Monday Musings… The Clock is Ticking

On January 13th, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from Washington National Airport. 30 seconds after liftoff, the plane, carrying five crew and 74 passengers, lost altitude and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, plummeting into the Potomac River. One crew member and five passengers rose to the surface of the water and hung onto the tail of the plane, the only part that had not sunk into the depths of the river. Given the frigid temperatures, they only had 30 minutes before their limbs would become so numb and heavy that they would drown.

In 30 seconds, the first wave of this disaster changed the lives of everyone onboard that plane. But that was quickly followed by the second wave - in 30 more minutes, the remaining survivors’ fate would be sealed. If they weren’t rescued, they would die.

I don’t know about you, but surviving a plane crash, only to have the very real possibility of drowning staring you in the face, has got to be one of the worst events to ever experience. Think about it: they didn’t cause this disaster and there’s nothing they could do to get themselves out of it.

The six people in the water were helpless. They couldn’t swim to shore. They were completely at the mercy of someone, anyone to save them.

A heavy snowstorm continued to cover the city causing terrible traffic jams on most of the roads. The rescue services that arrived had inadequate equipment to enter the water. Even a makeshift lifeline thrown out to the survivors was ineffective. Some bystanders jumped in the water, but they could barely go 30 feet before needing to turn back.

20 minutes into the survivors’ ordeal, a U.S. Park Police helicopter arrived. But both the pilot and the paramedic on board knew this whirly-bird was not meant for heavy rescue. That meant they could only rescue one person at a time. And the clock was ticking.

They let down a rope and rescued the first person. They returned and rescued another. Fearing the remaining survivors had been in the water too long, they took a risk on this third attempt and the paramedic dropped two life lines and three people grabbed onto the ropes. Two of the three couldn’t hold on and they fell back into the water. The sixth person, still strapped into the wreckage, went under. It was panic central.

A bystander stripped off his heavy outerwear and jumped in the water and rescued one of the stranded survivors. Then the helicopter pilot and paramedic made a bold move. They got close enough to the last survivor for the paramedic to grab her by her clothing and haul her up onto the skid with him.

These had to be the longest 30 minutes and 30 seconds in the lives of the survivors, bystanders, and rescue personnel. I’m sure that nothing else was going through their minds except, how are we ever going to get through this?

Fast forward to today. The same question is being asked, across the globe. People thought the first wave was bad enough, with the restrictions placed upon them. But now, we’re in wave number two. More deaths are occurring; there’s a mad rush to get a vaccine; people’s lives are in upheaval and are barely hanging on; there’s continual false hope of life returning to ‘normal’…but then freedom slips away again. The clock is ticking.

There has always being suffering in this life. And it's all relative to a person’s circumstances. But one thing I’ve observed through this pandemic is that we’re not using the right lifelines when it comes to strengthening mental health. We’re not going to get through this with makeshift supports.

I was in a seminar recently and the emphasis was on simply staying positive, to remember what life was like before the pandemic, and to have hope that the end is in sight.

The problem is there is no known gestation period for this pandemic. And it’s not like we’re going to get a beautiful bouncing gift of new life at the end of this. Things will likely never return to normal. It’s hardest to have hope when you can’t see the end of the painful ordeal. Just ask someone who is chronically depressed or who has a chronic physical health problem that is resistant to treatment. Just think of the plane crash survivors who had no clue how and when they would be rescued. So, we have to be careful what we are encouraging people to do. It may actually be increasing their anxiety as the clock keeps ticking and no rescue is in sight.

If we think back to what life was like before, it actually makes the pain of the current situation even greater. Yes, we can be grateful for what was. But this just magnifies the current losses people are experiencing with jobs, education, or social contact.

If we simply read motivational quotes, or put a smiley face sticky note on our mirrors, it’s not enough. We can even wake up with intention to see the good in the present. But it’s hard to stay positive as the stress and strain on finances, and families mounts.

When the pilot of the rescue helicopter, Donald Usher, was interviewed after the event, he said this: “We did what we were trained to do and what the public expected us to do.”

There was no pride in his intellect or in his achievement. He simply stated that the success of the mission boiled down to his training.

So, my thoughts this week are wondering how have we been trained, or how have we trained ourselves for the current circumstances we find ourselves in? I think the answer to this will help us know how long we can keep our head above water.

I’ll talk more about that next week.

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon