May 8, 2021


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How to remember a disaster without being broken by it

3 min read

McKinnon had grown up listen to police and fire scanners. Her father was an assistant fire marshal and her mother was a nurse. From their living room, McKinnon heard about car accidents, people trapped inside homes, or victims escaping burning buildings, crawling outside asking for help.

Hearing these life and death intrusions into an otherwise ordinary childhood, she began to think that she wanted to be a writer, drawn to stories of resilience in the face of trauma. “It was absolutely my dream,” she says. But at university, her interests opened up a new direction and she majored in psychology.

By the time she got engaged to Baljkas, McKinnon was studying memory and its pathways in the brain at the University of Toronto. Baljkas was a graduate student of graphic design, and they had met through McKinnon’s best friend from high school. He was logical and calm. She was empathetic, questioning. “Everything will be fine,” Baljkas told him as the plane swung back and forth under them.

On board, a couple attempted to wrap a life jacket around their young child. People near McKinnon and Baljkas prayed, whispered and cried, shouting the name of Our Lady of Fatima in Portuguese. Pleading for their life. Say goodbye to daughters and sons. McKinnon, who suffered from asthma for a long time, found it difficult to breathe.

From her seat, she felt the plane deviate and tip over as it hovered. The oxygen masks fell from above, but some of them did not work. “Please stop this ending now, God,” someone on board prayed. “Be quick.”

McKinnon remembers thinking about those times: You know my life has been a good life. My husband, I love him. As she grew more distraught and terrified, and the plane descended faster, she indulged in the inevitable. She thought of a video she had seen once that showed a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight in 1996. The pilot had attempted to land in the Indian Ocean after running out of fuel. The aircraft in the grainy streak shattered immediately after hitting the water. McKinnon knew the chances of surviving a water crash were slim.

But even though McKinnon accepted the ending, Baljkas rejected the possibility entirely. He believed they would survive no matter what. He planned how their escape would unfold: They would crash into the ocean, come out of an exit, make their way to shore. He knew they were both good swimmers and he explained that they wouldn’t suffer from hypothermia in the warmer Atlantic waters.

“We’ll need our shoes,” he told her as the widebody Airbus 330 continued to lower.

She grabs his hand.

“We’re going to be fine,” he told her.

The disaster continued like this for 30 minutes. Earthquake survivors often say that a quake seems to last for ages, while its actual duration is a matter of seconds. To believe that you are on the verge of death for half an hour – to push yourself inside a metal tube and imagine yourself careening in the ocean, killed either by impact or by drowning – is to endure at least a few eons.

At one point, the co-pilot announced that they would attempt a landing on an island called Terceira, in the Azores, within the next five to seven minutes. The pilot spun the glider airliner around in a giant, hideous corkscrew, leaning sharply and turning everyone on their side, before leveling off and picking up speed. McKinnon’s thoughts shifted from imagining what it would be like to die in a landing on water to imagining an accident on land. She imagined them breaking into a neighborhood of people, killing them all too.

Outside the windows, in the pre-dawn darkness, it was hard to see anything, but McKinnon caught sight of the ground – then water again. Until the last second, we didn’t know what was behind them.

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