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The Flight that Killed the Man in the House

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This morning CNN online ran an article about the initial findings in the investigation of the Continental Connection Flight 3407 that crashed in Buffalo, New York, this past February, killing 50 people. Apparently, icing on the wing may have played a marginal role. More than anything, though, the crash may have been the result of pilot error. Captain Marvin Renslow allegedly did not follow correct flight procedures (maneuvers) when the plane experienced a loss of airspeed.

That’s a tragedy and I have a vague memory of it. I’m impressed that I do. Usually I can’t remember what I had for dinner three nights ago (occasional consumption of the noble grape may have something to do with that), but I do vaguely recall it. What’s important to me about this morning’s piece is that there were a total of only 49 people on the plane — crew and passengers — but 50 people died.

The 50th was alone in his house when the Continental flight did a nosedive into the unnamed man’s home. This leads me to wonder: what was he doing, this 50th victim? More than anything, it buttresses my devout belief in the utter randomness of everything. Yeats said, “the centre cannot hold,” but I don’t detect any center, especially the older I get.

Is this unnamed gentleman of interest to us? How old was he? Did he have children? What kind of life had he lived? Was he secretly harboring feelings of guilt over past crimes he may have committed? Was he planning that very day to kill someone (and so while the flight crash was indeed tragic it could have actually spared a life)? Or was this extraordinarily unlucky man just your everyday guy who gets up, works, comes home, channel surfs for a while, has a few beers, and then turns the light out?

I’m sure the answers are available for anyone who chooses to look into this tragic incident, but let’s assume — if only for a few seconds — the passengers knew they were crashing and likely to die. Mere seconds. What they thought, felt, or experienced in those milliseconds may have been pure horror or perhaps a kind of serenity. They had the slightest foreknowledge of their demise. Undoubtedly it’s one of the millions of wonders of the human brain that it can process images and emotions at speeds that would make the fastest of all possible computers seem tortoise-like.

I don’t know whether I’d want those few moments, but I suspect I would, even though I equally suspect mine would be horror- and fear-filled. The man in the house was here, and then he was not. Maybe there were moments, quasi-moments, he had between the initial sound of shearing of lumber and his demise, but I suspect it was like this: lights on/lights off.

The playwright Tom Stoppard calls death “the absence of presence.” One minute this unnamed gentleman was present, then he was absent. Life is like that. Death is like that: present, then absent.

The CNN article gave me the names of the pilot and co-pilot. It would be unwieldy and not really plausible to list the 47 passengers whose lives were no doubt as complicated and confounding as ours. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the spokes of loss that have undoubtedly resulted over those deaths.

I’d like to have known that man’s name, the one in the house. Not for any specific reason. I wouldn’t feel any differently about him if he was James White or Whitmore Harlington or Fred somebody, but to be the one man in the one house affected by this crash, to be the sole grounded victim (like the neighbor’s house that is taken in a tornado while yours is left untouched), well, I’d like to know his name, if only to understand more tangibly — and more to appreciate — this mysterious, marvelous, and dangerous dance of living, just living that we all do every day – until we don’t do it anymore.

A name to hang the absence of presence on.

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About Stephen Foster

  • Richard in PA

    The person killed on the ground was not alone in his house. His wife and daughter were there, too, but in a different part of the house. They were able to escape. He wasn’t. His name was Doug Wielinski. FYI I am a Buffalo area native.