My blood chilled when I heard the Captain’s alert call over the public address system.
I was sitting on my jumpseat, dreading what was to come.
The Captain had called me earlier into the cockpit and told me they were having problems with the engines. We had lost all three generators earlier, and with a good distance to go to our destination, we were down to the back up batteries which gave us a maximum of thirty minutes to land or we may be forced to make an emergency landing on water.
Too many things were going through my mind as I repeated the Captain’s words to him. I struggled to wrap my head around the possibility that this was it.
In the cabin, I relayed the information from the Captain and his instructions to Ladun and Kaka, my cabin crew on the flight.
Ladun looked like she was going to be sick all over me; she had turned a pasty colour.
I had to repeat myself twice for Kaka, and even then, he just stood there and looked at me, a wild look creeping into his eyes. They both mirrored how I felt.
When the Captain came over the PA to inform passengers of the situation and advise them on what his intentions were, I had gone past the denial stage and was beginning to accept the reality of the situation.
The confusion was in stages. First there were murmurs, then the call buttons were chiming throughout the cabin.
Mercifully, it was not a full flight, but the passengers had been spread throughout the cabin so that any chance to explain to them one on one and answer their questions was out the window.
Taking a deep breath, I picked up the microphone and read out the announcement contained in my emergency procedures book. I tried to sound more confident than I felt, and even made the effort to make eye contact with some of the business class passengers. Their panic was clear in their eyes, and I had to swallow and take another breath to quell my rising panic; we were on the clock with a ton of things to do to prepare the cabin before impact.
Impact. I had to start thinking in those terms. That was the only way I would be able to focus on the situation over my fears.
Nobody wanted to sit at the emergency exits by the wings, and I understood their concerns. The responsibilities that came with sitting by those exits became real, but we needed them manned. After a second appeal, two men finally volunteered to sit by the exits.
We demonstrated the use of the seatbelts, the brace positions to help reduce injury at impact, we showed again the exits and the markings leading up to them. We also got the passengers to put on their life jackets, stressing the importance of waiting till they were outside the aircraft before inflating them. Then my crew and I secured the cabin as best we could.
Someone led a prayer session and, although my ‘amens’ were silent, they were heartfelt.
Finally, I had to do something I never hoped I would have to do. I had to instruct the closest passengers to me on how my door worked and what to do, in the event that I did not make it past impact.
“It is not your portion,” one told me.
I ignored him. This crash landing was not my portion when I woke up that morning; now it was.
I took my seat, fastened my harness tight around my lower abdomen, called the Captain to tell him the cabin was secure, and then assumed the brace position: I tucked my hands in the space between my thighs and the seat, pressed the back of my head against the headrest, and went through my actions from then on.
I did not make eye contact with any other passenger then, I could not.
“Brace! Brace!” The Captain shouted over the PA, and as one man, my crew and I shouted out.
“Head down, feet back!” My voiced quavered the first time, but got stronger as we continued to shout the command.
Is this how I die?
Will I feel any pain?
What will impact feel like?
Will the aircraft hold steady? Or will it break apart?
Will water flood the aircraft quickly? Or will we stay afloat long enough to evacuate?
I know they said to keep my mind on procedure, but I doubt my instructors would be able to do different if this was them here.
Will I see my family again? My son? Mama?
What would people say about me if I did not make it.
Wait o, is there even insurance for me? Will my family get anything?
That thought sprang from nowhere into my head, and like a demon spawn, started to grow at a rate so alarming, it was all that filled my head.
The thump as we hit the water knocked the air from me and snapped me out of it, and then everything happened in slow motion.
I felt tension as my body strained against my harness. My feet gave way beneath me and my arms flailed all over the place.
Wait for the aircraft to come to a stop. Wait for it. Wait for it.
I could hear my Instructors saying in my head. But the aircraft did not seem like it was going to stop.
The hatracks had popped open the first time we hit the water, and when the plane hit a second and third time, bags and emergency equipment came tumbling out and onto passengers’ exposed backs. A bag or two zipped right past me and thumbed into the cockpit door. I saw them whizz past, and heard the muted thuds. There was screaming and praying, but everything came to me as if from a long way away.
Someone tried to get out of his seat and went instantly over. I heard some hissing and looked in the direction of the sound to see someone had inflated his life jacket.
“No!” I screamed, but it was too late. I looked on in horror as a few more life jackets were inflated.
After what seemed like an eternity, I felt the tension reduce around my chest and abdomen. We were slowing down!
A moment later I was out of my seat screaming ‘evacuate! Evacuate!’ Like a mad man. I was not sure the PA still worked, and time was of the essence so I could not waste precious seconds to find out that it did not work anymore.
I looked out of the viewing window on my door and saw that my door was a few good inches above the water line.
I cranked the handle in the direction of the arrow, pushed the door outward until I felt it lock against the fuselage of the aircraft, and although my slide was already inflating, I bent down to pull the red manual inflation handle. All the time screaming “stand back, slide inflating!”
If I had not been holding onto the assist handle, those may have been my last words as someone ran into my back and went over into the water in a splash.
“Stand BACK!” I shouted louder, and that seemed to give the others pause. It was all the time I needed to get out of the way and squeeze myself into the space by my jumpseat.
“Get out! Inflate life jacket!” I shouted at the passengers who had converged by the open door.
They had completely blocked off the forward entrance area and the aisle so that it was impossible for me to make it across to the other door and open it.
“Use all exits with their sill above the water level,” the Captain had instructed me, but neither of us gave thought to how I would be able to achieve that.
I tried to look over the seats on the left side of the aircraft to my crew down the back, but people were still jammed in the seats so I could not tell if any other door was getting used. Then there was a break and I saw the man by the left overwing exit had managed to get it open and people were going out via the exit. It was slow going though, but I felt some relief knowing there was more than one useable exit.
Soon passenger flow became steady enough for me to slide across and open the door on the right.
In my hurry, I forgot to check the water level, and as soon as I pushed the door open – it took a lot more effort to get it open – water sloshed onto the aircraft.
I heard a woman scream.
“We are going to drown!”
I did not need that, but I could not shout her down. With the slide already inflating, I could not shut the door again, but we were taking on water and this meant we did not have as much time anymore as we earlier did.
“Get out! Get out! Go! Go!” I shouted. “Come this way!” We could not possibly get any wetter going out that exit as well.
Finally I was able to see all the way to the back. Ladun was running up the aisle to check on me.
“How is Kaka?” I asked her, grabbing what safety equipment there were around me.
“Any passengers still on board?”
“No, they all got out. How about the flight deck?”
Oh my God! I had forgotten about them.
“You and Kaka get off this aircraft this instant. I will check on the flight deck crew.” The water was already rising above my knees. I waded to the cockpit door and banged on it.
“Captain are you there? Are you alright?”
“Yes we are,” came a voice to my left.
With that confirmation, I jumped into the swimming pool to join my crew and ‘passengers’.
We still had a few drills to do in the water which included demonstrating the huddle position, the HELP position, getting on the life raft, rescuing incapacitated passengers, survival duty delegation and debriefing before we got out of the pool for the next set to carry out their evacuation drills, but it did not matter.
This part was always the hardest part, and my crew had aced it even if I say so myself. We were free for another year.
My smile was wide as I swam to join my team where they waited in the middle of the pool for the huddle demonstration.
PS: My job is one of very few jobs where you do not pray to use the training you get. They say no two emergency situations present the same, but none is better than the other either.
Even with this knowledge, I still love my job, and would not give it up for the world. At least, not just yet.