Reality Check Ahead

By Louise



     Last September, I was shaken – like so many others – by the mid-air collision of two planes over the Amazon rainforest. A Boeing 737 clipped an executive jet (an Embraer Legacy) at 37,000 feet.  The Embraer Legacy passengers, while aware that something had taken off the end of their wing and damaged the automatic controls, didn’t know what had happened. The Embraer pilots found a small, military landing strip in the jungle and wrestled the plane safely to the ground.


     The B737 plunged nose first into the jungle, killing all 154 on board.

     There’s the horror of it: one hundred and fifty four lives gone in less time than it would take to say a Hail Mary.

     And imagine the terror of those on the Embraer jet, as well. Almost thirty minutes of crippled flight, knowing that no one survives a crash at 37,000 feet. Enough time to jot notes of love and farewell to families. Enough time to regret all the things you haven’t done with your life. Joe Sharkey, one of the passengers on the smaller jet, recounted what those thirty minutes were like to the NY Times.

     Anyone who has ever flown can identify with the plight of the passengers on both of those planes, as well as the grief of the families of the dead.

     Okay, all that’s bad enough. But here’s the latest.

     Two weeks ago, photos surfaced that purportedly came from the downed B737.


“The two photos were apparently taken by one of the passengers in the B737, after the collision and before the aircraft crashed. These photos were found in a digital Casio Z7501, amidst the remains in Serra do Cachimbo. Although the camera was destroyed, the memory stick was recovered and the photos were retrieved. In the first photo, there is a gaping hole in the fuselage through which you can see the tail and vertical fin of the aircraft. In the second photo, one of the passengers is being sucked out of the gaping hole."




     Oh my holy God. My heart broke all over again. And now I had visual images as well as mental ones to anguish over. The gabble rachet of noise as the tail tore off. The unbreathable ice of the air rushing in. A terror so complete that it can’t even register on your face.

     I shared the pictures with friends, including the ever-watchful Andy Dellenbach of L.A. film post-production company Mind Over Eye. “Amazing what Photoshop can do these days,” Andy wrote back.

     He found five “where’s Waldo” images in the two photos:

  • “The plane is still flying straight and level while the tail section is ripped away. The kind of physical violence resulting from that separation would almost certainly alter the level course of the plane.” Well, yeah, I see what you mean.
  • “It’s interesting that shots that require someone to be standing up in one half of a disintegrating plane can result in exactly the same angle and framing, twice in a row.”  Well, if he’s frozen in place, maybe.
  • “The unused air bag on the left remains in exactly the same position, no matter how much buffeting is supposedly going on in the plane.” Damn. And those things are lightweight.
  • “Nobody, not even one person, is turning around to see what that horrendous noise is. In even the nano-second that could have taken, someone would be looking.” Not me. My eyes would be closed.
  • And perhaps best of all: “Take a look at the earlier photo where you can see the supposed tail section of the plane trailing off the fuselage. Notice the aisle seat in the last row (on the left side of the plane if you were sitting in the plane.) In this photo there is no seat there, as if it had been sucked away. Then look at the later shot, with the passenger being sucked out the back of the plane. The tail section has already disappeared, but the last row now has the aisle seat back in it!”

     Then, to add insult to computer-enhanced injury, I learned that the hoax was even cheesier than I’d thought. The two photos were frames lifted from the pilot episode of the TV show “Lost.”

     Now I’m pissed. I had worked up a righteous pile of grief about the people in those photos. They came to life for me in the pictures (albeit not long before their actual deaths) in ways that the printed news announcements about the crash hadn’t been able to do. I wanted to find this Photoshop-Houdini and punch his lights out. Rip the goddamned mouse from his cold dead hand. How dare he screw with my emotions like that.

     And then I realized that good fiction writers do exactly the same thing.

     The best writers blur the distinction between the possible and the factual. They create a world of people we care about, without ever having met them. Characters who will often stay in our hearts longer than our acquaintances. Sometimes even longer than our families. We know what their sweat smells like. We share in their happiness. We taste their fear in our mouths.

     Call it storytelling. Or imagination. Or empathy. It’s why the best writers write. And why most of us read.

     The French writer Colette said, “I write in order to live life twice.” I’ve always thought that was true. But I think I read in order to live someone else’s life.

     How about you? Do you live vicariously through your reading or your writing? And have you had any "Where’s Waldo moments" that took you out of a book — that spoiled that sense of authentic invention?




     I’m still not cutting that Photoshop asshole any slack. He used
real people – people who died – to wring my sympathy sponge. And that’s
not fair to anyone who cared about them before we saw the photos. And
it is especially unfair to their families.    

     How did you react to these plane photos?


36 thoughts on “Reality Check Ahead

  1. B.G. Ritts

    “How did you react…”

    At first I was horribly sad that the families of the crash victims would see the pictures. Then I noticed I didn’t recognize the logo on the plane’s tail. Then I noticed the handcuffs on the woman in the front left of the pictures. Then I went to, searched on ‘amazon crash,’ and got this link:

    And after reading why Mr. Cardoso perpetrated the hoax, I still wanted to bop him.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Sorry, I’m enough of a cynic that I immediately thought “hoax,” thanks to the number of hoaxes I’ve already seen: the guy on top of the WTC with the plane closing in in the background, the fake tsunami pic where the wave is higher than a ten story building, etc. etc.

  3. Louise Ure

    BG and JD, you’re right up there on the cynic meter. And probably right more often then you’re wrong. Yes, Snopes is a great site. (The second hot link, withe the word “Lost” is supposed to link to Snopes.) Damn, I didn’t even see the handcuffs.

    Billie, “sympathetic horror” was exactly my reaction.

  4. Rae

    Yet another great post, Louise, thanks!

    Do I live vicariously through reading? Absolutely. I’m such a Walter Mitty (Walterette? Walterina?) Particularly when there’s some righteous ass-kicking going on…participating vicariously in the bad guys getting their heads handed to them on a platter is a great release. And yeah, I experience “Where’s Waldo” moments. It usually has to do with clunky, clumsy dialog or egregiously bad grammar.

    Regarding the plane photos: my first reaction was very similar to what I felt when I saw photos of people plummeting to their deaths from the WTC on 9/11. I thought, “a few seconds ago, that person had a life, a family, was maybe thinking about what to have for lunch or about their kid’s birthday party. And now, I’m seeing their last moments – and this poor soul must be absolutely terrified.” Now that I know the plane photo was a hoax, I agree with you. It’s totally uncool, disrepectful, and undignfied to use dead people for a prank.

  5. Karen Olson

    My first thought was, I have to get that prescription of Xanax refilled for the next time I fly. Because getting into a plane is terrifying for me and this is my worst nightmare come true. Photoshopped or not, it is very real for me.

    I have always lost myself in books, which is why when I was a kid I wanted to write, to make people feel the way I felt when I was reading: completely immersed in another world.

  6. JT Ellison

    My first reaction was one of horror as well, but I did think it looked a lot like the crash sequences from LOST. Regardless, I’m glad they were faked.

    I think we tread a thin line as writers. We need to create an alternate universe, and in many cases, ask the reader to suspend disbelief. If we don’t weave the tapestry just right, we rip the reader out of the story. It’s why I chose to make my protagoist a cop. There are things that she can do in an investigation that are legitimate and realistic, versus the woman down the street who’s able to solve crimes before the police. Those are the books that I can’t read, because I can’t suspend my own disbelief long enough to get through them.

    But we use art to escape from reality, so what works for one reader certainly doesn’t work for another. I wonder if this is one of the issues with the genre as a whole. Escapist nonsense, trashy thiller, commercial fiction — all seem to be negative labels in the literary world. Is it the perception is mystery books are populated by unreliable narrators, or we write books that you can read in one sitting, ones that you can’t chew over for days? I’ve chewed a few mystery novels in my day, so I say bah, humbug to that.

    I’m drifting off topic, but you get the point. Misdirection is great, intentionally misleading the reader with unrealistic scenarios is not.

  7. Cara

    Must confess Louise…you had me until the second photo. Call me trusting and a secret gawker at roadside accidents..awful but don’t we all slow down and try to see?

    I read to escape, like you. Last night I was in lush pre-Castro Cuba, in some mambo nightclub with clouds of cigar smoke and a one armed hat check girl…a crime sparked by the murder of a rhinoceros at the Havanna zoo…and it’s called Dancing to ‘Almendra’


  8. Louise Ure

    Rae, you’re no Walterina, but I sure understand the desire (albeit vicariously) to see the bad guys taken down. And the empathy you describe in seeing those “falling bodies” photos is the stuff that makes good writing. (So when do I get to read yours?)

    Unlike Karen, I love to fly. But I can understand that terror, too. There’s just no logical reason that planes should stay in the air. Hmmm … that sounds like a good time to get lost in a book.

  9. Louise Ure

    JT, finally someone fessed up to knowing the plot/characters to “Lost!” I’ve never watched it, otherwise that scene might have been more memorable for me. Like BG, I didn’t recognize the planes logo (Oceania, from “Lost”), so I assumed it was a commercial Brazilian airliner whose logo I didn’t know.

    But you’ve raised an interesting issue … we read to escape real life, therefore “escapist” literature is less important/fulfilling? I don’t have the answer, but there has to be a reason that crime fiction is consistently on the Best Sellers list.

    Cara, now I’ve got to read Dancing to Almendra! A night in pre-Castro Cuba is exactly what I need.

  10. JT Ellison

    Yeah, the dichotomy is interesting, isn’t it?

    LOST reruns this scene often, as a memory for the survivors, in their wrap up catch up shows, so I’d be cheating if I admitted anything less that an intimate familiarity with it already. : )

  11. Bill Cameron

    I spend most of my day job in Photoshop, which is probably why when I see photos on the internet, my first reaction is inevitably, “Probably a fake.” And I have this reaction when I see so-called NEWS photos.

    When I saw these photos, I immediately recognized LOST. In fact, when I saw them I had the weird cognitive dissonance you get when you see something completely out of place. “Why are pictures from LOST in this story about that collision in Brazil?” It made no sense to me, so I never got to horror. Once I figured out what was happening, I thought “What an asshole,” and then clicked on to something else.

    Fiction can be manipulative, though at its best that manipulation is subtle and feels true. And in fact sometimes I feel I learn things from fiction that would be impossible to teach with mere fact. Being transported into someone else’s world can be revelatory, and picking my way into that world as a writer is often an amazing journey.

    I would definitely say I live twice when I write and when I read. It’s not that I’m looking to escape my real life (though I have days…), but to enlarge it.

  12. billie

    This is veering off topic, but JT’s comment got me thinking – I am finding that in reading “regular” literary fiction that I love, I slow down, intentionally, to savor every bit of the characterization and language. I don’t want it to end.

    With literary suspense/thriller/murder mysteries I get so absorbed and so caught up in the “vivid continuous dream” (a la John Gardner) that I can’t put the book down. And while I don’t want it to end, I can’t wait to get there.

    I read Mystic River yesterday and loved it for that reason – I just could not stop reading but at the same time I knew I was hastening the end.

    It’s interesting that the writing is equally good, but the experience of reading it (for me, anyway) is so totally opposite.

    This has something to do with reality and fiction, but I’m too caught up with the springlike day to sort it out!


  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    The plane photos horrified me, Louise. Though I’m glad they’re a hoax, it infuriates me that someone is profiting (in any way) from the deaths of others.

    Reading to escape? Yep. I read fiction for that reason. And, I think I avoid writing the graphic violence for the same reason; I just don’t want to go there as a creative endeavor AND I don’t want to put more of it in the world.

    Taking me out of a scene? Well, this isn’t a book . . . but we rented ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING over the weekend. I was curious about how Hollywood would tell the Purim tale.

    I thought it was awful, pure schlock — no redeeming qualities at all. So, at the end in the pivotal scene when Ester is wearing her cherished necklace in one frame, not in the next, and then once again a second later . . . well, it felt like a vindication.

  14. Rae

    Louise, you are so sweet 😉 But I’m no writer. I’m an avid appreciater of good writing – which is why I get so cranky when I encounter what I perceive as sloppiness of craft.

  15. Louise Ure

    “Sloppiness of craft.” That’s a wonderful depiction. And it’s exactly what Pari’s there-gone-there necklace was in ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING. (I watched the Civil War story GLORY the other night, and howled to see the little kid on the roadside waving to the Union soldiers … with a hand that wore a digital watch.)

    The literary equivalent of that sloppiness is lazy language and lack of credibility.

    Billie, it’s interesting that you read books differently if they’re genre specific or more “literary fiction.” I wonder if that has something to do with the relative importance of story versus character in those books? Clearly, they can both be well written.

  16. billie

    One last comment before I head out to the barn… 🙂

    Story versus character – I think that must be part of it, and yet, in the really excellent genre-specific novels I’ve read recently, the characters are so integral and well-drawn, it has made me wonder, mostly b/c I think I fall in between the two “categories” in some ways in my own work, and I’m trying to sort it out by doing lots of reading.

    Ultimately, though, I’m just glad there are so many good reads out there – slow and savory or gripping and fast. 🙂


  17. Alex Sokoloff

    I also recognized the shots from LOST right away and I only watched a few episodes from the first season. Hoaxers like that are total assholes but I’m even more incensed with Internet hoaxers who prey on senior citizens.

    And to get even more off topic (or is this back on?) I just had to agree with Billie that I have the same “slow down, speed up) correlation to reading literary fiction and thrillers. Thrilers I always read fast and impatiently, but then with a good one I go back and reread to savor technique.

  18. Elaine Flinn

    As a very ‘uncomfortable’ flyer – and having endured some *&*^% flying problems this past month – I wanted to scream at Louise – “Oh, thanks! Just what I need!” Naturally my first thought (honest) before thinking about myself and my phobia -was the very real horror those passengers surely endured. And then I saw the photo’s. I don’t watch Lost – so I didn’t recognize those scenes – and I began to wonder what the hell Louise was up to. I mean – how COULD SHE DO THIS TO US?? So – to steal from Pari’s excellent post yesterday -‘Yea, verily – Louise has shown us the truth.’ So – thank you for that.

    The why of reading and writing? I ditto Rae’s excellent comments. While my Molly Doyle is an ‘amateur’ sleuth – I try very hard to keep her involvement in context with her profession – and have her expertise be vital to catching the killer. And I’m with Colette too – where else can you live twice except in books? Yours or others?

    I may take the train to ThrillerFest.

  19. Naomi

    Sorry to totally change the subject, but our Alex has been nominated for the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker Award in the category of best first novel. Congrats, ALEX!!!

    Now returning to y’all to your regularly scheduled fake plane crash.

  20. Louise Ure

    HURRAY ALEX!!!!! Well done, you!

    Sorry, Elaine and Karen. I didn’t mean to put your stomachs in roller coaster mode.

    And back to Billie and Alex, I think I agree. At least I choose which book to read based on my own internal crises and the craziness of life around me. Sometimes I want a slow, deep read that I can get stuck into for a week. Sometimes I need something to immediately take my attention away from my own life.

  21. Elaine Flinn

    My stomach is fine now, thanks!

    A moment – ala Naomi – to congrat our Alex! And to say to all of our Murderati nom and winner mates – it’s a great pleasure and privilege to be amoungst you all.

  22. Louise Ure

    “Yours was one of those couldn’t put it down page-turners, by the way. :)”

    I agree, Billie. Here’s to Alex! (Picture me giving the secret St. Martin’s Press Sister High Five and Secret Handshake.)

  23. Fran

    I have a great willing suspension of disbelief, whether it’s for TV shows, movies or novels. From the very first, I’ll accept the premise and wallow in it.

    BUT…it has to stay true. Otherwise, I get kicked out of it, and then I’m bored. Flipping channels on TV, checking the time on my watch in movies, finding reasons not to go back to the book.

    I was with Louise, horrified by the photos. And then grumbly and cynically weary upon the realization of the hoax. Still, in an odd way, I cherish my ability to believe, to lose myself in a story, real or imagined. At least it’s never dull for long! Especially with authors like y’all around!

  24. cathy

    I’m in total agreement with Rae and Alex regarding flying. Nope… I take the train when I attend writer’s conferences. The photos (real or fake) were my worst nightmares come true, which is why I refuse to fly.

    In regarding to writing and “living another life”, that’s a definite yes. Not only do my characters feel real to me, the plot does as well. When I try to explain to friends/family why I’m so “into” my novel, they think I’m completely whacked out. I’ve come to the conclusion that for the most part, writers understand each other but the rest of the world thinks we need therapy (if we share everything about our writing career).

    Anyway, just my two cents.Take care.Cathy

  25. John

    The pictures may be fake but the emotions they evoked were real.Many have said how seeing the pictures helped them to connect with the plight of the passengers before they realised it was a hoax.

    If this had been a painting would it have made you as angry. Religious icons such as the crucifixion reveal parts of ourselves to us.

    Just because an emotion is painful does not make it bad.

  26. Alex Sokoloff

    Wait – I never said I hated flying. I’m actually probably the least phobic person about flying I’ve ever met.

    Thanks for all the Stoker congratulations, guys! Totally thrilled, of coruse!!!

  27. Louise Ure

    Hey Karber! You mean I have to add “Lost” to the massive list of other shows I have to catch up on? OK, I admit it. I’ve never seen an episode of Seinfeld. Or Sex in the City. Or American Idol. What else do I have to add?

    Nice to see you here, Fran. Hope the nice weather is holding in Seattle and you’ve found another terrific book to “wallow in.” (I love that image.)

    And Cathy, my family has definitely come to the conclusion that writers are crazy. But they realize that the writing IS my therapy. There you go.

  28. Louise Ure

    John, you piqued my interest with your question. “If this had been a painting, would it have made you as angry?”

    At first I thought, hell yes! I’ve been thrilled, horrified, inspired and educated by paintings in the past. And if this hoaxster had painted the faces of the real people on that plane, it would have done just as much damage to the families.

    In fact, any recreation — in words, photography or painting — of those passengers final moments would have been as gut wrenching for me.

    But here’s the difference. If someone wrote about what he imagined their last moments were … if someone painted that image … then it would have been clear that it was an imagined scene. They would have been helping us understand what the passengers might have gone through.

    The intent here was different. It was to deceive. To say “this is exactly how their lives ended.” Not “imagine how they must have felt.”

    The horror, the empathy, the emotion, is equally strong. But the malicious intent of the hoax is what got me.

  29. lbsgh

    although these pics are fake…I do use them for training flight crew…it is a fairly good representation of a decompression.and Id like to point out…people do not get “sucked” out of airplanes…its basic physics…people are blown out.


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