Two hundred meters.
Floating. Like a feather.
"All right," Anilov said, just as Delbaugh said, "Easy, easy," and they both meant the same thing: it looked good, they were going to make it.
One hundred meters.
Nose still up.
Touchdown and TWANG! -the tires barked on the blacktop simultaneously with the queer sound.
Delbaugh remembered the stranger's warning, so he said, "Power number one!" and pulled hard to the left. Yankowski remembered as well, though he had said it was all a crock, and he responded to Delbaugh's throttle command even as it was being given. The right wing dipped, just as they had been told it would, but their quick action pulled the plane left, and the right wing came back up. There was a danger of overcompensation, so Delbaugh issued a new throttle command while still trying to hold the craft to the left. They were rolling along, rolling along, the plane shaking, and he gave the order to reverse engines because they couldn't, for God's sake, continue to accelerate, they were in mortal danger as long as they were moving at high speed, rolling, rolling, moving inexorably at an angle on the runway, rolling and slowing now, but rolling. And the right wing was tipping down again, accompanied by hellish popping and metallic tearing noises as age-fatigued steel-trouble in the joining of wing and fuselage, Jim had said-succumbed to the stress of their wildly erratic flight and once-in-a-century crosswinds. Rolling, rolling, but Delbaugh couldn't do a damn thing about a structural failure, couldn't get out there and reweld the joints or hold the damn rivets in place. Rolling, rolling, their momentum dropping, but the right wing still going down, none of his countermeasures working any longer, the wing down, and down, oh God, the wing Holly felt the plane tipping farther to the right than before.
She held her breath or thought she did, but at the same time she heard herself gasping frantically.
The creaks and squeals of tortured metal, which had been echoing eerily through the fuselage for a couple of minutes, suddenly grew much louder.
The aircraft tipped farther to the right. A sound like a cannonshot boomed through the passenger compartment, and the plane bounced up, came down hard. The landing gear collapsed.
They were sliding along the runway, rocking and jolting, then the plane began to turn as it slid, making Holly's heart clutch up and her stomach knot. It was the biggest carnival ride in the world, except it wasn't any fun at all; her seatbelt was like a blade against her midriff, cutting her in half, and if there had been a carny ticket-taker, she knew he would have had the ghastly face of a rotting corpse and a rictus for a smile.
The noise was intolerable, though the passengers' screaming was not the worst of it. For the most part their voices were drowned out by the scream of the aircraft itself as its belly dissolved against the pavement and other pieces of it were torn loose. Maybe dinosaurs, sinking into Mesozoic pits of tar, had equaled the volume of that dying cry, but nothing on the face of the earth since that era had protested its demise at such a piercing pitch and thunderous volume. It wasn't purely a machine sound; it was metallic but somehow alive, and it was so eerie and chilling that it might have been the combined, tortured cries of all the denizens of hell, hundreds of millions of despairing souls wailing at once. She was sure her eardrums would burst.
Disregarding the instructions she had been given, she raised her head and looked quickly around. Cascades of white, yellow, and turquoise sparks foamed past the portholes, as if the airplane was passing through an extravagant fireworks display. Six or seven rows ahead, the fuselage cracked open like an eggshell rapped against the edge of a ceramic bowl.
She had seen enough, too much. She tucked her head between her knees again.
She heard herself chanting at the deck in front of her, but she was caught in such a whirlpool of horror that the only way she could discover what she was saying was to strain to hear herself above the cacophony of the crash: "Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't. " Maybe she passed out for a few seconds, or maybe her senses shut down briefly due to extreme overload, but in a wink everything was still. The air was filled with acrid odors that her recovering senses could not identify.
The ordeal was over, but she could not recall the plane coming to rest.
She was alive.
Intense joy swept through her. She raised her head, sat up, ready to whoop with the uncontainable thrill of survival-and saw the fire.
The DC-10 had not cartwheeled. The warning to Captain Delbaugh had paid off But as Jim had feared, the chaotic aftermath of the crash held as many dangers as the impact itself Along the entire starboard side of the plane, where jet fuel had spilled, orange flames churned at the windows.
It appeared as if he was voyaging aboard a submarine in a sea of fire on an alien world. Some of the windows had shattered on impact, and flames were spouting through those apertures, as well as through the ragged tear in the fuselage that now separated economy class from the forward section of the airliner.
Even as Jim uncoupled his seatbelt and got shakily to his feet, he saw seats catching afire on the starboard side. Passengers over there were crouching or dropping down on their hands and knees to scramble under the spreading flames.
He stepped into the aisle, grabbed Holly, and hugged her as she struggled to her feet. He looked past her at the Dubroveks. Mother and child were uninjured, though Casey was crying.
Holding Holly by the hand, searching for the quickest way out, Jim turned toward the back of the aircraft and for a moment could not understand what he was seeing. Like a voracious blob out of an old horror movie, an amorphous mass churned toward them from the hideously gouged and crumpled rear of the DC-10, black and billowy, devouring everything over which it rolled. Smoke. He hadn't instantly realized it was smoke because it was so thick that it appeared to have the substance of a wall of oil or mud.
Death by suffocation, or worse, lay behind them. They would have to go forward in spite of the fire ahead. Flames licked around the torn edge of fuselage on the starboard side, reaching well into the cabin, fanning across more than half the diameter of the sliced-open aircraft.
But they should be able to exit toward the port side, where no fire was yet visible.
"Quick," he said, turning to Christine and Casey as they came out of row sixteen. "Forward, fast as you can, go, go!" However, other passengers from the first six rows of the economy section were in the aisle ahead of them. Everyone was trying to get out fast. A valiant young flight attendant was doing what she could to help, but progress was not easy. The aisle was littered with carry-on luggage, purses, paperback books, and other items that had fallen out of the overhead storage compartments, and within a few shuffling steps, Jim's feet had become entangled in debris.
The churning smoke reached them from behind, enfolded them, so pungent that his eyes teared at once. He not only choked on the first whiff of fumes but gagged with revulsion, and he did not want to think about what might be burning behind him in addition to upholstery, foam seat cushions, carpet, and other elements of the aircraft's interior decor.
As the thick oily cloud poured past him and engulfed the forward section, the passengers ahead began to vanish. They appeared to be stepping through the folds of a black velvet curtain.
Before visibility dropped to a couple of inches, Jim let go of Holly and clutched Christine's shoulder. "Let me take her," he said, and scooped Casey into his arms.
A paper bag from an LAX giftshop was in the aisle at his feet. It had burst open as people tramped across it. He saw a white T-shirt-I LovE L.A: with pink and peach and pale-green palm trees.
He snatched up the shirt and pushed it into Casey's small hands.
Coughing, as was everyone around him, he said, "Hold it over your face, honey, breathe through it!" Then he was blind. The foul cloud around him was so dark that he could not even see the child he was carrying. Indeed, he could not actually perceive the churning currents of the cloud itself The blackness was deeper than what he saw when he closed his eyes, for behind his lids pinpoint bursts of color formed ghostly patterns that lit his inner world.
They were maybe twenty feet from the open end of the crash-severed fuselage. He was not in danger of getting lost, for the aisle was the only route he could follow.
He tried not to breathe. He could hold his breath for a minute, anyway, which ought to be long enough. The only problem was that he had already inhaled some of the bitter smoke, and it was caustic, burning his throat as if he had swallowed acid. His lungs heaved and his esophagus spasmed, forcing him to cough, and every cough ended in an involuntary though thankfully shallow inhalation.
Probably less than fifteen feet to go.
He wanted to scream at the people in front of him: move, damn you, move! He knew they were stumbling forward as fast as they could, every bit as eager to get out as he was, but he wanted to shout at them anyway, felt a shriek of rage building in him, and he realized he was teetering on the brink of hysteria.
He stepped on several small, cylindrical objects, floundering like a man walking on marbles. But he kept his balance.
Casey was wracked by violent coughs. He could not hear her, but holding her against his chest, he could feel each twitch and flex and contraction of her small body as she struggled desperately to draw half filtered breaths through the I LovE L.A. shirt.
Less than a minute had passed since he had started forward, maybe only thirty seconds since he had scooped up the girl. But it seemed like a long journey down an endless tunnel.
Although fear and fury had thrown his mind into a turmoil, he was thinking clearly enough to remember reading somewhere that smoke rose in a burning room and hung near the ceiling. If they didn't reach safety within a few seconds, he would have to drop to the deck and crawl in the hope that he would escape the toxic gases and find at least marginally cleaner air down there.
Sudden heat coalesced around him.
He imagined himself stepping into a furnace, his skin peeling off in an instant, flesh blistering and smoking. His heart already thudded like a live thing throwing itself against the bars of a cage, but it began to beat harder, faster.
Certain that they had to be within a few steps of the hole in the fusalage that he had glimpsed earlier, Jim opened his eyes, which stung and watered copiously. Perfect blackness had given way to a charcoal-gray swirl of fumes through which throbbed blood-red pulses of light. The pulses were flames shrouded by smoke and seen only as reflections bounding on millions of swirling particles of ash. At any moment the fire could burst upon him from out of the smoke and sear him to the bone.
He was not going to make it.
No breathable air.
Fire seeking him on all sides.
He was going to ignite. Burn like a living tallow candle. In a vision sparked by terror rather than by a higher power, he saw himself dropping to his knees in defeat. The child in his arms. Fusing with her in a melting inferno. . .
A sudden wind pulled at him. The smoke was sucked away toward his left.
He saw daylight, cool and gray and easily differentiated from the deadly glow of burning jet fuel.
Propelled by a gruesome image of himself and the child fried by a flash fire on the very brink of safety, he threw himself toward the grayness and fell out of the airliner. No portable stairs were waiting, of course, no emergency chute, just bare earth.
Fortunately a crop had recently been harvested, and the stubble had been plowed under for mulch. The newly tilled earth was hard enough to knock the wind out of him but far too soft to break his bones.
He clung fiercely to Casey, gasping for breath. He rolled onto his knees, got up, still holding her in his arms, and staggered out of the corona of heat that radiated from the blazing plane.
Some of the survivors were running away, as if they thought the DC-10 had been loaded with dyn**ite and was going to blow half the state of Iowa to smithereens any second now. Others were wandering aimlessly in shock. Still others were lying on the ground: some too stunned to go another inch; some injured; and perhaps some of them were dead.
Grateful for the clean air, coughing out sour fumes from his soiled lungs, Jim looked for Christine Dubrovek among the people in the field.
He turned this way and that, calling her name, but he couldn't see her.
He began to think that she had perished in the airplane, that he might not have been treading over only passengers' possessions in the port aisle but also over a couple of the passengers themselves.
Perhaps sensing what Jim was thinking, Casey let the palm tree decorated T-shirt fall from her grasp. Clinging to him, coughing out the last of the smoke, she began to ask for her mother in a fearful tone of voice that indicated she expected the worst.
A burgeoning sense of triumph had taken hold of him. But now a new fear rattled in him like ice cubes in a tall glass. Suddenly the warm August sun over the Iowa field and the waves of heat pouring off the DC-10 did not touch him, and he felt as though he was standing on an arctic plain.
"Steve?" At first he did not react to the name.
"Steve?" Then he remembered that he had been Steve Harkman to her-which she and her husband and the real Steve Harkman would probably puzzle about for the rest of their lives-and he turned toward the voice. Christine was there, stumbling through the freshly tilled earth, her face and clothes stained from the oily smoke, shoeless, arms out to receive her little girl.
Jim gave the child to her.
Mother and daughter hugged each other fiercely.
Weeping, looking across Casey's shoulder at Jim, Christine said, "Thank you, thank you for getting her out of there, my God, Steve, I can't ever thank you enough.”
He did not want thanks. All he wanted was Holly Thorne, alive and uninjured.
"Have you seen Holly?" he asked worriedly.
"Yes. She heard a child crying for help, she thought maybe it was Casey." Christine was shaking and frantic, as if she was not in the least convinced their ordeal was over, as if she thought the earth might crack open and hot lava spew out, beginning a new chapter of the nightmare.
"How did we get separated? We were behind one another, then we were outside, and in the turmoil, somehow you and Casey just weren't there" "Holly," he said impatiently. "Where'd she go?" "She wanted to go back inside for Casey, but then she realized the cry was coming from the forward section." Christine held up a purse and chattered on: "She carried her purse out of there without realizing she did it, so she gave it to me and went back, she knew it couldn't be Casey, but she went anyway.”
Christine pointed, and for the first time Jim saw that the front of the DC-10, all the way back through the first-class section, had completely torn free from the portion in which they had been riding. It was two hundred feet farther along the field. Though it was burning less vigorously than the larger mid-section, it was considerably more mangled than the rest of the craft, including the badly battered rear quarter.
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