A Non-Eyewitness Account of a Plane Crash

SFO Crash“Being there” doesn’t help you to decipher an event. If anything, quite the contrary. I just slept through a plane crash. And, waking up, I probably have a much less clear view of what has happened (and what is happening) than someone halfway around the world with a decent Internet connection.

I’m flying from Vancouver to Madrid by a rather circuitous route (via San Francisco and Frankfurt). My plane left Vancouver at 6am, which meant a 4am taxi from my house. As last night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and I didn’t start packing until around 2am, I’d hardly had much sleep. No problem: all the easier to sleep on the plane.

So I dozed for most of the flight to California. And then, on arrival with six hours to kill in SFO, I settled into a chair in the terminal to sleep some more. A little later, I woke briefly to overhear two airport employees striding rapidly nearby, one asking the other if he’d heard about the crash. I took little notice and closed my eyes again.

A while later, I woke up, gathered my things and headed to grab a sandwich and find my gate. Once there, I was sitting by a power outlet and plugging in my computer when another passenger nearby asked me if I’d heard about the crash. I looked at him (still) a little groggily and he went on to say that it hadn’t been announced here at the airport, but it was on the news already. The wi-fi was unreliable where I was, so I found a seat elsewhere in the terminal and went online.

Now, a few hours later, I’m getting a sense of what’s going on. On the Internet, I’m told that an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777, coming in from Seoul, crashed on arrival, catching fire and losing its tail. Amazingly enough, the news reports suggest no fatalities. Which is all the more extraordinary as the pictures on the websites suggest one rather broken plane.

Inside the terminal, we see and hear very little of this. There’s only one television in the vicinity, and while it’s drawn quite a crowd, most people are sitting at their gates, lining up at the bars and restaurants, and/or drifting aimlessly around. Aimless because nobody has a flight to catch, as the airport is shut down, with no aircraft movements in or out. (I’m told that my own plane was diverted to Oakland.) There are periodic announcements on the public address system. Our next update is in fifteen minutes.

SFO International Terminal

For several hours, the announcements were very vague indeed. They told us of an incident, and apologized for the inconvenience. It was a while before the word “crash” was used, and it was used only once. We’ve been informed that the first-class lounge is closed, because of the “viewing possibilities” that it offered. For otherwise, from the terminal itself nothing can be seen. Supposedly the accident led to a plume of smoke, but it’s hard to distinguish where that might be given the low cloud that has been hovering on the hills surrounding much of the airport.

There’s no panic, little conversation, not even much in the way of increased cellphone traffic that one would expect to tell friends and relatives that flights have been cancelled, connections missed, delays inevitable. There are occasional groups of airport or airline workers with security badges murmuring into walkie talkies.

A voice on the PA has admitted that “many of you will be learning more from CNN than we know ourselves.”

For a while, the only, almost subliminal, indication of something out of the ordinary seemed to be the constant sound of an alarm, never answered, somewhere nearby. It was a minor irritation more than anything else, like a car alarm going off unattended on a neighbouring street. Eventually I realized that it was merely the warning marking the approaching end of the moving walkway. Now even that sound has been turned off.

In the meantime, we wait, and try to get information over a frustratingly patchy wi-fi connection. All United wide-body flights have just been cancelled. I hear that there are refreshments available by Gate 95. Here in the terminal at least, that’s the main event right now.

Update: The BBC is now reporting that at least one person died.

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4 thoughts on “A Non-Eyewitness Account of a Plane Crash

  1. Two, now. Both teenaged girls from china. Sounds like there were many young people on board, headed to summer camp in the US. A terrible tragedy and amazing that there weren’t more fatalities. Safe travels, Jon!

  2. Send you a hug while waiting. Maybe next time take Auyero’s “Patients of the State” to read, though in this case would be something like “Patients of the Unknown.” The no-place becomes the no-time. Excellent ethnographic description. When are you gonna teach ethnography Jon?

  3. Sorry, I didn’t say anything about those who died. I actually have no clue about this event…I am now reading it at The Guardian.

  4. Very interesting. I was to fly out of SFO that day but had not set out for airport yet when I heard of the crash. Called airline to see if my flight were cancelled, got no info, fortunately (and unusually) had booked through an agency which contacted me and knew my flight would be cancelled. So I did not end up being stuck inside airport thank God.

    Your account reminds me of being in Hurricane Katrina. It was very difficult to find out what was going on. People watching tv far away knew more, so one would get information by doing things like calling tv watchers elsewhere, or people with reliable phone / internet elsewhere who could use these devices to research our situation for us.

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