Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Plane Crash in Lukla

We took the third flight out of Kathmandu, bound to Lukla, on the morning of Oct 8. I knew something was a tad haywire when, after 30 minutes or so, the plane began circling around some cloud-obscured location below. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves on the rarely-used landing strip at Lamidanda.

In Nepal, information passes through several filters before it reaches a foreigner's ear. First, it was confirmed that visibility was poor in Lukla. After awhile, word spread that an accident had occured. Was anyone hurt? The pilot is alive. What about other people? The pilot survived. I guess that's the Nepali way of saying, "everyone else died".

It turns out that [the doomed] flight no. 4 was about 2 minutes behind us. If the gossip on the ground is to be believed, our pilot warned the tailing pilot not to attempt a landing. The pilot of the ill-fated craft is quoted in Nepali papers as blaming Kathmandu-Lukla communications on the disaster, and Yeti Airlines officially claims that the airport was "suddenly" cloaked in fog, but the word at Lamidanda was simply that this guy, Surendra Kunwar, decided to play daredevil. He survived, apparently, because he was thrown through the cockpit windshield onto the runway, while everyone else had to endure the airplane flipping and then falling back 50 meters down the hillside.

In my life, I've met not one, but two sole survivors of bus accidents in India. Anyone who has spent anytime in this part of the world can regale you with tales of whisky-sotted bus drivers who, at 100 kilometers/hour, play "chicken" with the oncoming traffic on narrow mountain roads. Point is: the "daredevil" theory is not particularly far-fetched.

After a couple hours, we flew back to Kathmandu. I had encouraged my guide Nima to consider the possibility of trekking from Lamidanda to Lukla. It would take about five extra days, but being an American, I feared an FAA-style investigation that would shut the airport/airline down indefinitely. Not to worry...it turns out that a few October 8 flights landed after the crash.

I'm always the last guy to propose a "moment of silence", but the blase reaction of the Lamidanda passengers surprised me. Perhaps we just had trouble believing any Nepali -> foreigner information that came our way. Maybe the news was just too much to integrate into our morning at the pleasant, grassy landing strip, where locals showed up to offer tea. It wasn't "shock". Far from it. Nobody sensed a disturbance in the force as those 18 lives got snuffed out.

Back in Kathmandu, I was told that someone was looking out for me. I resisted the impulse to ask where this "someone" was with regard to the passengers on flight 103. If I was spared, were the others punished? Not the time for a lecture on the shortcomings of theism. One friend e-mailed me with another sentiment: the devil wasn't quite ready to accept me into hell. That view might be .0000001% more accurate than the former.

Nima's family had already gone into mourning when we returned to Kathmandu. Somehow, they were convinced that he had taken the doomed flight.

Despite my cynicism when the events of the day got mixed up in supernaturalism, there was still some sense of amazement at my continued existence, and it's interesting to consider all the little circumstances that led up to me NOT being on Flight 103. For example, I hate the chaos at the domestic terminal in Kathmandu, so I insisted on arriving at the airport as fast as possible that morning. We were there at 5:00 AM, before the airport doors even opened. What little behind-the-scenes bureaucratic adjustments might have spared our lives? Why had the passengers chosen Yeti Airlines, and not another? (for my own part, I refuse to fly Sita Air, another carrier, because they wouldn't accept responsibility for lost baggage on a previous excursion to Lukla).

Of course, it's not a done deal that everyone would have died had I been on Flight 103. Consider the following scenario: I hop on the flight. 10 kilometers from Lukla, I cough loudly, causing the pilot to reflect on his sick daughter back in Kathmandu. A conservative, family-oriented, risk-averse state of consciousness ensues, and the pilot returns to Kathmandu.

It's also eerie to consider that we had, most likely, smiled and interacted with the doomed parties. Undoubtedly, they were thrilled in anticipation of their upcoming Himalayan adventures. That's how everyone feels when they hop into that "Twin Otter"...chances are high that some amazing experiences are just around the corner, but you're not really sure when/where/how they'll manifest. At Lukla, the landing arrives suddenly...in that mountainous environment, where the plane must be flying upwards at an 11 degree angle upon touch down, you don't have the usual indications that you're about to land...so the ill-fated passengers probably carried those happy feelings until their last seconds.

When we finally made it to Lukla on October 10 (the weather was bad on October 9), I walked down to the crash scene to take some video. As "luck" would have it, I bumped into my former super-porter on the way. I dragged him back up to the main strip of Lukla and asked Nima to consider him as a porter for our upcoming jaunt up Mera Peak. That was fine with Nima, and it turned out to be a great decision. Anyway, Mr. Super-Porter related that he heard a boom, visited the crash site, and was greeted with the sight of bodies with burnt-off faces, and some strange, unpleasant odors. That's pretty much the story you'll hear from all the denizens of Lukla.


Kenny Olembo said...

I came across this story a few minutes ago and it touched me deeply.

I hope you are alive and well.

There is God right where you are.wh

Stephanie Powell said...

Hi, My name is Steph, I work for a TV production company in London. We are currently making a program about the airstrip in Lukla and would like to use some of your footage from the aftermath of the 2008 crash. I was hoping you could please get in touch with me asap? I'm on spowell@blastfilms.co.uk - many thanks, Steph Powell