As she walked tentatively down each step, Pearl Willerby shivered heavily with shock. Her eyes stared pleadingly at me. I reached my free hand out to her and helped her down the remaining steps onto the edge of the landing strip. In the distance, I could hear sirens as the airport emergency services raced towards us. As Pearl reached the bottom step she suddenly collapsed into my arms just as the door finally gave way, blood from a gash in her neck instantly stained my shoulder and the front of my t-shirt. Her breath was growing weaker by the second and rasping in her throat. I lowered her to the ground, tapping her face and shouting her name in an effort to keep her conscious but the life in her was slipping away and there was nothing that could be done to stop it. One last breath and she was gone. After a moment of despair, I gently closed her eyes and laid her outstretched on the ground. I looked about. There was debris everywhere. The front of the plane was burning furiously, about a hundred metres along the runway. Fragments of fuselage and seats lay scattered about the field and broken suitcases lay burst open with their contents spilled everywhere. I could see another two bodies tangled amongst shattered wreckage forty metres or so away, there was clearly no hope of life in any of them.
I rubbed at my right leg to ease the sting from a deep sore in my calf. I was lucky, just a few scratches and bruising, it seemed. “Hello” I shouted, trying to attract the attention of anyone conscious. There was no reply.
Fifteen minutes later, I was on my way to hospital in an ambulance, watching the medical staff on board as they desperately tried to save the pilot who had been pulled from the burning cockpit and who, now, lay unresponsive on the stretcher opposite me.
An hour later and although I’d been cleared to go home, I couldn’t leave. Shockingly, I’d learned that all the other passengers on the flight had died. Only the pilot and I had survived and he was being wired up to a life support machine as I was being released.
It may have seemed a miracle that I was so unhurt but in truth, it was simply good luck. I was lucky because of the seat I was sitting in, when the plane split in two I was thrown clear of the wreckage. I was lucky because I landed in a small pond. I’d scrambled out of the water and run towards the tail end of the plane where it had crashed to a stop on the edge of the tarmac. The front of the plane, having been propelled further down the runway, exploded when sparks ignited the remaining fuel in the wings.
You can imagine my shock when I saw Pearl Willerby, a lovely elderly lady I’d spent the last half hour casually chatting to, standing in the open doorway of the broken tail end of the DC-3 aircraft we were travelling in. I could see that the steps, which appeared to be built into the door, had been badly damaged and were only just hanging on, so used all my strength to hold them in place and shouted up to Pearl to make her way down the stairs towards me. But she didn’t react, she just continued to stare out, as if in a trance. Realising she was in trouble, I somehow managed to wedge the heavy steps still with my hip and my right arm while I stretched out my left hand to help Pearl. I was starting to panic. I kept calling to her. “Get out” I shouted. Eventually, she heard me. She took a tentative step forward, and then another and then I finally caught her hand to help herdown the remaining steps. Sadly, you know the rest.
Later, still in the hospital, once the doctors had prepared the pilot’s oxygen supply and intravenous medicines, I took a seat by his bed. A nurse approached, asking me if I knew his name. I didn’t. He had only introduced himself as the Captain. No documents had been recovered of course, as the plane had exploded and burned everything, including the co-pilot. Urgh! What a terrible way to go!
I fell asleep in the chair that night, sitting in vigil at the bedside of a virtual stranger.
The next morning, a new nurse woke me up with a cup of hot tea, which I accepted gratefully. I was then politely told I needed to let them get on with their work. Also, a local policeman was waiting to take a statement from me about the crash. Not that I had anything to tell him but I understood that he had to start somewhere and as I appeared to be the only lucid survivor, he had to start with me.
Reluctantly, I made my way out of the hospital, making the nurse promise to contact me at the Purple Palm Hotel if there was any change in his condition. Of course, she said, but I later realised she would have agreed to anything in that moment, to be rid of me.
I left the hospital and promised to go directly to the police station, which I was informed was just around the corner to the right of the hospital. I walked outside into the bright Bermudan sunshine. The many colours of the native hibiscus and honeysuckle flowers that adorned the street looked stunning. I loved all the beautiful colours and aromas of this flower-laden paradise. I’d been here many times on business before and I was always keen to meet up with clients here.
But, strangely, today it looked and felt unfamiliar. It was probably just the effects of shock from the crash, I told myself. I made my way around the corner, found the police station and introduced myself. A young police officer smiled politely and led me into an interview room. A moment later, a policewoman came in and took the seat opposite me. She asked me a number of questions, of a type that surprised me from the start. Who was I? Where had I travelled from? Where was I going? I told her my name, Jodie Thompson, and that I had travelled from New York to meet up with a client at the First Royal Bank of Bermuda in Hamilton.
“Hamilton, where?” she’d asked.
“Hamilton, Bermuda, of course” I’d replied. My patience was beginning to wear a little thin. After the 24 hours I’d just had, all I wanted to do now was get booked into my hotel, take a shower and catch the next flight home. I needed to call my husband - I would normally call him as soon as I was on terra firma to let him know I'd arrived safely, and if he's heard about the crash, he must be worried out of his mind. My mobile phone was lost in the crash with the rest of my belongings, and I'd wandered around the hospital the night before but failed to find a payphone. I'd asked a couple of nurses if I could use a phone but they were so busy with the aftermath of the crash they just looked at me blankly. I was confused, cleary still in shock and just so exhausted I had just felt a compelling need to sit with what was now the only other survivor.
The policewoman’s voice broke through my chain of thought “Where’s New York?” she was asking “did you come from Taratula, Grebo or Dante?”
What? Oh no, I must be dreaming! I pinched myself. She was still sitting there.
“Which island have you travelled from?” she was asking “Taratula, Grebo or Dante?”
What was she talking about? I’d never heard of Taratula or Grebo or Dante.
That was when I first realised that maybe we’d crashed somewhere else and hadn’t actually made it to Bermuda. “I came from New York and I was travelling to Bermuda. Is this not Bermuda?” I asked.
“No”, she replied “I’ve never heard of Bermuda. Is it a suburb of Taratula?”
What was her obsession with Taratula all about, I began to wonder.
“If this isn’t Bermuda then I think we must have veered off course, or something. How’s the pilot? He’ll be able to tell you all of this. I was only a passenger, I don’t know what happened, other than we flew into a really bad storm” I told her. “So, if this isn’t Bermuda. Where am I?”
The policewoman smiled “I’m the one asking the questions” she told me
What did she think? That I was a criminal or something? The first flutters of worry for my well-being after realising I’d survived, began to stir in my belly.
“With all due respect, is all of this really necessary?” I asked. “After all, I’ve just had one of the worst experiences of my life and I’d really like to go home now.”
I suddenly realised the impact of having lost my belongings. With no passport or money , how was I supposed to get home, I asked.
Apparently, that wasn’t possible. First, she needed to know where ‘Home’ was and though I kept telling her I needed to get back to my husband in New York she just kept asking me where New York was. I felt so frustrated and scared I thought I was going to burst into tears. I asked if I could use a phone to ring my husband and let him know I was OK.
“A phone?” she queried “you want a ring for your husband? I don’t understand, are you feeling ok?"
I started to question if I was going crazy at that point. Worse still, maybe I’d died in the plane crash and this was purgatory! Oh no! I felt major a panic setting in. Nothing made any sense.
“I’m sorry, I need to get out of here. I need to get some air. Do you mind if I go to my hotel? I just need some rest after the crash and all”
“Which hotel are you booked into?” she asked. Argh, here we go with the questions again. I took a deep breath and tried to be patient.
“The Purple Palm Hotel in Paget” I replied “Paget in Bermuda”, I added, reluctantly.
The policewoman, who I now knew was called Primrose, closed the file on the desk, told me to wait a moment and left the room. My head was pounding. I felt caged, trapped. I followed her out and when she protested, I pleaded with her to let me get some fresh air and a hotel room.
And then I saw the policeman I’d spoken to on arrival. “Please, sir, do you have a phone I can use? I need to ring my husband. He’ll be so worried about me”.
He looked blankly at me. “A what?” he asked.
I was sure I must be going crazy. I didn’t know what to do or say to these people, so I did nothing and I said nothing. I just observed.
I was taken from the police station to what can only be described as a pretty little B&B. In any other circumstances, I would have called it quaint. Powder blue walls, white roof (just like Bermuda, I thought), with a colourful little garden full of pink and yellow and orange blossoms. A pleasant, middle-aged couple, called Mr & Mrs something-or-other (I couldn’t remember what) greeted me kindly and led me to my room. It had a big bed and a lovely panoramic view of the beach outside and the sea beyond. I was so tired, so confused and so worried that I don’t think I noticed anything else. As soon as they left the room I jumped into the shower. The soapy water stung the cuts on my arms and legs and I could see dozens of blue and purple bruises developing all over my body. Under the familiar comfort of the hot, running water, the events of the last 2 days caught up with me and I slid down onto the floor of the shower cubicle and cried. Eventually, when I was all cried out, I tried to pull myself together, turned the water off, towelled myself dry and climbed into bed. I soon fell asleep, convinced that when I woke up in the morning everything would be back to normal and this would all have been a bad dream.
My sleep was disturbed by memories of the crash. The Captain’s warning that we were approaching a storm, the fog and darkness that engulfed us, the heavy rain on the windows, the shock of the sudden air pocket drops and the bangs and shakes of the plane as it was hit by lightning strikes over and over again. And then there was a terrible noise from the engine and the plane started to nose-dive from the sky. We could feel the front end of the plane lifting a little then dropping again as the pilot fought for control but the plane kept on falling. The wings wavered up and down, left to right. Inside the cabin the twelve of us gripped anything we could, some crying, some praying, some panicking and shouting “This is it. Oh no, this is it”. It was terrifying. It felt as though we’d been falling for so long we must have been about to crash but there was so much fog outside we couldn’t see the ground approaching us (thankfully). And then we hit down on something and the plane suddenly spun over sideways. Within seconds a huge crack appeared across the cabin right in front of my feet. As we spun again, the crack in the floor broke open. I don’t know why but I undid my seatbelt and suddenly, I was being flung about in the open air and then I was under water. I struggled to right myself and pulled myself to the surface to see the plane burning on the ground.
I woke from my sleep in a cold sweat. It was pitch black outside. I could hear the waves beating on the shore outside. I laid awake thinking, remembering. Moments after the Captain had warned of the storm ahead, I’d checked my watch for the time but it seemed to be broken, the hands were spinning backwards and forwards. I was knocking the face of my watch, trying to settle it down when the first bolt of lightning hit the plane.
As I lay there, in the dark, I looked around. I realised I hadn’t woken from a bad dream, after all, I was still in the B&B. Snippets of information started to gel together in my mind. The spinning watch face, the fog, the storm, the crash, the policeman who’d never heard of New York or Bermuda and the names of these strange places I’d never heard of before, like Taratula, Grebo and Dante. I reached down to check my leg, the deep cut was still there. My ribs still hurt where they were bruised. The crash had definitely happened and the craziest idea of all was beginning to form in my mind.