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?