Lima Charlie 85

An orange fireball blots the sky, a mass of white-black cloud shot through with flame. The Navy P-3 Orion yaws as the #3 engine burns and trails an undulating line of black smoke. The starboard wing folds up and shears away; with lift gone the aircraft rolls to starboard. The Orion rolls and rolls, white belly and windscreens alternately reflecting the sun, then tumbles, veering earthward. Eight men inside, already dead, but well-trained and mechanically going through the motions for emergency procedures. Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Each man prays in his own way. Pull up! Pull up for God’s sake! Some call to God. Some call for mother. Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Pull up!

Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea! Amen

Emergency personnel arrive at the crash site knowing there are no survivors. They find a grotesque scene: a fire-blackened theater of scorched body parts, a sight made macabre by the ants and vultures picking at them. The sweet smell of death hangs heavy on the humid air and mixes with the smell of aircraft fuel and oil, hydraulic fluid, and the vomit of the living. The living are quiet, as if afraid to wake the dead. Three bodies, the flight station crew, are mashed into one in the bottom of the crater, still wet with blood not yet absorbed into earth. The remaining five crewmen are ripped to shreds and strewn like lumpy spaghetti sauce among the trees and grass, the dirt and debris. Pieces of fuselage are embedded in bone. Bloody tissue stretches around the remnants of a crew seat. A flattened object barely recognizable as a head peeks from beneath the mattress of the crew bunk. A flight boot with a leg wrenched apart at the knee rests on an arm wearing a watch that still ticks time. Another watch lies nearby, its hands forever frozen at the time of impact. In the last moment of their lives eight men collided with Earth at over 300 miles per hour.

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep, And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!

They lay the wrecked aircraft on the hangar deck. Each jagged piece of metal, each piece of orange fabric, each smashed and twisted crewseat, each ziploc bag of personal belongings carefully arranged according to its normal position. The wreckage resembles a cross. It resembles, too, a giant jigsaw puzzle, one without regular cut edges, without cardboard backing that peels away over time, without the cute puppies and kittens theme. The members of the mishap investigation board spend a long day examining the wreckage for clues to the cause of the crash before stopping for the night.

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease, And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!

The young Sailor walks among the wreckage, guarding the area from anyone who might wish a piece of the aircraft, perhaps a memento of a friend. He awaits the end of his watch and yearns to turn-in; it’s been a long day. Death has never been this close. Death’s smell sickens him. It permeates the close air of the hangar and sticks to his uniform. He kneels to peer into another bag of personal belongings. He knew this one. He knew one other, too. The three of them had not yet reached twenty years. He would; they would forever be nineteen. The hangar door slides open admitting the duty driver and three civilians. The duty driver stops inside the door, points toward the young Sailor and leaves. The three civilians look confused, lost. The young Sailor walks to them. We need to see the airplane our son died in, father says. Mother and sister cling to each other. Who was your son, sir? the young Sailor asks. Robert; we called him Red, father replies. He was a flight engineer. I knew Red, says the young Sailor. He was a good friend. Everybody liked him. Did they really? mother asks. Oh, yes ma’am. He made people laugh. Thank you, mother says, her eyes brimmed with tears. His hair was so red, sister cries. May we walk around the… can we walk around? Yes sir. I’ll wait here. Mother asks, May we have a small piece of wreckage, something our son may have touched? No ma’am, the young Sailor thinks. Yes ma’am, he says. He is close to tears as the small family walks close together among the pieces of the dead machine. He points them to the flight station where Red sat between the pilots. Where Red died. Dad holds sister. Mother cries as she kneels on the cold, rough concrete of the hangar deck. She runs her fingers among the pieces of metal that her son may have touched; she needs to feel her son one last time. She yearns to see him, touch him, hold him. She picks up a turquoise-colored roller that once covered the tip of an engine throttle lever. She turns and looks at the young Sailor, and pleads through tears may she have it? The young Sailor nods. The hangar door slides open. I turn and wipe my eyes as my relief walks in.

O Trinity of love and power! Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe, Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

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