People were easing nervously back into their seats.
“Now that I’ve told you what we know, Guerrero; now you know that it isn’t any good going on, I’m asking you to give me that case.” Demerest tried to keep his tone reasonable, sensing it was important to keep talking. “If you do as I say, I give you my solemn word that no one in this airplane will harm you.”
D. O. Guerrero’s eyes mirrored fear. He moistened thin lips with his tongue. Gwen Meighen was closest to him.
Demerest said quietly, “Gwen, take it easy. Try to get in a seat,” If he had to leap, he wanted no one in the way.
Behind Guerrero the door of the occupied toilet opened. An owlish young man with thick glasses came out. He stopped, peering short-sightedly. Obviously he had heard nothing of what was going on.
Another passenger yelled, “Grab the guy with the case! He’s got a bomb!”
At the first “click” of the toilet door, Guerrero half turned. Now he lunged, thrusting the man with glasses aside, and entered the toilet which the newcomer had vacated.
As Guerrero moved, Gwen Meighen moved too, remaining close behind him. Vernon Demerest, several yards away, was struggling fiercely aft, down the still crowded aisle.
The toilet door was closing as Gwen reached it. She thrust a foot inside and shoved. Her foot stopped the door from closing, but the door refused to move. Despairing, as pain shot through her foot, she could feel Guerrero’s weight against the other side.
In D. O. Guerrero’s mind the last few minutes bad been a jumbled blur. He had not fully comprehended everything that had occurred, nor had he heard all that Demerest said. But one thing penetrated. He realized that like so many of his other grand designs, this one, too, had failed. Somewhere–as always happened with whatever he attempted–he had bungled. All his life had been a failure. With bitterness, he knew his death would be a failure too.
His back was braced against the inside of the toilet door. He felt pressure on it, and knew that at any moment the pressure would increase so that he could no longer hold the door closed. Desperately be fumbled with the attaché case, reaching for the string beneath the handle which would release the square of plastic, actuating the clothespin switch and detonating the dynamite inside. Even as he found the string and tugged, he wondered if the bomb be had made would be a failure also.
In his last split second of life and comprehension, D. O. Guerrero learned that it was not.
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THE EXPLOSION aboard Trans America Flight Two, The Golden Argosy, was instantaneous, monstrous, and overwhelming. In the airplane’s confined space it struck with the din of a hundred thunderclaps, a sheet of flame, and a blow like a giant sledge hammer.
D. O. Guerrero died instantly, his body, near the core of the explosion, disintegrating utterly. One moment he existed; the next, there were only a few small, bloody pieces of him left.
The aircraft fuselage blew open.
Gwen Meighen, who, next to Guerrero, was nearest the explosion, received its force in her face and chest.
An instant after the dynamite charge ripped the aircraft skin, the cabin decompressed. With a second roar and tornado force, air inside the aircraft–until this moment maintained at normal pressure–swept through the ruptured fuselage to dissipate in the high altitude near-vacuum outside. Through the passenger cabins a dark engulfing cloud of dust surged toward the rear. With it, like litter in a maelstrom, went every loose object, light and heavy–papers, food trays, liquor bottles, coffeepots, hand luggage, clothing, passengers’ belongings–all whirling through the air as if impelled toward a cyclopean vacuum cleaner. Curtains tore away. Internal doors–flight deck, storage, and toilets–wrenched free from locks and hinges and were swept rearward with the rest.
Several passengers were struck. Others, not strapped in their seats, clung to any handhold as the wind and suction drew them inexorably toward the rear.
Throughout the aircraft, emergency compartments above each seat snapped open. Yellow oxygen masks came tumbling down, each mask connected by a short plastic tube to a central oxygen supply.
Abruptly the suction lessened. The aircraft’s interior was filled with mist and a savage, biting cold. Noise from engines and wind was overwhelming.
Vernon Demerest, still in the aisle of the tourist cabin where he had held himself by instinctively seizing a seatback, roared, “Get on oxygen!” He grabbed a mask himself.
Through knowledge and training, Demerest realized what most others did not: The air inside the cabin was now as rarefied as that outside, and insufficient to support life. Only fifteen seconds of full consciousness remained to everyone, unless oxygen was used at once from the aircraft’s emergency system.
Even in five seconds, without the aid of oxygen, a degree of lessened judgment would occur.
In another five seconds a state of euphoria would make many decide not to bother with oxygen at all. They would lapse into unconsciousness, not caring.
Airlines had long been urged, by those who understood the hazards of decompression, to make pre-flight announcements about oxygen equipment more definite than they were. Passengers should be told, it was argued: The instant an oxygen mask appears in front of you, grab it, stick your face into it, and ask questions after. If there is a real decompression, you haven’t a single second to spare. If it’s a false alarm, you can always take the mask off later; meanwhile it will do no harm.
Pilots who took decompression tests were given a simple demonstration of the effect of oxygen lack at high altitudes. In a decompression tank, with an oxygen mask on, they were told to begin writing their signatures, and part way through the exercise their masks were removed. The signatures tailed off into a scrawl, or nothingness. Before unconsciousness occurred, the masks were put back on.
The pilots found it hard to believe what they saw on the page before them.
Yet airtine managements, theorizing that more definite oxygen advice might create alarm among passengers, persisted in the use of innocuous flight announcements only. Smiling stewardesses, seeming either bored or amused, casually demonstrated the equipment while an unseen voice–hurrying to get finished before takeoff–parroted phrases like: In the unlikely event… and… Government regulations require that we inform you. No mention was ever made of urgency, should the equipment be required for use.
As a result, passengers became as indifferent to emergency oxygen facilities as airlines and their staffs appeared to be. The overhead boxes and monotonous, always-alike demonstrations were (passengers reasoned) something dreamed up by a bunch of regulation-obsessed civil servants. (Yawn!) Obviously the whole thing was largely a charade, insisted on by the same kind of people who collected income taxes and disallowed expense accounts. So what the hell!
Occasionally, on regular flights, oxygen mask housings opened accidentally, and masks dropped down in front of passengers. When this happened, most passengers stared curiously at the masks but made no attempt to put them on. Precisely that reaction–though the emergency was real–had occurred aboard Flight Two.
Vernon Demerest saw the reaction and in a flash of sudden anger remembered his own, and other pilots’, criticisms of soft-pedaled oxygen announcements. But there was no time to shout another warning, nor even to think of Gwen, who might be dead or dying only a few feet away.
Only one thing mattered: somehow to get back to the flight deck, and help save the airplane if he could.
Breathing oxygen deeply, he planned his movement forward in the aircraft.
Above every seat section in the tourist cabin, four oxygen masks had dropped–one for the occupant of each seat, plus a spare to be grabbed if necessary by anyone standing in the aisle. It was one of the spares which Demerest had seized and was using.
But to reach the flight deck he must abandon this mask and use a portable one that would permit him to move forward freely.
He knew that two portable oxygen cylinders were stowed, farther forward, in an overhead rack near the first class cabin bulkhead. If be could make it to the portable cylinders, either one would sustain him for the remaining distance from the bulkhead to the flight deck.
He moved forward to the bulkhead one seat section at a time, using one spare hanging mask after another as he went. A couple of seat sections ahead, he could see that aff four masks were being used by seated passengers; the three seat occupants, including a teen-age girl, had one mask each; the fourth mask was being held by the teenager over the face of an infant on its mother’s lap alongside. The girl seemed to have taken charge and was motioning to others near her what to do. Demerest swung toward the opposite side of the cabin, saw a spare mask hanging, and taking a deep breath of oxygen, he let go the one he had and reached for the other spare. He made it, and breathed deeply once again. He still had more than half the tourist cabin length to go.
He had made one more move when he felt the aircraft roll sharply to the right, then dive steeply down.
Demerest hung on. He knew that, for the moment, there was nothing he could do. What happened next was dependent on two things: how much damage the explosion had done, and the skill of Anson Harris, at the flight controls, alone.
ON THE FLIGHT deck, the events of the last few seconds had occurred with even less warning than at the rear. After the departure of Gwen Meighen and Mrs. Quonsett, followed by Vernon Demerest, the two remaining crew members–Anson Harris and Second Officer Cy Jordan–had no knowledge of what was going on in the passenger cabins behind them until the dynamite blast rocked the aircraft, followed an instant later by explosive decompression.
As in the passenger compartments, the cockpit filled with a thick, dark cloud of dust, almost immediately sucked out as the flight deck door smashed free from its lock and hinges, and flew outward. Everything loose on the flight deck was snatched up, to be carried back, joining the debris-laden whirlwind.
Under the flight engineer’s table, a warning horn began blaring intermittently. Over both front seats, bright yellow lights flashed on. Both horn and lights were signals of dangerously low pressure.
A fine mist–deathly cold–replaced the cloud of dust. Anson Harris felt his eardrums tighten painfully.
But even before that, he had reacted instantly–the effect of training and experience of many years.
On the long, uphill road to airline captaincy, pilots spent arduous hours in classrooms and simulators, studying and practicing airborne situations, both normal and emergency. The objective was to instill quick, correct reactions at all times.
The simulators were located at important air bases and all major scheduled airlines had them.
From outside, a simulator looked like the nose of an aircraft, with the rest of the fuselage chopped off; inside, was everything included in a normal flight deck.
Once inside a simulator, pilots remained shut up for hours, imitating the precise conditions of a long distance flight. The effect, when the outside door was closed, was uncanny; even motion and noise were present, creating the physical effect of being airborne. All other conditions paralleled reality. A screen beyond the forward windows could conjure up airports and runways, enlarging or receding to simulate takeoff and landing. The only difference between a simulator flight deck and a genuine one was that the simulator never left the ground.