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Volume 13, Issue 50 ~ December 15 - December 21, 2005


Dropping into the Winter Bay

by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko

You must have seen it, too, the Bay spread out under you, as you flew out of Baltimore Washington International Airport to a distant city. I have seen it many times, marveling at its beauty and expanse. But, some years ago, the Bay was too close for comfort.

My daughter, home from college on her winter break, and I were trying to escape the cold winter mid-Atlantic by flying to the Bahamas. We sat by the windows and watched the mechanics swarm over our charter plane on the tarmac. A light drizzle fell from the dark sky all morning, although the thick soupy fog had lifted. Hour after hour dragged by.

The flight should have departed at 8am, and we were still watching the depressing drizzle at 11am. At last, just before noon, the boarding announcement came: A cheer went up.

Our seats were in the front of the plane: mine by the window, Valerie’s in the middle. An Asian gentleman had the aisle. “My wife and sons are behind us,” he said, smiling. We turned and said hello to an attractive woman and two teenage boys.

Bright sunlight greeted us as we cleared the clouds. We were on our way to sunny Freeport.

But not so fast. A short while into the flight, the plane plunged into the clouds again. The three of us exchanged worried glances. Suddenly the oxygen masks dropped in front of us. A young flight attendant stepped into the aisle and demonstrated their use. Her hands shook.

“We’ve lost cabin pressure,” the pilot announced over the loudspeaker. “Everyone stay calm.”

The flight attendant slowly crumpled to the floor.

A passenger knelt down and propped her into a sitting position against his seat. Two nuns recited the Lord’s Prayer. Others joined in, their voices muffled by the oxygen masks. A child’s piercing cries reached us from the back of the plane.

I looked out the window and grabbed Valerie’s hand. A large tanker slowly made its way up the Bay. Several islands dotted the black water. Poplar? Tangier? Smith? I had no idea where we were on the Chesapeake. The Bay roiled beneath us.

The Asian gentleman took Valerie’s hand and said, “It will be all right.”

I wasn’t so sure. The Bay was coming at us fast. I could see white ice hugging the shore. Hunter green loblolly pines swayed in the breeze, and skeletal oaks raised their naked limbs to the leaden sky. A shiver ran down my spine. It was going to be pretty cold in that water, among the crabs and oysters. Yet a grateful thought flashed in my head. Our whole family would not perish on this plane, unlike our seatmate’s. He looked calm, but his knuckles were white.

“We’re headed to Richmond Airport. It has a very long runway. Prepare for emergency landing.”

There was no time for panic. We put our hands over our heads and our heads to our knees. The plane was going down.

Sirens and flashing lights surrounded us as we skidded down the rain-slicked runway to a stop. The emergency doors opened. Grabbing only our purses, we slid down the inflated slide onto solid ground.

Unable to resist glancing back, I saw that the plane was at the very end of the runway. But it had not burst into flames.

Light bulbs flashed in our faces as we made our way to the lounge. The press had been alerted.

We were given a choice of returning to Baltimore on a bus or continuing our flight as soon as a replacement plane became available. Valerie and I looked at each other.

“What are the chances of this happening again?” she said.

We boarded another plane a few hours later. Though some chose the bus, the Asian family was right behind us.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.