This video is just amazing. 873 people in 77 seconds, you can read the full story here. I wonder just what this whole thing would look like if you threw in some real fire and smoke? [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weOcrP7u7Y8[/youtube]
Having heard stories about how people react when the plane really is in distress (a strange fascination of mine) I've often heard that a lot of people just freeze up, even if the fire is right behind them. It's almost as if people are unable to come to grip with the reality of the situation and they just shut down. For me, the closest I've ever been to that edge was on a flight many years ago from San Francisco to Tokyo. Half way there as we crossed over the last of the Aletuiens I felt a shudder go through the plane unlike any turbulence I'd ever felt. I looked up at the flight attendant and the look on their face immediately told me something was wrong. All over the plane they simultaneously sprang into action without any trace of instruction, it was pure training as they ran down the isles ordering "SIT DOWN, FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT, REMAIN SEATED, REMAIN CALM".
In a matter of seconds they had verified all were seated and strapped themselves in as the plane began a very sharp decent. I heard someone ahead of me in the cabin say "Oh God" and in an instant there was an amazing wave of panic that rolled through the entire cabin, it hit everyone in their own way, no one got up and ran around the cabin, no one screamed, some started quietly weeping, but no one spoke. The silence was unbelievably spooky and everyone around me looked terrified.
It was surreal, I felt the panic, the fear, had the cliché moment where I wondered if this was how I was going to die and then the most amazing thing happened to me. I realized I wasn't in control. It didn't matter what I did in the next moments, it was out of my control. With this realization came a deep and profound sense of calm. I looked around at everyone in the cabin with an amazing sense of clarity and curiosity and then I did they only thing a calm person does on a trans-Atlantic flight - I put my earphones back on and finished watching the movie (which they had thankfully left running).
That was in the first 30 seconds, the next 30 minutes were what I can only imagine excruciating for just about everyone else. The plane continued it's dive towards the earth and then abruptly flattened out. I could feel the plane circle for the remainder of the time and then finally the Pilot spoke. "Folks, we had an engine failure and I apologize for the steep decent to 10,000 feet. Thankfully, this is a 747 and we have 3 perfectly good engines still functioning. Even better we have been able to restart the fourth engine and since we are at the half way point we will be continuing to Tokyo, again sorry for the excitement, please let the cabin crew know if they can help you in anyway"
So we all lived, we didn't get pushed all the way to that edge that day, but I can tell you one thing - I still miss that sense of calm I had that day, I've never had it since.