How to Remember a Disaster Without Being Shattered by It

McKinnon had grown up listening to police and fire scanners. Her father was a deputy fire marshal, and her mother was a nurse. From their living room, McKinnon heard about car crashes, people trapped inside of homes, or victims escaping from burning buildings, dragging themselves outside for help.

Overhearing these life-or-death intrusions into an otherwise ordinary childhood, she started out thinking she wanted to be a writer, drawn to stories of resilience in the face of trauma. “That was absolutely my dream,” she says. But in college her interests cut a new channel, and she majored in psychology.

By the time she got engaged to Baljkas, McKinnon was a PhD student studying memory and its pathways in the brain at the University of Toronto. Baljkas was a graduate student in graphic design, and they had met through McKinnon’s best friend from high school. He was logical and cool-headed. She was empathetic, probing. “It will be fine,” Baljkas told her as the plane bucked back and forth underneath them.

Onboard, a couple tried to wrap a life vest around their young child. People near McKinnon and Baljkas were praying, whispering, and weeping, calling out the name of Our Lady of Fatima in Portuguese. Pleading for their lives. Saying goodbye to daughters and sons. McKinnon, who had long suffered from asthma, struggled to inhale.

From her seat, she felt the aircraft swerve and rock as it glided. Oxygen masks tumbled from above, but some of them didn’t work. “Please just make this end right now, God,” someone aboard prayed. “Make it quick.”

McKinnon remembers thinking in those moments: You know, my life, it’s been a good life. My husband, I love him. As she grew more distraught and terrified, and the plane descended faster, she surrendered to the inevitable. She thought of a video she’d once seen 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 plane in the grainy footage broke apart immediately upon hitting the water. McKinnon knew the chances of surviving a water crash were slim.

But even as McKinnon accepted the end, Baljkas rejected the possibility completely. He believed they would survive, no matter what. He planned how their escape would go: They would crash into the ocean, climb out of an exit, make their way to shore. He knew they were both good swimmers, and he rationalized that they would not get hypothermia in the warmer Atlantic waters.

“We’ll need our shoes,” he told her as the wide-body Airbus 330 continued to drop.

She gripped his hand.

“We’re going to be OK,” he told her.

The disaster went on like that for 30 minutes. Earthquake survivors often say that a temblor seems to last an eternity, when its actual duration is a matter of seconds. To believe that you are about to die for half an hour—to jostle inside a metal tube as you imagine yourself careening into the ocean, killed by either the impact or by drowning—is to endure at least a few eternities.

At some point, the copilot announced that they were going to attempt a landing on an island called Terceira, in the Azores, within the next five to seven minutes. The pilot turned the gliding airliner around in a giant, hideous corkscrew, banking hard and turning everyone sideways, before leveling out and picking up speed. McKinnon’s thoughts jumped from imagining what it would feel like to die in a water landing to envisioning a crash on land. She pictured them plowing into a neighborhood of people, killing all of them too.

Outside the windows in the predawn dark, it was hard to see anything, but McKinnon caught a glimpse of the ground—then water again. Until the last second, it was unclear what lay beneath them.

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