Side view of damage to Qantas A380

View of damage to left wing

If you had been on the Airbus A380 that blew an engine near Singapore and returned for an emergency landing on 4 November 2010, what would you have done at the time? What would have gone through your head ? Would it have caused you to seriously re-evaluate yourself and your life as you prayed for a safe landing?

Everyone thought it would be just another flight – but it wasn’t.

Apparently there were loud bangs and flames even appeared on the left wing. The inner engine on the port side lost some of its cowling, pieces of which dropped out of the sky on to the Indonesian island of Batam, not far from Singapore, and others tore a hole in the upper surface of the left wing. Professional and experienced piloting seems to have been a crucial factor in the survival of all on board.

In South Africa we say “eish,” pronounced “ay-ay-sh,” to denote something seriously unpleasant, a big problem. No question. Eish.

Considering the daily proof that people die completely unexpectedly, utterly unaware when they leave home in the morning that they will never come back again, it’s really surprising that we are so careless about meeting our last moments and thoughtless about preparations that should be in place.

We seem to wait until it comes up and slaps us in the face. Confronted with this desperate reality, I’m sure some people in the Airbus responded with last-minute soul searching. Perhaps they hastily reviewed how their life had been up to that moment, wondered whether they had accomplished anything that they felt was worthwhile and felt an anguished need to express last words to their loved ones.

The possibility of catastrophic loss dramatically illuminates how precious some of our relationships are and shows up so many of our previously-valued possessions as simply meaningless. I’m quite sure that many passengers on the A380 prayed for life and vowed that, if they got home safely, they would do things differently; and, amongst these, that they would improve and re-inspire relationships that had become stale or under-valued.

On August 5, 2010, thirty-three miners at the San Jose Mine near Copiapo in Chile were trapped 700m underground. They left home in the morning for what they thought would be just another day at work – but it wasn’t.

For seventeen horrific days they were in total isolation and no one knew if they were still alive. Imagine – seventeen days, each of twenty-four long hours, waiting and hoping and praying, but with increasing despair and growing dread of dying in the lonely darkness of the mine. For that agonising period, all they had to eat each day was a tiny portion of tinned tuna or salmon.

“We were waiting for death,” said miner Richard Villarroel Godoy.`

Edison Pena Villarroel said, “The confinement was terrible. The first 17 days were a nightmare.”

Franklin Lobos Ramirez, a former professional soccer player said, “This was the toughest match of my life.”

And then the miracle, the blessing, the inexpressible joy of being discovered.

In the darkness, did they sink into deep reviews and evaluations; did they experience any overwhelming realisations?

Yes, they did. When he finally came to the top, Omar Reygada Rojas exclaimed, “I’m a new man and I think I’ve been born again.”

Estaban Rojas Carrizo also knelt and prayed as he got out of the “Phoenix,” the narrow capsule that lifted them back to life and the living.  Forty-four years old, he had promised that, if he got out alive, he would formally marry his partner of many years.

Could they have attended in previous days, weeks, months and years to the loose ends, unresolved conflicts and unspoken words of love and appreciation which haunted their minds and hearts deep under the earth?  Of course.

Some weeks ago a much-loved friend who lives far away and whom I have not seen for 10 years came to visit her son a couple of hours’ drive from my home. I grabbed the opportunity to see her. Half-way there, unfamiliar with the road, I pulled over to stop and consider if I had just taken a wrong turn. I decided that I indeed should have continued straight ahead instead of turning left. As I began a U-turn, a high-speed car swerved around me, flashing past from an awkward angle which I had not checked. If I had started half a second earlier the other driver would not have been able to avoid the collision. There is no question that I would have been killed outright.

I missed death by half a second. That’s very profound for me.

So, yes, I’ve gone through the same reviews and reflections. I’m taking more time to smell the roses (literally!); to enjoy the soap opera of breeding, new babies and their development happening amongst the bird population in my garden; I’ve revised my will; I want to keep closer to my children than I have done. But nothing stopped me doing all these last month, last year.

I have a couple of studio flats on my property. Two weeks ago my housekeeper drew my attention to a strange sound coming from one of them. I went in and found the young lady, a mere 25 years old, unconscious on the floor. I called the ambulance. I looked on her lease agreement for the name and contact name of next of kin, but she had not filled it in. I contacted some of her friends by randomly phoning some names in the Recently Dialled box of her mobile phone.

Two weeks later she is still unconscious. It doesn’t seem to have been alcohol or drugs. At the moment they don’t know what is causing her to be no more than slightly responsive to sound and touch; to keep her eyes closed most of the time, lying silently with a transparent intravenous feed into her vein.

Apparently her mother is dead; they say her father is a down-and-out, but she seems to have responsible and caring friends, none of whom was listed as a contact in case of emergency. It was several days before we tracked down her doctor.

When she went to bed that Sunday, it was just another night. Except that it wasn’t.

So here are some lessons that these stories bring home to me:

  1. Don’t go to bed or to work with angry, violent or scornful words unresolved.
  2. Don’t take your life or your relationships for granted.
  3. Think carefully about what you would want people to know if you suddenly died and were not around to inform them.
  4. Tell the people you love that you love them.
  5. Tell the people you appreciate that you appreciate them.
  6. Put ICE numbers on your mobile (In Case of Emergency) and tell those people they are your ICE contacts.
  7. Make sure your will is in order – even if you are only 25 years old.
  8. Have a spiritual beacon which guides your ambitions and behaviour.
  9. Have a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in your life which transcends the accumulation of possessions.

Because – absolutely definitely – tomorrow is promised to no man.

If you were on that A380, or had a similar brush with death elsewhere, and you would like to respond to the above thoughts, you are very welcome to do so.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for your posting. I thought it was interesting, well written and insightful.
    I am currently in waterlogged SE Queensland where I live alone since my wife of 27 years passed last year. To put things into perspective, by the end of this week and considering the predicted weather forecast, my home will have received 2 metres of rain since Dec 1, (approx 6 weeks)

    I was out in the garden early yesterday morning digging trenches to divert water away from my front door, and I slipped and fell heavily, most of the weight falling on my left elbow and arm. (Thank you to my Aikido teacher all those years ago!) Feeling a bit shocked but generally not too bad I picked up the mattock to continue which I did until it became impossible to ignore that the sheeting rain running down my arm was forming a red puddle at my feet.

    Stripping off my soaked clothes and wincing now with pain, I proceeded inside to examine what turned out to be a gaping gash, 40mm long and apparently about 10mm deep and gushing, actually resembling a bleeding mouth.

    The thoughts that went through my head were, in this order :
    -(looking at the water cascading down my front steps, now about 30mm deep roaring like a waterfall and lapping the front door) – ‘Perhaps if I just wrapped it quickly, I could get out and finish the trench.’ Discarded I am pleased to say, but reluctantly so.
    – I recalled that my neighbour is a nurse – I searched the cell phone directory to no avail, remembering then that I had not rebuilt the addresses since my last phone (with no back up) tumbled to a watery grave some months ago. Thought about it often but never did it.
    – My other neighbours? Same story. What are their surnames again to check phone book? Can’t think.
    – Shall I walk the 200m through pouring rain and wake them up (it’s 6.30am on a Sunday) – Do they deserve me handing this over to them? Can’t think.
    – Shit, this really hurts. I need to go to hospital.

    To cut a long story short, I dressed as best I could, poured half a bottle of Tea tree oil into the wound, (expletive deleted), wrapped it in a dish towel, and drove mostly one handed to the hospital some 10 kms away, fording several swollen creeks on the way. The triage was suitably impressed so I was treated quickly. The numerous bits of gravel and leaf litter which were displayed to me that came from the wound assured me I’d made the right decision, and the tetanus shot was painfully reassuring too.

    So, what does this all mean?

    I hold the view that the events in our lives reflect back to us who we are, and are opportunities to grow. Those significant events in our lives, some of them potentally life defining, are wake up calls for us to confront the message. The message is at all times only for us alone. I can recall a number of times during which I have given consideration to how I could deal with a similar situation to the one I have just experienced, the procedure I would put in place, the numbers I would keep handy, the medical kit that could be useful……………etc. Nothing ever actioned though. Similarly, I would bet money on the fact that those in the A380 who have reached a point of analysis, and commitment to a new path or changed practise, as a consequence of their experience, would acknowledge that the stimuli for those changes started in small ways long before. This is the value of tools that raise our awareness to see and hear the messages, long before the need to have a life defining moment!
    For the moment, these are some of my reflections on this event, and there may well be more. A close friend says “Never grow up and never put your affairs in order” as these are guaranteed to shorten your life! I confess to an affinity with this view, at least in spirit, but either way, the pain is mostly mine!

    Good luck with your work.
    Campbell

  2. Nowadays people are facing lots of likely choices and decisions that our heads might spin! This content made at least one option significantly less doubtful. Kudos!

  3. I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  4. Very good and interesting post. I think that most of us vow to change over a new leaf and to change our way of life, after suffering a similar episode to those mentioned in the text, however, often we need to go through one or two more to really get to grips with actually working the change….. it takes work, effort and perseverance to change our ways and atitudes. Especially if we don’t have the support of those around us. But it can be done……..

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