25 Minutes of Hell

25 Minutes of Hell

Editor’s Note: Katy Waldman of Slate describes the near death experience of a group of passengers aboard a crippled flight. We reprint here

On Aug. 24, 2001, Air Transat Flight 236 ran out of fuel en route from Toronto to Lisbon with 306 passengers aboard. The right engine was leaky, and the crew had performed a delicate fuel imbalance procedure–incorrectly–from memory. Below stretched the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of miles. As the interior lights flickered and oxygen masks dangled from the ceiling, weeping flight attendants instructed everyone to prepare for a crash landing into the sea. Then the pilot located a small military base in the Azores, and after 25 minutes of hell, the plane touched down–violently, but without badly injuring anyone–to tears and applause. (Also to flames: The wheels were on fire.)

One of the passengers on board Flight 236 was a psychologist named Margaret McKinnon, who studies behavioral neuroscience at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “At first I wasn’t sure that something terrible was happening,” she said. “But after the lights went out and the plane lost altitude so sharply, I suspected we would probably die.” As the aircraft glided over the tiny island, “I remember being surprised we’d made land, seeing houses below us, and worrying we might crash into them. Then we veered back over the ocean. I lost hope that we’d survive.”

But back on terra firma, where most of her fellow travelers saw a nightmare, McKinnon perceived an opportunity.

Two years later, she and her colleagues got 15 of the men and women from the flight to recount their experience during those 25 grueling minutes. The researchers also asked the passengers about their memories of Sept. 11, 2001 and one other, neutral day from the same period. Fifteen control subjects recalled a recent negative event from their personal lives, the terrorist attacks, and a nonemotional event. The researchers had a lot of questions: They wanted to understand more about terror’s fingerprints on the brain; the relationship between mnemonic habits and post-traumatic stress disorder; and what role clarity and vividness play in a given memory’s power to haunt.  

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