Page 75 of Airport

Someone thrust a mask at the young man near Gwen who had been wounded. Though swaying, and scarcely aware of what was happening, he managed to hold it to his face.

Even so, barely half the passengers were on oxygen at the end of fifteen seconds—the critical time. By then, those not breathing oxygen were lapsing into drowsy stupor; in another fifteen seconds, most were unconscious.

Gwen Meighen received no oxygen, nor immediate help. The unconsciousness, caused by her injuries, deepened.

Then, on the flight deck, Anson Harris, accepting the risk of further structural damage and possible total destruction of the aircraft, made his decision for a high speed dive, saving Gwen and others from asphyxiation.

The dive began at twenty-eight thousand feet altitude; it ended, two and a half minutes later, at ten thousand feet.

A human being can survive without oxygen for three to four minutes without damage to the brain.

For the first half of the dive–for a minute and a quarter, down to nineteen thousand feet–the air continued to be rarefied, and insufficient to support life. Below that point, increasing amounts of oxygen were present and breathable.

At twelve thousand feet regular breathing was possible. By ten–with little time to spare, but enough–consciousness returned to all aboard Flight Two who had lost it, excepting Gwen. Many were unaware of having been unconscious at all.

Gradually, as initial shock wore off, passengers and the remaining stewardesses took stock of their situation. The stewardess who was second in seniority after Gwen–a pert blonde from Oak Lawn, Illinois–hurried toward the injured at the rear. Though her face paled, she called urgently, “Is there a doctor, please?”

“Yes, miss.” Dr. Compagno had already moved from his seat without waiting to be called. A small, sharp-featured man who moved impatiently and talked quickly with a Brooklyn accent, he surveyed the scene hurriedly, conscious of the already biting cold, the wind streaming noisily through the gaping hole in the fuselage. Where the toilets and rear galley had been was a twisted mess of charred and bloodstained wood and metal. The back of the fuselage to the interior of the tail was open, with control wires and structural assemblies exposed.

The doctor raised his voice to make himself heard above the noise of wind and engines, constant and encompassing now that the cabin was no longer sealed.

“I suggest you move as many people as you can nearer the front. Keep everyone as warm as possible. We’ll need blankets for those who are hurt.”

The stewardess said doubtfully, “I’ll try to find some.” Many of the blankets normally stored in overhead racks had been swept out, along with passengers’ extra clothing and other objects, in the whirlwind of decompression.

The two other doctors from Dr. Compagno’s tour party joined him. One instructed another stewardess, “Bring us all the first aid equipment you have.” Compagno–already on his knees beside Gwen–was the only one of the three with a medical bag.

Carrying a bag with emergency supplies wherever he went was characteristic of Milton Compagno. So was taking charge now, even though–as a G.P.–he was outranked professionally by the other two doctors who were internists.

Milton Compagno never considered himself off duty. Thirty-five years ago, as a young man who had fought an upward battle from a New York slum, he hung out a shingle in Chicago’s Little Italy, near MHwaukee and Grand Avenues. Since then–as his wife told it, usually with resignation–the only time he ceased practicing medicine was while he slept. He enjoyed being needed. He acted as if his profession were a prize he had won, which, if not guarded, would slip away. He had never been known to refuse to see a patient at any hour, or to fail to make a house call if sent for. He never drove past an accident scene as did many of his medical brethren, fearing malpractice suits; he always stopped, got out of his car, and did what he could. He kept conscientiously up to date. Yet the more he worked, the more he seemed to thrive. He gave the impression of running through each day as if he planned to assuage the world’s ailments in a lifetime, of which too little was left.

The journey to Rome–many years postponed–was to visit the birthplace of his parents. With his wife, Dr. Compagno was to be away a month, and because he was growing old, he had agreed that the time should be a total rest. Yet he fully anticipated that somewhere en route, or perhaps in Italy (never mind regulations about not being licensed) he would be needed. If so, he was ready. It did not surprise him that he was needed now.

He moved first to Gwen who was clearly most critical among those hurt. He told his colleagues, over his shoulder, “You attend to the others.”

In the narrow aisle, Dr. Compagno turned Gwen over partially, leaning forward to detect if she was breathing. She was, but her breath was light and shallow. He called to the stewardess he had been speaking to, “I need oxygen down here.” While the girl brought a portable bottle and mask, he checked Gwen’s mouth for an unobstructed airway; there were smashed teeth, which he removed, and a good deal of blood; he made sure the bleeding was not preventing respiration. He told the stewardess, “Hold the mask in place.” The oxygen hissed. Within a minute or two a vestige of color returned to Gwen’s skin, which had been ominously white.

Meanwhile, he began to control bleeding, extensive around the face and chest. Working quickly, he used a hemostat to clamp off a facial artery–worst site of external hemorrhage–and pressure dressings elsewhere. He had already detected a probable fracture of the clavicle and left arm, which would need to be splinted later. He was distressed to see what appeared to be splinters from the explosion in the patient’s left eye; he was less sure about the right.

Second Officer Jordan, having moved carefully around Dr. Compagno and Gwen, took charge of the remaining stewardesses and was supervising the movement of passengers forward in the aircraft. As many tourist passengers as possible were being moved into the first class section, some squeezed in, two to a seat, others directed to the small, semicircular first class lounge, where spare seats were available. Such extra clothing as remained was distributed among those who appeared to need it most, without regard to ownership. As always, in such situations, people showed a willingness to help one another, unselfishness, and even flashes of humor.

The other two doctors were bandaging passengers who had received cuts, none excessively serious. The young man with glasses, who was behind Gwen at the moment of the explosion, had a deep gash in one arm, but it could be repaired and would heal. He had other minor cuts about the face and shoulders. For the time being, pressure dressings were applied to his injured arm, and he was given morphine, while being made as comfortable and warm as possible.

Both the medical attention and movement of passengers was being made more difficult by heavy buffeting which the aircraft, at its present low altitude, was taking from the storm. There was constant turbulence, punctuated every few minutes by violent pitching or sideways movements. Several passengers were finding airsickness added to their other troubles.

After reporting to the flight deck for the second time, Cy Jordan returned to Dr. Compagno.

“Doctor, Captain Demerest asked me to say he’s grateful for everything you and the other doctors are doing. When you can spare a moment, he’d appreciate it if you’d come to the flight deck to tell him what to radio ahead about casualties.”

“Hold this dressing,” Dr. Compagno ordered. “Press down hard, right there. Now I want you to help me with a splint. We’ll use one of those leather magazine covers, with a towel under it. Get the biggest cover you can find, and leave the magazine in.”

A moment later: “I’ll come when I can. You can say to your captain that I think, as soon as possible, he should make an announcement to the passengers. People are getting over their shock. They could use some reassurance.”

“Yes, sir.” Cy Jordan looked down at the still unconscious figure of Gwen, his normally mournful, hollow-cheeked face accentuated by concern. “Is there a chance for her, Doc?”

“There’s a chance, son, though I wouldn’t say it was the best. A lot depends on her own strength.”

“I always figured she had a lot of that.”

“A pretty girl, wasn’t she?” Amid the torn flesh, blood, and dirty, tousled hair, it was difficult to be sure.


Compagno remained silent. Whatever happened, the girl on the floor would not be pretty any more–not without plastic surgery.

“I’ll give the captain your message, sir.” Looking a little sicker than before, Cy Jordan went forward to the flight deck.

Vernon Demerest’s voice came calmly on the cabin p.a. system a few moments later.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Demerest…” To overcome the roar of wind and engines, Cy Jordan had turned the volume control to “full.” Each word rang clearly.

“You know we’ve had trouble–bad trouble. I won’t attempt to minimize it. I won’t make any jokes either, because up here on the flight deck we don’t see anything that’s funny, and I imagine you feel the same way. We’ve all come through an experience which none of us in the crew has ever had before, and I hope will never have again. But we have come through. Now, we have the airplane under control, we’re turned around, and expect to land at Lincoln International in about three quarters of an hour.”

In the two passenger cabins, where first and tourist class now mingled without distinction, movement and conversation stopped. Eyes instinctively went to the overhead speakers as everyone within hearing strained to miss nothing of what was said.

“You know, of course, that the airplane is damaged. But it’s also true that the damage could have been a whole lot worse.”

On the flight deck, with the p.a. mike in hand, Vernon Demerest wondered how specific–and how honest–he should be. On his own regular flights he always kept captain-to-passengers announcements to the barest terse minimum. He disapproved of “long-playing captains” who bombarded their captive audience with assorted commentaries from a flight’s beginning to its end. He sensed, though, that this time he should say more, and that passengers were entitled to be told the true situation.

“I won’t conceal from you,” Demerest said into the microphone, “that we have a few problems still ahead of us. Our landing will be heavy, and we’re not sure how the damage we’ve suffered will affect it. I’m telling you this because right after this announcement the crew will start giving instructions on how to sit, and how to brace yourselves, just before we land. Another thing you’ll be told is how to get out of the airplane in a hurry, if we need to, right after landing. If that should happen, please act calmly but quickly, and obey instructions given you by any member of the crew.

“Let me assure you that on the ground everything necessary is being done to help us.” Remembering their need for runway three zero, Demerest hoped it was true. He also decided there was no point in going into detail about the problem of the jammed stabilizer; most passengers wouldn’t understand it anyway. With a touch of lightness in his voice, he added, “In one way you’re lucky tonight because instead of one experienced captain on the flight deck, it just so happens you have two–Captain Harris and myself. We’re a couple of ancient pelicans with more years of flying than we sometimes like to think about–except right now when all that combined experience comes in mighty useful. We’ll be helping each other, along with Second Officer Jordan. who’ll also be spending part of his time back with you. Please help us too. If you do, I promise you we’ll come through this together–safely.”