Most travelers find themselves, at one point or another, amongst other travelers discussing near-death experiences. I’ve been pretty fortunate. I usually tell a story of a ‘rock climbing’ experience in Wyoming. I came out completely unharmed but it was one of those ‘oh my god I’m on the side of this rock and think I might fall to my death’ type of moments. It was not really a near death experience in the least. Even being robbed at gun point in Nairobi, I (stupidly) had no fear that they were actually going to shoot me, despite the fact that a foreigner and a security guard were shot on my street two weeks earlier.
But this time was different. I hope that I never have that feeling again, that I am truly in my final moments of living. After spending a hot afternoon helping friends in Kigali at a crafts expo, I lugged all of my bags to the airport. It had been a very trying five months in East Africa. Despite a lot of progress on my business and many good times, there were plenty of difficult moments that had tested me mentally, physically, and emotionally. Friends already joked about my string of bad luck. I actually thought that having to check three bags that were all overweight at the Kigali airport to be a challenge and just another way to top off my struggles. Luckily the staff at the airport were patient with me and only gave me a hard time about the weight of my carry-on. I juggled a few items around and felt a huge sense of relief wash over me once my bags were checked. I intended to make several phone calls from the airport but by the time my check-in stuff was sorted, it was time to go through security at the gate and board. I made a super quick phone call to my mom, who had no idea I was about to board a plane. She thought I was leaving the following day, but I wanted to surprise her on Mother’s Day so I quickly told her that I was wrapping up meetings in Kigali and couldn’t chat.
On Saturday night, just after 9pm, we took off on a Brussels Airlines flight bound for Brussels, with a short stop in Entebbe, Uganda to drop off and pick up passengers. It was only an hour flight before we landed in Entebbe. Though it was a completely full-flight, as my ‘good luck’ would have it (yes I really continue to assume that my luck is changing!), the person sitting next to me didn’t show up. Apparently the seat had been booked through to Brussels, so even in Entebbe, my neighboring seat remained empty. I moved from my aisle seat to the window, seated just over the front of the right wing. After our quick stop, we were back up in the air and off to Brussels. I was on my way home and feeling quite tired, I figured I would sleep. However, trying to adjust to the time change at home, I tried really hard to stay awake for a little longer. Even with all of the movie choices and new releases that I had never seen on the video screen in front of me, I chose to watch Ever After, a movie that encompasses the happily ever after we all long for… the kind of movie that’s not too heavy and leaves you with a happy heart at the conclusion. However, I never made it to my happily ever after ending. Less than an hour after we took off from Entebbe, there was a huge thud/bang noise and the ride side of the plane dipped. I bolted straight up. I looked out the window and looked around to fellow passengers. A few others were looking around, but for the most part, people seemed unalarmed. Half were already asleep. I felt the plane descending at a faster rate than it would for landing. I smelled smoke. I saw the crew members bolt down the aisle immediately to the back of the plane. I felt pure and utter panic. But the plane was quiet. Utterly quiet. I tried to tell myself that the smell of smoke wasn’t really smoke but instead the leftover smell of the anti-mosquito spray that they spray on planes before they take off in Africa. But the crew members had bolted and the plane was unsteady. We were descending. The lights flickered and the TVs cut off. Another crew member brisquely walked by with a handbook in hand. Another was furiously rummaging through a closet. Even though my fellow passengers were murmuring, no one was screaming. I started to panic. I was waiting for the oxygen masks to drop. My whole body was shaking. My legs were shaking so badly that I tried to brace them up against the seat in front of my because I couldn’t make them stop.
I had an internal protest with myself. I proclaimed that I wasn’t ready to die. I thought, ‘Oh dear God, if there is a God, this is not my time. It’s not my time!’ Those thoughts were followed by thoughts that it never really is anyone’s time to die when it is unexpected. I thought of 9-11 and the Boston Marathon bombings and realized that yep, this might really be happening. I wondered if I regretted trying to surprise my mom. Maybe I should have had a longer phone conversation before I hopped on a plane. And then I rationalized that I didn’t want to die in sheer terror. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and told myself that I tried to make the most of life and that I needed to be at peace. And after my rapid succession of thoughts, I felt the plane steady. I didn’t feel like we were descending any longer. I opened my eyes. Still panicked and shaking, I at least thought that there was a chance we were not about to crash.
I looked around again. A woman in my row was crying. Another guy had his head in his hands. I wasn’t going crazy- there really were problems with the plane and others knew it. In times of panic, I can’t really calculate time accurately. But from the time of the thud until the pilot made an announcement was 15-20 minutes by my estimation. Though I think they should have said something sooner, the reality is I don’t think they knew if we were going to be ok… if we were going to make it back to Entebbe. The TV monitors came back on and showed the flight pattern. We had made a U-turn and were already halfway back to Entebbe. It was then that I breathed a huge sigh of relief. If we were headed back to Entebbe, that meant we were going to be okay. The pilot then came on to tell us that we had experienced engine failure and were going back to Entebbe. There was small chatter but overall, still silent on the plane. Once we touched down on the runway, everyone was clapping. When we came to a complete stop, there was more cheering and clapping. I couldn’t move. I literally just kept staring out the window trying to process what had happened. The crying woman’s friend leaned over to ask if I was okay. I told her that yes, I was fine. But what was really running through my head was a long list of unfortunate events from the past six months. I didn’t feel sorry for myself but it was more like, ‘Oh my god, this is so ridiculous. I can’t make this stuff up.’ I was bummed that I would not be able to surprise my mom for Mother’s Day but just really, really thankful that we were all okay.
While the airlines needed time to sort out hotels for everyone, we stayed on the plane and the flight attendants served a snack. There was plenty of chatter by this time. The foursome together in my row next to me had plenty to say. From the crying woman who relived her own “I’m going to die” experience, to the comedian in the group who said, “I was just waiting for them to yell ‘Brace, brace!’ But really the brace position doesn’t seem safe at all. I think they have you tuck your head, because it’s the fastest way to die if the plane goes down. Probably snaps your neck.” I laughed. Despite being so f*cking scared that I would never see another day, I laughed at the jokester.
When we finally departed from the aircraft, everyone profusely thanked the pilots, myself included. We got our luggage, and after a very long evening, arrived at a beach resort at 4am. I was wide awake from the events, so I took a nice hot bubble bath, alerted my family that I would not be coming home, and crashed in my cozy king sized bed.
While Brussels Airlines handled the evening as best as they could, the next day was a disaster. Long story short- they only had one person sorting out our travel arrangements and some of the systems they put in place for us had failed. I waited in line for three hours only to find out that I was on a flight that had been posted hours earlier… only my name was not on the list. And I was supposed to have been downstairs at the hotel already to take the shuttle back to the airport. Oh yeah, and they put me on a 15-hour flight that they knew would get in late, which put a lot of people in the position of missing their next flights, myself included.
Regardless, I am so happy to be home safe and sound! We are very fortunate. I have been told that engine failure on takeoff or ascent would have meant the pilot would likely have not been able to rebalance the plane. The people just a few rows behind me also witnessed flames that shot from the engine. I am sooo glad I was sitting over the wing where I could not see those or I might have really panicked then. In a stroke of misfortune, my next flight to DC had the worst turbulence I have ever experienced and we landed on the runway with passengers gripping their seats as the plane zig-zagged upon touching down. I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that I am thrilled that I will not be flying again for at least the next few months!
Do you have an “I thought I was going to die” story as well?