want my wife," he said in Portuguese.  "First we have to get you away from that plane then we'll find your wife," I said.  I tried picking him up and started pulling but realized I couldn't do it quickly enough so I yelled and called someone over to help me, hesitantly the gentleman ran over to help me and we moved him to safety.  I pulled a flight attendant over so she could help him find his wife.  I found myself carrying another woman that had hurt her knee coming off the slide.  My eyes scan the horizon one last time.  Everyone's clear, safe.  I ran back to my family and gave/got the best hug ever.  What the hell was I thinking running back to the plane?  I don't know.  I think I had so much anger/adrenaline pumping through my veins that I felt like I could have picked up the plane and thrown it into the ocean.  I started just hugging everyone, "we made it, we're here." We had no idea where here was, we had no idea what happened.  People were crying, happy and confused.  I still wanted to cry and puke but I physically wasn't able to.

A few hours later I saw the man on a stretcher in the airport, he called me over, he remembered me.  He wanted to thank me and told me he had found his wife and she thanked me as well.  Poor guy, he missed his wife and was powerless to do anything back there.  "We're all family here, no need to thank," I told them. 

We had everything we would ever need.  Days later we found out that there was no fuel on the plane, the burning smell was the landing gear that caught on fire.  The tires exploded on that first impact and the grinding was us tearing up the runway as we went down it.  That was one of our many lucky breaks that day.  Had that not happened we would have gone off the other end of the runway back into the ocean

It turned out that the whole ordeal from when we first realized we were in trouble (lost the first engine, dropped altitude and the 2nd engine was pushed to full throttle) to the time we first touched down was an unnerving 32 minutes!  32 minutes contemplating your end, waiting for it to come.  I can't explain how long that is in that type of situation. We glided for 19 minutes without ANY engine power.  19 minutes!  It's a record for the longest glider.  The plane touched down hard at 06:45am 1,030 feet down Runway 33 with about 200 knots (370 km/h). The aircraft bounced back into the air but touched down again 2,800 feet from the approach end of the runway and came to a stop 7,600 feet from the approach end of the 10,000 feet runway.  The plane speed at touch down was 370 km/h compared to 260 km/h and there were no brakes.  It was a dead stick landing, limited hydraulics (from a small wind turbine that was deployed).  We also found out that the flight recorder and black box stop recording after a specific number of minutes after the engines are shut down.  So even if they were able to pull it off the ocean floor, no one would know what actually happened.

Another extremely lucky break was that we had landed at the Lages airport on the island of Terceira.  It had an extra long runway (I think it was about 2 miles long) and is an emergency landing site for NASA. Seriously.  Also there is an American military base there at the airport.  When National Geographic put out the documentary I found out that as soon as we lost engine #1 the captain changed course and headed south towards the islands.  A military bus picked us up from the airport to take us to the army barracks and I was still very amped up.  I had finally gotten my camera and had asked him if he could stop so I could get some photos of the plane on the runway.  The driver was an American military person.  I asked him, "what the heck happened out there??"  He said, "I don't know, all I know is that we had search teams being sent out to recover bodies and that you guys are really lucky that didn't happen.  I don't know who was looking out for you but something/someone sure did.  You guys had every lucky break imaginable.  Without anyone of those breaks this would had a very different outcome.  Even the tailwind helped you guys out."  I looked back at the plane as it sat there unbelievably straight down the middle of the runway, snapped another shot and went to my seat.  Wow, how do you like them apples?

The biggest break of all was our amazing pilot.  Captain Robert Piche.  Our white knuckled, captain in shining armor with ice water in his veins!  Earlier on I was trying to walk off my nervous energy and found myself outside the terminal by the runway.  I wasn't suppose to be there but it didn't seem to matter, we seemed to be able to do whatever we wanted at that point.  I saw two men in what looked like pilot uniforms being briefed next to the runway by the military.  I walked over to them, looked at who I later on found out was Captain Piche, "excuse me, are you the captain?"  "Yes," he said in a French Canadian accent, "oh wow, thank you so much for saving my family's life.  You are a hero, you saved so many lives today, thank you!"  He shook my hand, looked at me, smiled and said, "I'm just doing my job."  Unbelievable. True hero.  I was humbled.  I knew what I went through and I could not imagine what he went through knowing exactly what was wrong and having to be responsible for 300+ plus lives.  Not one person died.  I can't believe no one had a heart attack!  Just 18 people with minor injuries.  Unbelievable.

We had torn up the runway so badly that the plan had dug itself in.  The airport would be closed for at least two days.  We were on an island.  We can live here forever, I don't care.  Then it hit me, "Ti Chico, we have to go see my uncle."  A commercial boat offered to take passengers to neighboring island that had an airport.  We could go or stay in the army barracks for a few days while they removed the plane and repaired the runway or get on the boat.  We took the boat over to the island of Sao Miguel.  I remember laying there wanting to puke.  Most of my fellow passengers were exhausted from what we had gone through and had fallen asleep to the rocking of the ship.  I went outside and layed on a bench, it was chilly.  My lil sis wasn't watching I wanted to finally cry but found that I physically couldn't.  It didn't matter, we were o.k.  When we got to Sao Miguel, we had to fly again!  Nightmare.  That's another story that we won't get into at this time.


4:38am-fuel started leaking
5:45am- diverted to Lages Air Base in Azores
5:48am- emergency declared
6:13am- engine no 2 flamed out 217 km from Lages Air Base, full thrust to engine #1 on left wing and plane descended 6,000 feet (this was scary and when when the passengers first found out something was very wrong).
6:23am- Mayday declared
6:26am- engine no 1 flamed out 120 km from Lages Air Base
6:45am- plane touched down hard on runway 33

Well that's it.  That's my story.  That's my little secret.  I ended up seeing my favorite uncle for what ended up being the last time and I saw everything else in my life for the first time.  My worst nightmare gave me the happiest moment of my life.  It truly was darkest before dawn.  It's an experience in which I learned things about myself.  I saw what I'm capable of when things got a little hairy.  I saw the good and bad in me.  I finally knew what was important.  I finally saw that every second was a tremendous gift.  When we made it back to Toronto I kissed the sidewalk in front of our house.  It was a dirty sidewalk but it felt so good.

If my family wasn't on the plane with me, I would go through it all again.  My life has never been the same and I wouldn't know the difference if I had not gone though all of that.

Life isn't about working towards something and hoping you'll be happy when you get there.  My lesson was that life is a path. Pick a destination and walk towards it enjoying every step of the way.  I can honestly say that I live my live to that doctrine.  That's why medical school went bye bye and now I'm doing what I love.  I take risks I never would have dreamed of taking, I don't say no as much even when my instinct says no.  I have been so lucky and fortunate to have a loving family.  I found the girl of my dreams and she married me.  I'm so lucky to have such a wonderful and loving wife that is so supportive in everything that I do.

If I die tomorrow I can say that I am at peace with myself and everything in my life.  I will no longer regret not having lived my life.  I've for the most part enjoyed all the extra 3285 days (give or take a couple).  I keep the life vest I wore as a reminder to not sweat the small things that don't matter when it's all said and done.

Happy birthday lil sis.  Turns out I didn't lie, that's why you believed me even if I didn't believe what I told you. We made it (f-bomb)-yeah!  Looks like we're not so easy to take down.  I'm finally able to cry.

Big bro

P.S. I found out yesterday that a movie was made on the incident and the life of Captain Piche (unfortunately it's in French).  I'm happy to hear he's doing much better now.  A few years back I had heard that he had turned to drinking and had a very tough time dealing with all that happened.  Again another long story.  Here's the trailer.  Enjoy.