We take so much for granted in our day-to-day lives but every now and then we are reminded of our own mortality. Occasionally it can take a life-or-death experience to bring home to us what a truly precious gift life is. Its real value is easily forgotten in the head-long rush to acquire more wealth, power or prestige; yet it only takes an encounter with our own mortality to remind us what a miracle life is. Russian mystic George Gurdjieff once remarked that if each man were constantly aware of the prospect of his own death there would be no need for religion; men who fully understood their own life’s impermanence would see everything anew and act in accordance with their highest impulses. Here Jemima Khan tells of such an experience when a madman tried to send Flight BA2069 plunging to earth from 35,000ft. The daughter of a renegade British Jewish financier she has turned her back on both her Jewish background and the excesses of life in modern Britain to become a Muslim and marry Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imram Khan. Ed.
ALL my life I have been petrified of flying. I was scared even as a small child, so much so that my father, who shared this phobia, used to give me Valium before a flight. My mother once sent me to a hypnotist, who claimed he could cure any fears . . . not mine. For years I travelled with a “How to take the fear out of flying” book in my hand.
Three days ago, my mother, my brother Ben, my cousin Cosima and her two children, my two boys and I and the nanny, Rose, set off for Gatwick, where we were to take a flight to Nairobi to spend 10 days on safari. I had the usual feelings of discomfort but as I was very busy organising my children (aged 20 months and four years) I did not think too much about the flight.
Normally, I say to at least one person before I fly, “If I get there safely. . . of course you know we could crash”. My two brothers and I have done this for years, believing that by predicting we are going to crash we can somehow narrow the odds of it actually occurring. Apparently the probability of dying in a plane crash is minute, less than that of being kicked in the head by a donkey (someone once told me) and, of course, far less than that of being killed in a car travelling to and from the airport. It may seem strange logic but it is our particular superstitious ritual.
On this occasion, I had neglected to perform the ritual. Ten minutes before arriving at the airport, my brother Zac called me on my mobile. It was a very bad line as he was calling from a satellite phone in Mexico. His tone was urgent. “I have been having some strange dreams about you all, about the flight. Promise you will leave a message on my mobile when you arrive to say you have got there safely.” I laughed nervously. “What kind of dreams? You are scaring me. . .” The line was so bad after that I could not hear anything else. However, I wasn’t that worried by his dream, as he is as neurotic as I am about flying.
We boarded the flight, which was full to capacity. My mother was sitting in the front of the cabin. My brother was behind her and I was in the two middle seats with Kasim on my lap and Sulaiman on the seat next to me. Take-off was fine . . . a few nervous glances exchanged between my brother and I but, despite our fears, it was smooth.
As take-off is the bit I dread most (statistically most accidents occur during take-off and landing), after counting to a hundred, I relaxed. It was a night flight and I managed to get my children off to sleep, surprisingly easily. Then I settled down to sleep myself. There was a lot of what is known as “light to moderate air turbulence” during the night and, as usual, I sought frequent reassurance from the most sympathetic looking air stewardess. I called her three times during the night: “Is everything all right?” “Yes, everything is fine. We are flying over mountains and this is just clear air turbulence.” A different air steward, noticing my fearful expression, promised to circulate the cabin during turbulence every 10 minutes and give me a smile and a thumbs-up sign.
I could not sleep and was keeping awake my baby, who was sleeping on top of me, so I handed him over to the nanny. And after one more grin and a thumbs-up from Mr Nice Air Steward, the last image in my mind, I fell asleep about five hours into the flight. The next thing I knew, the plane was in an abrupt dive, engines shrieking. A woman next to me was screaming and I heard my mother cry out: “Oh my God.” The first thing I thought was, “It must be a terrible storm”, but I could see cloudless blue sky out of the window. My brother shouted out, “Someone ask the captain, ask the captain”, and I remember shouting at him: “Ben, be quiet!”
The nose of the plane heaved up for a second and shuddered violently as the engines seemed to stall and the passenger alarms sounded repeatedly. I could hear another sound like a siren coming from somewhere behind me I remember thinking, “After all my needless neurosis, it is actually happening”.
Then the plane went into a steep nose dive. A trolley rammed into an air stewardess behind me, breaking her ankle, the oxygen mask fell out, another air stewardess was crawling up the aisle on all fours, and all the cabin lights went out. I could hear my brother shouting, “We are going to die” and could see him holding my mother’s hand over the top of the chair.
The plane levelled out for a moment and it felt as if the pilot was struggling to regain control and then again started shuddering violently and the engines seemed to stall for a second time. More screams from people around me. For some reason I was most aware of my brother’s fear. I could see grey smoke pouring out of the left engine, the plane veered over and then dived again sharply downwards this time as if it was about to flip over.
There was an eerie silence that was even more frightening than the shuddering of the plane and the screaming. There were no engine noises and no screams, just a whistling noise from outside, and moaning from some of the passengers. We were below the clouds and I could see the ground clearly. I was terrifyingly conscious and I thought, “Very soon, we are going to die”. This time it felt as if we were falling forever.
My brother said goodbye to my mother, who had tears streaming down her face. It was exactly as I had imagined a plane crash to be and I remember thinking, “How weird that I am going to die the way I have always feared dying”. There was a sense of deja vu as I had envisaged it so many times before, except that it all took so much longer than I had imagined, not instant at all, as everyone supposes, and the adrenalin made me acutely aware of what was happening. My Sulaiman was clinging to me and I had one hand holding my seat belt and one hand on him, trying to calm him. He was looking at my face the entire time.
We waited, seemingly forever, for the inevitable impact or explosion and for it all to be over, waiting for blackness, praying it would not hurt. The strange thing is that all my life I have been a coward yet when my worst fears were realised I was completely calm. Death seemed inevitable and screaming pointless. I could see the terror on Sulaiman’s face. It was only maternal instinct that enabled me to retain my composure. He was panicking, looking out of the plane window and I was holding him and saying repeatedly: “Darling, it is all right. Everything is fine, we are going to be fine.” And all the time thinking, “Please let it be quick. Please don’t let his last minutes be filled with fear or pain”. Then the plane lunged up for a moment and I thought, “Oh God, this is torture, when is it going to end?”
I became aware again of noises coming from the other passengers. A woman behind me was moaning and I could hear the noise of a man howling at the front of the plane and another crying next to me. I screamed out: “Everyone pray. Everyone pray.”
I heard my brother then praying out loud: “God help us.” Then I heard a Muslim woman behind me who I had noticed earlier playing with her tusbi (prayer beads) praying: “Bism’Allah al Rahman al Rahim.” Then I heard myself praying very loudly: “Oh God help us. Don’t let us die now. Please save us.” (Sulaiman later told me: “Amma I prayed too, I prayed, ‘Allah please help us’.”)
Then more shuddering and the pilot seemed to be bringing the plane under control. And after a few seconds of stunned silence, as we all waited for the next plunge, an announcement from the pilot, out of breath and in a broken voice: “A bad man just tried to kill us all but everything is fine now.”
A second of relief that it was a man, not a technical problem. After a few more minutes, the pilot came on again and I remember thinking he sounded just like Sean Connery: “I probably sound a bit more normal now. A man entered the cockpit and tried to crash the plane but he has been restrained and everything is all right.”
Then I broke down and started crying. People around me were also crying and comforting each other. And I was thinking, “We are alive, God saved us”, but we were still not sure it was all over, as I heard someone say that the man had been shouting that he had a friend on board and I was also afraid that the engines of the plane had been damaged. I tried to get back to Kasim but couldn’t because there were injured people in the galley. Finally I reached him and miraculously he was still asleep, (the only sleeping person on the whole plane) and Rose was shaking with tears and fright.
A friend of my cousins, Lucy, who we had seen at the airport, described to us how this mad man, our would-be assassin, who had caused problems at Gatwick at check-in, had been sitting in front of her in the upstairs cabin. When he had seen the captain leave the cockpit, he had run in and attacked the co-pilot, grabbing the controls of the plane and thrusting them downwards, disengaging the autopilot.
The upstairs passengers heard a scream from the cockpit and someone shouted, “There’s a man in there” and four of them broke down the cockpit doors, wrestled the intruder to the ground, gouging his eyes in the process. The captain, who was bitten on the ear and the finger in the struggle, later said that if the drama had lasted four or five seconds longer, the co-pilot would not have been able to regain control because the plane was about to flip on its back.
Undoubtedly, the quick reactions and experience of the crew, the courage of the passengers who intervened and the resilience of the plane are what saved us. In the future, airline safety guidelines will have to be reconsidered and the door to the cockpit must have some kind of coded lock on it to prevent anything similar happening again.
Such is the human’s incredible capacity to block out traumatic experiences, even hours afterwards, that I felt as if it was all a distant memory or as if what I was relating had in fact happened to somebody else. And one of the reasons that I wanted to write about it, apart from the fact that writing is so cathartic, is that I do not want subconsciously to edit events to such a degree that in a few weeks I have forgotten that feeling of wonder at having survived or my gratitude towards God for answering our prayers and the subsequent promises that I made to be a better person.
And if, in the future, I become complacent about life or ungrateful or depressed, which I am sure I will at some point, all I need to do is close my eyes and remember this experience to remind me of how vulnerable we are and how fortunate we are to be alive.
(c)2000 Jemima Khan