We were in starry sky stretching to glimpse the lights of San Francisco past our seat-mates one minute and the next we were surrounded by dark fog bouncing and knocking shoulders, certain we would collide with Mt. Diablo or another plane. My ears were ringing like Christmas at the cathedral. Our jet shook and dipped and maybe dropped through the fog and then, Bam! we felt a huge hand-like slap on our plane. We startled and were screaming and trying to inventory the engines while the Captain’s voice apologized for turbulence. We dropped out of the fog into dark night with bright lights and smashed onto the concrete runway like a carton of eggs.
Rattled, hurried, subdued, we were herded to the jump chute exits by a terse, pale steward, who was ignoring a forcefully cheerful forty-something stewardess whispering behind her teeth like a ventriloquist: “Is it on fire?” They had us hop outward feet first, while crossing our arms on our chests. A woman seemed to snare her feet on the inflated ramp and bounced face forward onto the pavement where she lay still. Two uniformed men with Red Cross insignias on their sleeves bent over her while the police gathered the rest of us into an old yellow bus out of the drizzle that had already penetrated my light jacket. The bus said ‘St. Francis Academy’ on it. A uniform with a nasal voice told us “not to leave the confines of the bus.” He reached across a seated grandmother and put his hand in front of a camera phone a young man was using to try to video the ramp victim and broken plane. “No pictures,” he said. The bus doors closed and with no driver fifty or so passengers were in darkness, not headed to the terminal as expected, but waiting.
After some agitated whispering, a large red-haired man, “Red,” the celebrity Lotto winner in short sleeves from Iymoutahere, PA, tried to open the front door of the bus which wouldn’t yield. He had gotten a lot of attention on the plane by questioning his seat and aisle neighbors if they had “seen me on the tube, you know, winning the Power Ball?” He rapped on the glass to attract the attention of the attendant outside and was ignored. He banged on the door with his fist.
The attendant spoke into a radio and turned to the bus. Red backed up and the guard climbed to the first step and addressed us all: “For your own safety, you will remain seated until we get clearance to the terminal. Do not distract the officers trying to keep order,” he said, looking pointedly at Big Red.
“That’s fine until we have to use a toilet,” said Red. The guard stepped to the tarmac and motioned Red to follow him. He spoke into his radio and in moments a dark blue Town Car pulled up. The two occupants got out and escorted a confused Red to the back seat where they tucked him in, slammed the door and stood talking to Guard One with their backs to the bus.
“We’re fucking prisoners!” somebody shouted. “Shut up!” yelled another.
There was crying. An awful fecal smell came from close by. I glanced at the middle aged woman next to me who had covered her face with her hands, leaned against the glass and shook gently with sobs.
On the school bus, some were on cell phones crying bitterly, some begged, and some shouted. None were happy, that I could make out. One phrase I heard repeated several times was “I don’t know where we are!” “You find out!” demanded one high-pitched chalk-on-the-blackboard voice.
Headlights gleamed off the wet runway. A car pulled up near Guard One at the door of our bus. Less like our school bus shape and more like a Metro Transit, a new bus with windows spilling out light pulled up behind the sedan. The front door of our bus creaked open and a bald man in a suit came up our stairs with a radio in his right hand and addressed us.
“I’m Frank Lazzaro, Capital Airlines, and I’m so sorry to have kept you here this long. Please forgive me and understand that these gentlemen were only doing what I asked. We had to keep you safe until we could assess your circumstances and develop a plan for your care.”
“That’s not good enough,” yelled a man. “We need toilets!” yelled a woman. “And food!” yelled another. “Get us to the terminal!” yelled someone. “What about our stuff?” “My family’s waiting! “Bring Dennis back in here!” shouted Red’s wife, becoming bolder.
Looking ashen, the man in the suit began to sob himself. “My God!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea you were going through so much!” He hit his forehead hard with the palm of his hand and it left a mark of purple. “We didn’t know if the plane would explode!” He hit himself again, harder. “We had to keep you together, off of the runways, so you wouldn’t be killed by any kind of aircraft or emergency traffic!” He hit himself again.
A woman near him grabbed his radio hand with both of hers and said: “Stop! Stop it!” loudly. “Hey, don’t hurt yourself,” yelled a man. “We just want to go home,” yelled another. “It’s okay, just get us out of here!”
Looking at his feet, the bald man whispered to his associate with a clipboard. He spoke into his radio. His forehead was bright red. Addressing us again, meeting our gaze, he said: “People, thank you for your understanding. Please follow George’s directions and remain orderly while we take care of your needs. We really only have your best interests at heart. Thank you on behalf of our entire staff.”
He descended to the pavement and went to the Lincoln where Red was sitting, watching the plane. Frank opened the door and knelt in the rain near Red’s seat.
Inside the bus, Clipboard was saying: “Please gather your things and head across to the front of the nearby bus. Please watch your step.”
When I looked back, Red was outside of the station wagon bending over Frank Lazzaro, as Frank lay prostrate with his face on the pavement. I managed to hear Red yelling: “Hey, it’s okay, stop it; I forgive you!”
As we filed out of our wretched-smelling confinement, a true deluge commenced, drenching and pummeling those emerging. “Keep moving,” yelled George over the loud water. At the door of the new bus, we were first handed a small container of milk and then a granola bar in a blue wrapper and a small sealed packet marked “towelette.”
“Move all the way to the back, please. No pushing!” he said to those trying to force their way out of the torrent. Red had managed to get a seat behind his wife and they were holding hands at an awkward angle across the chrome bar.
The uniforms outside clustered and conferred. The old stink hole of a bus drove off and Guard One approached our door, shut it and walked back to a group of smokers under umbrellas near the station wagon. Frank and his car were gone.
“Oh, not this again!” complained someone loudly. “Can it!” yelled someone, “they’re trying. Don’t make it harder.” “They don’t know what they’re doing!” said someone.