On December 21, 1988, the day terrorists blew up Flight 103, I’d been a Pan Am flight attendant for 22 years, eight months and 19 days. In all that time nothing awful had happened to me on an airplane. Until Lockerbie, it never even occurred to me to feel lucky. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know people who weren’t as lucky. I had friends who’d been to Cuba at the end of a gun; some more than once. Other friends were on a flight to Los Angeles when an engine cowling blew off over Albuquerque, sliced open the fuselage causing an explosive decompression that sucked the air out of their lungs and one of their passengers out the gaping hole. Another friend was on the aircraft that landed in Escambia Bay. I knew the flight engineer on Lockerbie as a nice man I’d flown with and waved to when we passed in terminals. It wasn’t a complacent lack of knowing something bad could happen—it just hadn’t. Not to me.
To this day, everything going right in my life makes me nervous. I drive slower, cut back on the use of obscene gestures, and chew my food more slowly. Two months before Lockerbie, I had been accepted into a master’s program complete with a teaching assistantship. This was timed perfectly with the airline’s campaign to rid itself of its high-cost older employees. I had signed up and been awarded a retirement date of May 31, 1989. One of the pursers who died on Flight 103 was a month from retiring. When I read that, I realized how lucky I’d been, and became, quite suddenly, and for the first time, afraid to fly.
Even with a series of leave of absences and calling in sick, I found it impossible not to work at all during those last five months. When I had to go, I bid to fly to the few places I wanted to see one more time: Guatemala for love of the children who called me the camisa-lady because I always brought them T-shirts; Los Angeles to hike a canyon where the year before I’d found a hummingbird on her nest; Santiago, Chile for wine and to cross the Andes; Buenos Aires for garlic chicken, and Bermuda, because it was peaceful and beautiful, and a place I would probably never be able to visit again at my own expense.
The flight to Bermuda left from JFK in the early evening of April 1 and was the last leg of a day spent bouncing in and out of airports. On this portion we served our fourth cheese and mystery-meat snack of the day.
The flight was full of rowdy vacationers and Bermuda residents returning from shopping in New York. The crowd was normal, except for the drunks in the last row who stole dozens of liquor bottles from the kits in the side gallery directly across from their seats, and the couple in 19 A and B. He was elderly, tall and handsome, with a lilting English accent. His wife was large and uncomfortably wedged into the center seat between her husband and the man on the aisle. I was “running” the snacks, and the other flight attendant was on the bar cart. When I got to them, he told me he’d ordered prime rib. Did we have it, he asked? My arms were full of blue plastic boxes, stacked to my chin. “Medium or rare,” I asked. “Rare,” he said. I pulled out the third box down in the stack, and handed it to him. He angled it to reduce the glare off the lid, nodded then smiled up at me. “And the watermelon?”
“On the fruit and cheese cart.” I jerked my head toward the slow-moving beverage cart about a mile behind me. “With the brandy and the port.”
That little exchange humanized us, and we smiled at each other.
An hour later, when the flight finally touched down, we were bone-tired but smirking to ourselves over the welcome Bermuda Customs had arranged for our liquor bottle thieves. As usual, when the roar of reversed engines died, everyone stood and began unloading their shopping bags and luggage from the overhead compartments. I unbuckled and started to get up and try to get them back in their seats, but decided I was too tired. I remember thinking: screw it, two months from today I will no longer be required to care if they land standing on their heads. I decided to practice not caring. I made a cursory plea over the PA for them to sit down, put my head back against the headrest, and closed my eyes.
There was a shout, “Someone’s fallen!”
“Help her!” a woman screamed.
On the 727, the jump seat is attached to the read door. The commotion came from mid-cabin. I pushed and shoved my way past as many as I could, but the closer I got to the pleas for help, the tighter grew the knot of people trying to see what had happened. To get around the crowd, I broke the seats forward and crossed the last two rows on the flattened backs. The wife of the prime rib man had collapsed and fallen to the floor between the seats. I don’t remember how we got her to the center aisle. Someone must have helped me. The mental moments I have are of crushed shopping bags where she fell, the calm voice of my co-worker on the PA asking for a doctor, nurse or paramedic, then the lady on her back in the aisle with my fingers pressed to the side of her neck, and the stillness there.
“Let me through,” I heard a woman say. “Let me through. I’m a nurse.”
As she came at me across the seats I’d flattened, I felt the plane rock to a stop and recall thinking, gratefully, we must be at the terminal. Help would soon come.
“That’s her husband right behind me,” I whispered to the nurse who dropped to her knees near the woman’s head. “There’s no pulse.”
She nodded and pressed her fingers into the woman’s neck. “Do you know CPR?”
“Yes.” I’d saved a life once—in a bank parking lot—but I felt no calmer this time. “Pull her down a little,” I said to a man near her feet.
“Which do you want to do?” the nurse asked.
I was now between the seats at the woman’s head, her heart was a row up. “Breathe,” I said. The nurse crawled over the seats behind me and lodged herself into the row opposite the lady’s heart. When she nodded, I tilted the woman’s head back. Her eyes were open and seemed to watch me as I pinched her nose closed, took a deep breath, and covered her mouth with mine.
It was after we got our timing right and fell into a rhythm that I finally felt the heat and realized I was wringing wet and closed in by a tight circle of people. When I suddenly felt cool air chill my cheek, I knew the doors were open, back and front. They’d get the people off, and a doctor would come to help us. She’d be okay.
“Won’t be long now,” I said between breaths.
A couple of minutes later the nurse said, “My arms are giving out.”
There weren’t as many people by then. I blew two more times, then we crossed the seats to exchange places.
When the aisles emptied, the cleaners came up the back stairs, and fitted themselves in to the recently vacated rows to watch. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the captain, the co-pilot, and the flight attendant from first-class coming up the empty aisle.
The nurse glanced at me between breaths and whispered, “It’s no use, you know?”
In my heart, I’d known all along she was dead. I nodded, but kept up the compressions.
The nurse shrugged, and leaned over to breathe for her again. At that moment, vomit came out of the lady’s nose. The nurse gagged and sat back on her heals. “I can’t go on.” She stroked the lady’s head.
I didn’t blame her. If I’d been breathing, I don’t think I could have gone on either. But the lady’s husband, too tall to stand in the row behind me, had gotten on his knees in the middle seat. He was crying softly; I could hear him, so I went on for him, and because I felt as if I could go on forever. I knew that since I felt that way, I had no right to stop. I glanced at the nurse and she at me, then she settled in to keep me company and maintain the illusion. She continued to stroke the woman’s head.
“What’s taking so long?” I asked when the captain knelt at the woman’s feet.
“There’s no medical facility here at the airport. They’re sending someone from the naval base.”
Twenty minutes later, a doctor arrived. The name on his tag was followed by DDS. With him was a teen-ager—some help me God—in a sailor suit.
“You’re a dentist!”
“Nothing ever happens here,” he said, apologetically. “It was my night. Start a drip,” the dentist said to the boy. But the kid’s hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t get the tube attached to the bag, much less the needle into her arm.
“I’ll do it.” The nurse took over for him.
“Keep going,” the dentist said to me, when I made a move to get up and out of the way.
“Don’t you have paddles, or something?”
He shook his head and dug in his bag for a stethoscope.
The nurse had torn the lady’s dress open and unsnapped her bra to clear the way to her sternum. The dentist placed the stethoscope beneath her left breast. “OK, stop,” he said to me. He listened for a moment, moved the stethoscope, listened again, then looked up at her husband standing behind me clutching the hand of the first-class flight attendant. “Does she have a pacemaker?” the dentist asked.
“Yes, sir,” her husband said, tears streaking his black cheeks. “It’s brand new.”
The dentist looked at me, eyes full of regret. “She’s gone,” he whispered. “Just keep that up, if you can until they get a board in here.”
Bermuda has the character of a small town. The hotel gave us suites and the bar stayed open. We gulped beer, and talked impotently of the fragility of life, and our mutual prayers for just such a swift and sudden end.
“But hopefully after a better meal,” I said.
There was a momentary, tension relieving, explosion of laughter, then more talk of life’s few givens: wrinkles, gum disease, taxes, and no happy endings. After expressing our personal preferences of ways to go, we all agreed we were tired, and began, one by one, to drift away. My room was stuffy. I opened the drapes, then the sliding glass doors onto the balcony. It was a perfect night: peaceful, quiet, dark and starry, cool and windy. For a while I stood at the railing to watch the water lift and sink, and to listen to the waves slap the seawall beneath me, rhythmically, like a slow enduring pulse. When I got into bed and closed my eyes I could see rings of vomit in dark nostrils, and feel flesh and bone give slightly beneath the heels of my hands. I got up, took my trench coat from the closet, and left the room.
I headed for the golf course where I could hear the wind sighing through the casuarinas at the edge of the cart trail. With my head down and my hands in my pockets I walked and walked the carpeted hills until I came to the top of a high tee. There, just breaking the corrugated surface of the sea, as if the Earth had cracked open, rose the moon full to bursting. It was plump with a glow that neutralized the night, grayed the shadows, and lit the golf course. I smiled, lifted my chin, spread my arms, and ran down the hill, as if, given the right wind, I could gain the air.