Nonfiction

Night of fear bonds four strangers

 

This is a gripping story of a plane crash and its aftermath.

 
INTO THE ABYSS: An Extraordinary True Story. Carol Shaben. Grand Central. 311 pages. $25.
INTO THE ABYSS: An Extraordinary True Story. Carol Shaben. Grand Central. 311 pages. $25.

There is no abyss in this book, despite the title. This is an account — gripping and emotionally affecting — of a plane crash and its aftermath. But the plane came down on a hillside, not in a canyon or the deep blue sea.

Journalist Carol Shaben’s material, in which her own father plays a central role, is plenty sensational. On the evening of Oct. 19, 1984, Larry Shaben — a Cabinet minister in the Alberta provincial government and, as a second-generation Arab-Canadian, a role model for Canadian Muslims — was on a flight bound from Edmonton to the northwest part of the province. Another politician was on board, too, as were a Royal Mounted Policeman, a prisoner in his custody, and five others.

The 24-year-old pilot, Erik Vogel, tended to accept whatever assignment was given to him, no matter how overworked and tired he might be. The airline was Wapiti, an outfit that had been accused of cutting corners. The sort of flying that Vogel and Wapiti practiced is called “bush” after the wilderness below, which for much of the year is gripped by extreme cold. As Shaben notes, bush pilots are “far from help if anything goes awry and must fend for themselves in inhospitable environments where the penalty for a mistake can be death.” As a result, “bush pilots have the highest mortality rate of any commercial pilots.”

With heavily overcast skies and no co-pilot, Vogel should not have taken a plane up that night. When ice formed on the windshield, Vogel relied largely on his memory of the flight-path. He began his descent toward the airport of a town called High Prairie thousands of feet too soon, with a socked-in hill sticking up ahead — and the plane plowed into a forest. “The plane finally came to rest upside down,” Carol Shaben writes, “684 feet from where it had first hit the trees.”

Though injured, Vogel survived, as did Larry Shaben. The other politician was among the six fatalities. The prisoner was alive, which was lucky for his captor, whom the prisoner pulled out of the wreckage. This might seem odd — culprit saves cop — until you remind yourself that these are Canadians. (The mountie had granted the prisoner’s request not to be handcuffed during the flight ,a kindness that may have inadvertently saved the mountie’s life.)

Surviving the crash was one thing. Getting through a night of freezing temperatures without succumbing to hypothermia was quite another. Shaben skillfully switches back and forth between the rescue effort and the survivors’ attempts to stay warm, which are complicated by the near-pitch blackness.

In many ways the best part of the book is the second half, when Shaben chronicles the survivors’ post-crash lives. They were all affected profoundly but not always predictably. Her writing is efficient and sometimes quite evocative, as in this description of what happens when locomotives rigged with snowplows clear buried tracks: “Snow flies off the rails in great white geysers that arch skyward and then curl away from the rails in big C’s.” Even without an abyss, this is a deep and satisfying book.

Dennis Drabelle reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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