Not long ago, I wrote a proposal for a book that would redefine what we understand by “good” and “bad,” especially in the sense of good and bad things befalling to us, arriving out of the blue to change our lives forever. The proposal was turned down by some twenty New York publishers, for varying and even contradictory reasons, but the sample chapter lives on.
At roughly 9 a.m. on June 30, 1956, TWA Flight 2, a four-engine Super Constellation bound for Kansas City, and United Airlines Flight 718, a four-engine DC-7 bound for Chicago, took off from Los Angeles International Airport, three minutes apart, both headed east.
The Super Constellation crossed the San Bernadino Mountains, the DC-7 passed over Palm Springs, and both flew almost parallel toward the Painted Desert in Arizona.
Scattered thunderstorms lay in their path. Soon after takeoff, Captain Jack Gandy, piloting the TWA plane, asked for permission to climb from 19,000 feet to 21,000 feet to avoid a thunderhead. The air traffic controller in Los Angeles, seeing the United flight at 21,000 feet, said no. In response, Gandy asked for permission to fly 1,000 feet above the clouds. He was told yes, and was warned that the DC-7 was in the area, but he was not told its altitude. He climbed to 21,000 feet.
The two planes were now at the same altitude and almost the same location. It’s also possible that one or both pilots maneuvered to allow passengers a better view of the Grand Canyon, four miles below–a common practice at the time. In any event, at 10:31 a.m. the DC-7 crashed into the Super Constellation, its left wing slicing into its fuselage and breaking off its famous triple-fin tail. Both aircraft crashed into the canyon, killing all 128 people aboard. At the time it was the world’s worst civilian air disaster.
* * *
It would be hard to think of a better example of the Bad than a mid-air collision between two of the largest airliners in use at the time. Everything seems definite and final: the physical evidence of strewn wreckage; the grief of families; the horrific thought of being sickened and helpless, strapped in our seats, as we fall for two, four, even seven minutes to destruction. For many, it’s literally a nightmare; for some it’s an approximation of Hell.
Yet the Grand Canyon crash is a good example of the way we shape our narrative of events to fit our fears. The narrative that opened this chapter follows the standard formulae of journalism: it establishes its credibility at once by using solid, even technical facts; it moves through a selection of the events with an air of inevitability; it leads up to the horrific moment of the collision and ends when the planes strike the ground.
This is the standard narrative of news: the writer tries to use as few words as possible while still making sense. If this were television or radio news, it would have been even more succinct. And because this version of the story has a clear beginning, middle and a very strong sense of end, the implication is that we’ve just been told the essence of the story–not the whole blizzard of details, to be sure, but everything that matters.
Told in this familiar but abbreviated fashion, the crash seems not only horrific but also meaningless, inexplicable. As such, it’s all the more horrifying. Dr Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, points out that survivors of a traumatic event recover more quickly (for example, they make fewer visits to the doctor and produce a healthier number of antibodies) if they write about the event, especially if their writing contains an explanation of the event. What’s more, things we can’t explain have a disproportionate emotional impact because we tend to keep thinking about them. The quick-in, quick-out approach of daily news makes it appear that the accident happens, so to speak, out of a clear blue sky. It’s all the more disturbing because the reader feels as helpless as the people aboard the planes.
Helplessness is a key component of fear; it’s the element that makes nightmares so much more ghastly than reality. Helplessness is already a big part of the fear of flying: we’re strapped in our seats and most of us couldn’t fly a big plane even if we had to. It’s not surprising that some 30 million Americans describe themselves as “anxious” fliers, even though the odds of being killed in a car are vastly greater. At the moment of crisis in a car, we feel, rightly or wrongly, that we could save ourselves.
The four-paragraph version, like most headlines or short news stories, compresses the shape or contour of the story into a short, hard, dangerous spike: the tension rises from nothing to maximum in about 200 words for the greatest shock effect. The danger comes out of nowhere and strikes, and that’s all she wrote.
But that was not the case. Arguably, it’s never the case with any accident, and it certainly wasn’t with the Grand Canyon collision. The contour of this accident rose steadily over decades and in some senses peaked on June 30, 1956, to be sure–but the story did not end then, and it hasn’t ended now. The incident forced changes so radical that in many ways they created what we think of as modern air travel, and as a result there hasn’t been a collision between two airliners in the United States in 47 years.
Misfortune is safety’s spur. Ship sinkings, train crashes, tanker leaks–unplanned and often deadly events make the headlines in what seems to be an endless succession of bad news, but what we don’t notice is the calm hum of machinery (far more machinery, in fact, year by year) operating safely, thanks to the mistakes of the past.
* * *
Accidents often serve as a kind of signal flare, a sudden burst of illumination showing that something is wrong. The United States prided itself on leading the world in commercial and military aviation, but the Grand Canyon collision was a signal of how many things were wrong, and how rapidly they were getting worse.
The Second World War had accelerated aircraft development and aircraft use to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the Thirties. The first jet fighters had been developed during the war, and the first commercial jet service began in 1952. Planes in general were faster, cutting down on the amount of time pilots and air traffic controllers had to react, and also larger, so the potential number of casualties was rising quickly. The skies were also far more congested. Domestic scheduled airline traffic rose from about 12 million passengers in 1946 to nearly 40 million in 1955.
Meanwhile, helicopters were just coming in. The Department of Defense was requesting reserved airspace for artillery and missile testing ranges. The Atomic Energy Commission had airspace reserved for atomic weapon testing. Television transmitter towers were springing up on mountaintops as new hazards. “The sky,” reported the Times, “is shrinking.”
In many ways, though, aviation was still being run by the old freewheeling, pre-war spirit. Radar was extremely limited, covering perhaps a 100-mile radius of major airports and leaving millions of square miles of air space uncontrolled. (Nobody knew anything was wrong in the Grand Canyon crash until ground control tried to make radio contact unsuccessfully for nearly an hour.) Even within controlled air space, the method was startlingly primitive: each ground controller kept tabs on the planes in his airspace by jotting the flight information for each one on a strip of paper and placing each strip on a board to show when each aircraft was due at its next check point. Small planes operated almost completely at will. Military aircraft had their own set of rules and their own air traffic system. And to make everything more difficult, meteorology was at best a work in progress.
Above all, the entire system of air traffic control relied, much of the time, on the dangerous pioneer-era assumption that a pilot could stay safe simply by scanning the empty skies.
Under Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) rules in 1956, a pilot could choose whether to fly under Instrument Flight Regulations (IFR) or Visual Flight Regulations (VFR).
Under IFR, the pilot submitted to the directions of the air traffic controller, who both planned the route and altitude, and gave en route radio instruction. Air traffic control didn’t cover most of the country, though. Twenty-six air route traffic control areas in the U.S. each supervised a network of airways, each ten miles wide, and kept order in those corridors. Outside the corridors, though, planes were in what was called “free air,” beyond official jurisdiction. By the time the TWA and United planes reached the California-Arizona border, they had left their corridor and were on their own.
Under VFR, the pilot was essentially a free agent. He could use the heavily-trafficked airlines or not, entering and leaving them as he wished, without needing to let anyone know. What’s more, a pilot could change from IFR to VFR and back again as long as he simply notified the local controller. Finally, there was no obligation to file a route plan. Pilots, the Times reported, “can take off and fly in any direction without telling anyone where they are going or how they plan to get there. Thus, as one official report said recently, Piper Cubs and jet fighters may be milling around in the [same] air space with their pilots relying largely on their eyesight and luck to keep them from `running into each other.’”
When TWA Flight 2 switched to VFR, then, it became, in essence, unwatched and unseen. In fact, the air over the canyon could have been filled with swarms of planes carrying sightseers, and neither the pilots nor the air traffic controllers would have known until they came into view.
What’s more, pilots were starting to realize that keeping their eyes peeled simply wasn’t good enough. A survey among pilots, operators and the Air Transport Association of America found that there was an average of four near-misses every day. In a quarter of these near-misses, the planes passed closer than 100 feet of each other–less than the wingspan of a Super Constellation. And a later study examined 159 mid-air collisions between 1947 and 1957 and found that 94% had happened in clear weather.
Speaking in clear but terrible foresight, in 1955 the Aviation Facilities Study Group wrote: “It is impossible for a pilot to fly a high speed modern airplane effectively without almost continuous reference to his cockpit instruments. Hence under the best conditions, the pilot, even if he is alert, may not be looking out of his airplane when a mid-air collision is imminent[;] furthermore, he can see only a small per cent of the sky around him from his cockpit and may not see crossing, overtaking or descending aircraft.”
It seems quite possible, in fact, that the TWA plane came up directly underneath the United plane, both in each other’s blind spots, and crashed into it from below.
Why wasn’t this potentially lethal combination of circumstances fixed? In large part because the necessary changes would be phenomenally expensive. It would need vast technical developments–essentially, a radar and communications network that covered the entire country–that wouldn’t be possible for decades. It would need an entirely new system for tracking and controlling all aircraft, because it would do no good to govern airline traffic if small planes and military traffic operated by their own rules.
Above all, it would need a sense of terrible urgency. Neither the White House nor Congress felt that urgency: the funding for managing commercial aviation had been steadily reduced for years.
* * *
Such, then, was the long, slowly-rising contour that led up to June 30, 1956. And while the emotional intensity of the story may have started to drop off after the planes hit the canyon, and after the news sank in among the families of the 128 on board, it was precisely that emotional intensity that would ensure that the Grand Canyon crash would have outcomes from which virtually all of us have benefited.
Within two days of the crash, Senator George A. Smathers of Florida demanded a congressional investigation of the Civil Aeronautics Administration “as to whether or not their present operations are keeping up with the increase in the volume of air travel, plane speeds, limitations of air space and the demands made upon it by commercial and military needs.” The Senate launched a similar probe, and the Civil Aeronautics Board pledged to hold hearings as soon as possible.
True, there was already a five-year plan in place to improve air safety, but it was clearly a half-hearted effort with half-hearted support. The Department of Commerce had asked for $246 million over five years; Congress had agreed to roughly $40 million for the first year. Within three weeks of the crash, the White House had asked that amount to be raised to $108 million and pledged to try to complete the plan in three years instead of five.
Even so, the whole matter might have dragged on, being studied by commissions and committees and facing the vast inertia that affects any proposal for radical change, but for the fact that on 20 May, 1958, a Capitol Airlines Vickers Viscount collided in mid-air with an Air National Guard T-33 over Brunswick, Maryland. The pilot of the T-33 ejected safely, but all eleven on board the Viscount were killed. Another Capitol plane had crashed only six weeks previously in Freeland, Michigan, due to ice buildup during final approach, killing all 47 on board.
Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of the two, perhaps it was the fact that the second crash was closer to Washington, but the Brunswick crash galvanized the process. The next day, May 21, Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma introduced a bill, co-signed by 33 senators, to establish a new agency with control over air traffic and air space. On the same day, a House subcommittee began hearings into the Brunswick collision. The following day, a separate House committee opened hearings on aviation safety in general.
On June 13th, Eisenhower addressed Congress and recommended that a new federal aviation agency be set up in order, among other tasks, “to develop, test and select air traffic control systems and devices.” For the first time, all air traffic would be supervised and directed by a single authority. The Federal Aviation Act was signed into law only three months and two days after being introduced, and the staggering sum of $810 million was appropriated to establish and staff the new Federal Aviation Agency–the cost, in this case, for finding the good side of bad. The national radar umbrella of radar was still more than twenty years into the future, but the modern era of air safety had begun, rising, as it were, from the ashes of the two crash sites on the walls of the Grand Canyon.
Still, safety is an easily underestimated goal: learning to fly is child’s play compared with learning how to fly safely. And it’s sad but probably inevitable that progress has continued to be spurred by misfortune. The 1982 Air Florida crash in Washington, D.C. gave enormous impetus to the effort to understand icing. A 1985 crash at Dallas/Fort Worth that killed 134 people led to a massive research effort that led directly to the on-board forward-looking radar wind-shear detectors that became standard equipment on airliners in the mid-1990s. Only one wind-shear-related accident has occurred since. The frightening 1988 incident in which a large section of fuselage ripped off an ageing Aloha plane over Hawaii threw the spotlight on metal fatigue and led to the FAA’s Aging Aircraft Research Program. Metal fatigue is now (touch wood) a threat of the past.
Clearly, not all accidents yield valuable outcomes: the aftermath of a crash is always subject to finger-pointing, grandstanding, accusations and counter-accusations, political posturing, infighting, investigators with their own agendas or plain old inertia.
All the same, the overall effect is remarkable. Just to give a sense of how much safer aviation is now than it was in 1956, it’s sobering to check AirDisaster.com and the pages of the Times to see how many air accidents happened in U.S. airspace in the three-week period around the Grand Canyon crash:
* June 20, a Linea Aeroposal Venezolana Super Constellation bound from Idlewild (now JFK) for Caracas went down into the Atlantic off Asbury Park, New Jersey, killing all 74 on board.
* June 30, the Grand Canyon crash: 128 people killed.
* July 7, a man was killed and his wife injured when their light plane crashed into Hempstead Harbor on Long Island.
* July 8, a pilot was critically injured when his plane crashed during a race at the Western New York Air Show.
* July 9, a Trans Canada Air Lines Viscount went down in Flat Rock, Michigan, killing one of the 35 on board.
* July 13, a military air transport crashed shortly after takeoff from McGuire Air Force Base near Fort Dix, New Jersey. Forty-five of the 66 people on board, including women and two children, were killed.
That’s more fatal crashes in three weeks than we’re likely to see nowadays in five years. Arnold Barnett, an MIT specialist in the statistics of aviation safety, has calculated that if you wanted to crash on a commercial flight in the United States you’d have to fly on a plane every single day for 19,000 years.
Possibly longer, in fact, as the figures he used were for air travel in the 1990s, since when things have become even safer. In fact, more Americans die every three months from road traffic accidents than died in the last 40 years of commercial jet flight. The number of Americans who die each year by flying is smaller than the number who died by falling from ladders or by freezing to death.
In the last decade alone, fatal accidents have fallen by 65%, from one in nearly two million departures to one in roughly 4.5 million. The only fatal accident in the first nine months of 2007 involved a mechanic working on a Boeing 737 who slipped and fell from the cabin door to the tarmac below.
* * *
What is true for accidents in air travel is generally true for accidents in general. Air disasters may be more likely to affect law and public policy because most politicians fly, and thus have a vested interest in aviation safety, whereas few (except in a figurative sense, perhaps) operate fertilizer tanks. Yet the “Lessons Learned” pages of the National Transportation Safety Board show a panorama of accidents, many of them fatal: toxic gases released when fertilizer tanks split, buses that catch fire or crash because of insufficient tread on their tires, truck air brakes that fail because adjusted by hand, students who crash their SUV because they’re exhausted after rushing fraternities and families who died because crash barriers fail, tourists drowning off Tillamook Bay in Oregon when the captain left the bay in rough conditions without ordering everyone to wear life jackets, freight cars with toxic contents derailing because of welding mistakes. Yet these are also the signs of the erratic advance of safety, always a step or two behind the march of progress.
And then there’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In the six months before I wrote this, new or revised safety standards were put into effect for arc-fault circuit interrupters, baby gates, bassinets and cradles, bath seats, bed rails, infant frame carriers, diaper changing tables, cribs and play yards, children’s folding chairs, garage door/gate operators, high chairs, playground equipment for children less than two years of age, public playground equipment, pool alarms, pool suction release devices, and strollers.
The Commission had also studied safety concerns involving candles, cigarette lighters, garage door openers, freestanding kitchen ranges and all-terrain vehicles (both of which had a tendency to tip and kill children) and the flammability of furniture upholstery, mattresses, clothing, carpets and rugs.
It’s never enough, of course. Within the past few days, Hallowe’en vampire teeth, baby cribs, coloring sets and Aqua Dots had been recalled in their millions–another phase of the cycle that was driving Congress to increase funding for the Commission and question pro-industry political appointments.
But again, that’s the kind of thing that makes the news. What we don’t see, as with airline safety, is what no longer makes the news. Since the CPSC was founded in 1973, consumer-related fire deaths are down by 45%, product-related electrocutions by 74%, children’s deaths by poisoning from drugs or household chemicals by 82%, crib-related deaths by 89%. And these are absolute numbers: given that over the same period the U.S. population has risen by 90 million, or 42%–well, you do the math. The sharp, heartbreaking spike of a story of a child suffocating in a crib or burning when her nightdress catches fire is just part of a longer and more complicated story, one that ends with a mother patting her sleeping child, tucking the flame-retardant blanket under a small chin.
* * *
Why is it, then, that we fail to see the good side of this bad?
One reason is because of the Inverse Law of News Coverage–namely, the less likely something is to happen, the more likely it is to be news when it does. Arnold Barnett of MIT also calculated statistics on New York Times coverage of plane crashes, and found that, rather than representing reality, the news media express and amplify people’s fears. Studying issues from 1988 and 1989, for every 1,000 cancer deaths, he counted only .02 news stories about death by cancer. Precisely because cancer is the death a great many of us will face, it doesn’t make news. For every 1,000 homicides, a far more newsworthy exit, he found fewer than two murder stories. AIDS, though less common than homicide, was more widely reported: more than two AIDS stories per 1,000 AIDS deaths. And plane crashes? An astonishing 138.2 plane crash stories per 1,000 airplane deaths.
When ValuJet Flight 592 dived into the Everglades in 1996, killing 110 people, USA Today alone ran more than 110 stories about the crash. In the two weeks after the plane went down, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and CBS and NBC nightly news each ran about fifty stories, and coverage continued daily for about a month. No wonder so many Americans are anxious flyers.
It doesn’t help that a detailed investigation of the cause of a crash can take years, allowing ample time (and incentive) for speculation. When TWA Flight 800 blew up in midair in 1996, the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board refused to speculate on the cause drove news outlets to other “experts.” Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the Department of Transportation (and notorious for alarmist stories based on little or no evidence) suggested that the plane might have gone down owing to “a bogus part sold to the airline by shady dealers”–an old hobby-horse of hers–or “an incompetent mechanic [who] missed something.”
She also speculated that a bomb might have caused the explosion, as did a front-page story in the New York Observer. The New York Post headlined “IT WAS NO ACCIDENT” and the Village Voice wrote “A Missile Destroyed TWA Flight 800.” The exact cause is still unknown, but two things are clear: the explosion was a gasoline-vapor explosion in a fuel tank, an issue that insiders had been warning against for years; and there was no bomb, missile or other terrorist involvement. After two years of speculation and fearmongering, though, a rational conclusion can pass almost unheard.
Another factor is that we seem to have become more willing to be horrified, and the news and entertainment media seem happy to oblige. It’s not clear which is the chicken and which the egg, but it’s clear that our social values have changed in terms of how we react to misfortune.
Let’s take a contemporary example. A Los Angeles Times article published in 2006, on the fiftieth anniversary of the crash, devoted more than 500 words to the emotional fallout of the event:
“Word of the crash reached families of the victims slowly, as what began as a mystery of missing planes hardened into grim reality….There is no hope: everyone was killed. Your sister is gone….I went completely crazy….I couldn’t sleep I was so stunned….a deep depression….hospitalized…electric shock treatment…never got over that….we could find no … meaning in Beth’s death.”
By contrast, the 1956 New York Times coverage of the Grand Canyon crash is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic. It calls the event a “disaster,” and publishes brief biographies of some of the notable people lost in the crash, but the grief of the families of the dead is taken for granted, and the reporters do not quote them to wring the most emotion out of the event.
This may simply be an issue of house style, but it may also be a sign that Americans in 1956 viewed misfortune, even extreme misfortune, rather differently than we do. In an “Annals of Psychology” article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell points out something interesting and rather odd in Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, published a year before the Grand Canyon crash. Tom Rath, the novel’s hero, has had a series of wartime experiences that we would nowadays assume to be traumatic: he hacks a young enemy sentry to death with a knife, he accidentally kills his best friend with a hand grenade and spends hours trying to resuscitate the corpse.
What is (to us) odd about these ghastly events is how Rath deals with them.
“ Tom had shrugged and said nothing. The fact that he had been too quick to throw a hand grenade and had killed Mahoney, the fact that some young sailors had wanted skulls for souvenirs, and the fact that a few hundred men had lost their lives to take the island of Karkow—all these facts were simply incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. That, he had decided, was the final truth of the war, and he had greeted it with relief, greeted it eagerly, the simple fact that it was incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. Things just happen, he had decided; they happen and they happen again, and anybody who tries to make sense out of it goes out of his mind.”
At the start of the twenty-first century, this sounds like denial, like a man suffering from a deep trauma that isn’t being addressed and will sooner or later will come back to haunt him. Yet it doesn’t–and Rath’s wife Betsy, perhaps surprisingly, sees things very much as her husband does.
“The psychiatrist would have an explanation, Betsy thought, but I don’t want to hear it. People rely too much on explanations these days, and not enough on courage and action. . . . Tom has a good job, and he’ll get his enthusiasm back, be a success at it. Everything’s going to be fine. It does no good to wallow in night thoughts. In God we trust, and that’s that.”
Gladwell points out “Betsy Rath is not saying that her husband doesn’t have problems. She’s just saying that, in all likelihood, Tom will get over his problems.”
We’ll come back to trauma and denial in another chapter. For now let’s just note that the Grand Canyon crash took place barely a decade after the first truly global war. Sudden death, both in plane crashes and by other means, was all too familiar. Courage and action were, as Betsy says, the virtues of the day. My impression is that our priorities have changed in the last fifty years. Courage, action, and stoicism in the face of loss have been to some extent replaced by empathy, sensitivity and a belief in the healing power of grieving. These may be cardinal virtues, but they also inevitably change our sense of focus.
If we focus on the Grand Canyon crash as a tragedy, we’re in danger of missing examples of both courage and action. A tragedy is, in our minds, an event that ends in tears. The Grand Canyon crash caused tears enough, but they weren’t the end.
The third and perhaps most interesting reason why we notice and remember the news item about the plane crash but not its positive, long-term outcome is that our brains are wired that way.
Let’s take a more benign example to illustrate the point. About two years ago I first discovered a pomegranate ice cream called Sheer Bliss, made by a company in Florida. It was the most wonderful ice cream I had ever tasted–complex, unexpected, both sweet and tart–and it quickly relegated all the other ice creams I liked to the back of the freezer. It was also hard to find in Vermont, and turned out to be sold at only one, rather out-of-the-way supermarket, so we bought it only every few months, and the delight of discovery surged back each time. Then it must have gained a toehold in the Vermont market, because it turned up at another freezer section closer to home, and we could buy it more easily, and almost at once it began to lose its appeal. Now we can buy it just down the road, but I haven’t had any in nine months.
“This process, called habituation or adaptation,” writes Dr Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, “is an inviolable neurological fact of life. Neurons are wired to respond to novel events, and not to fire if the events do not provide new information.”
In other words, it’s change that catches our attention, both at the smallest and most specific level (a new flavor of ice cream) to the largest and most abstract (a new set of ideas).
“At the single-cell level,” Seligman goes on, “there is a so-called refractory period such that the neuron simply cannot fire again for a time (usually a few seconds). At the level of the whole brain, we notice events that are novel and disregard those that are not. The more redundant the events, the more they merge into the unnoticed background.”
Safety, then, is one of the least noticeable qualities. Far from representing something new and potentially threatening, it represents lack of threat. And mandated safety, the kind that is likely to be the outcome of an accident, is so mundane and habitual it emerges only in jokes in which people commit the crime of removing tags from mattresses.
As soon as we come to see safety in this light, it finally becomes clear that we are surrounded by safety, and almost certainly by the safety procedures, habits and laws that are the results of countless accidents over decades, even centuries. Looking around for an obvious example, my eye falls on the can-opener in the kitchen. When I was a boy, the most common can-opener in use was a brutal device like a flattened spike that you drove through the top of the can and then hacked around the rim, leaving a jagged edge like the teeth of a saw. Goodness knows how many people (including me) cut themselves on the opened can or the detached lid–which is precisely why you don’t see that kind of can-opener in the shops any more.
Now I come to think of it, our house in the Fifties and Sixties was littered with lethal objects: plugs with frayed insulation, real candles that clipped onto the Christmas tree, toasters with glowing, exposed wires, and now, just in, the new nylon sheets that, it turned out, would not only catch fire but melt and stick to skin while they burned.
The good side of the Grand Canyon crash, then, is the uneventful flight, the one we take for granted. And on a larger scale, the good side of accidents, especially lethal accidents, is all around us. Flame-resistant furniture fabrics. Occupational safety goggles. Ground-fault interrupter outlets and well-insulated wires. Elevator cables with safety clutches. Staircases built to code. An unthinking way of life in which we start the car, reverse down the driveway, see a mother and toddler, touch the brake, stop smoothly.
* * *
Disasters are by definition unfortunate, but they may be necessary. We may need to suffer individually in order to flourish as a species. What’s more, even large-scale accidents may be necessary: in some cases, the inertia or resistance to change may be so great that only a catastrophe, such as the worst crash in civil aviation history, will get enough people to pay attention, and to feel enough urgency and passion to make the changes.
Even so, something’s still missing. How are we to regard the 128 people who died, and whose deaths made our lives that much safer? Who takes credit for those changes? For making, in effect good out of bad?
The 128 dead are in a strange position; especially in a society that thinks in terms of individual rather than collective good, there isn’t a word for them. They’re not what we usually think of as heroes, as heroism to us usually involves individual choice and action, and they were helpless. Yet they aren’t victims, either, as that word implies a dead end to their lives, rather than the beginning of something so widespread and valuable that, arguably, they couldn’t have done as much for other people if they had survived the crash.
Likewise, whom should we thank for each uninterrupted flight? The politicians who rushed the Federal Aviation Act into law? Maybe. The researchers, engineers and civil servants who identified the problems and made the recommendations? They certainly deserve more credit than is usually given to them in a country prone to sneering at bureaucrats and attacking “big government.”
I wonder whether a simple act of naming isn’t in order. It’s amazing how the judicious use of a name can change an act, redeem a life. In October 1984 the name Libby Zion was inextricably associated with loss, grief and anger, when an eighteen-year-old college student of that name died in New York Hospital in Manhattan while under the care of two young, overworked, exhausted medical residents.
Nowadays, the name has a very different association: thanks to the tireless fury of her father, the pioneering work of the Bell Commission and the good sense of the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education, Libby Zion is remembered as the person whose death changed the way in which medical residents are treated, trained and supervised, and may result in countless lives being saved.
Following this example, I’d like to offer a small memorial to those who died in the Grand Canyon crash. I haven’t been able to find a complete list, but here’s a start:
Frank C. Caple
Frank H. Clark
Jack S. Gandy
Jack B. Groshans
F. Robert Johlie II
Donald F Kehl
Ted M. Kubiniec
Theodore H. Lyman
Mary Ellen Lytle
Richard C. Noel
J. W Payne
Richard D. Payne
Richard Payne Jr.
Russell A. Shields Jr.
Carl J. Snyder
Peter A. Whyte
Albert E. Widdifield
Those of us who are about to fly salute you.