I was on a flight reading Red, White & Royal Blue, immersing myself in the hypothetical plot of a first son getting it on with a British prince, when a commotion broke out three rows ahead of me. I looked up from my Kindle to see a Korean man fumbling with a blazing cell phone. The phone fell to the floor, and the flames caught on the carpeted aisle. The fire spread, casting smoke throughout the cabin.
The man used his blanket to suffocate the flames, but an airplane blanket does not a fire blanket make. The flames flickered out from beneath the fabric, orange fingers reaching through the folds. A woman with an Eastern European accent and dyed cherry red hair stood up in the back of the plane and shouted, “Oh my God! It’s a fire! Oh my God!”
The smoke drifted and filled our noses. The woman continued to wail like the anxious lady on Bridesmaids after a drugged-up Kristen Wiig spots a colonial woman churning butter on the wing.
“Mul!” the Korean man shouted. He grabbed a plastic water bottle from the flight attendant’s cart. It was a surprisingly resourceful reaction, and he opened it to douse the flames. However, this was an electric fire, and water only made the situation worse. The flames gorged on those splashes and expanded. The panic ensued.
I sat, strangely calm, watching this all play out like a scene from a movie that could not possibly affect me. The passengers shifted and stirred. Confused people from business class poked their heads through the curtains to see what we, the miscreants of coach, were up to. The Korean man tried the best he could, but he couldn’t seem to find a solution on his own.
The flight attendants did an admirable job in responding. One focused on calming the screaming European lady. Another engaged in crowd control, encouraging the standing passengers to sit down. A third brought a fire extinguisher to quell the flames. She cleared out the passengers closest to the incident where the smoke was strongest, sending them to the rear of the plane though everywhere smelled of smoke.
Eventually, the pilot graced us with his presence – ironed white shirt, embroidered visor, furrowed brows – as he inspected the site of the fire. Later, he shared an announcement over the plane’s intercom.
“Greetings, passengers. We hope you are enjoying the flight. You may have observed the smell of smoke throughout the cabin. Approximately thirty minutes ago, an electric power bank caught fire in economy class, but this was quickly resolved. We departed ten minutes late, but we have made up time and are on course for an early arrival.”
There are so many things to say about the pilot’s response. The way he said economy class as though we were a bunch of buckled up vermin who somehow infiltrated his plane. And the blitheness with which he leaped from an accidental fire to the prospect of a timely arrival. The swiftness of his change in subject was almost admirable – an attempt to quickly assert control over a situation that could have easily turned disastrous.
Calmness was eventually restored, and people returned to their routines of waiting out the journey, watching movies, and hopping over one another whenever they needed to use the toilet. I plodded through a couple hours watching the movie Old, occasionally contemplating my reaction to what had transpired. The fire seemed to trigger a fight or flight response in others, while for me it yielded the definitive third option of nonchalant observation. (Not a very useful skill to have in a crisis but a great one to have when it comes to writing a blog!)
A sense of gratitude filled me for the rest of the flight. I was grateful for the flight attendants who managed the situation with ease. I was grateful for the comforting presence of my neighbors, even if they insisted on getting up to use the bathroom every fifteen minutes or so. I was grateful for the daughters of the man whose phone caught fire, women in their twenties who seemed more concerned with their Korean soap operas than their father’s mental health after he nearly brought down the plane. (My reaction may not have been admirable, though it was slightly more admirable than theirs!) I was grateful, later, for the chance to write about the scene as I watched over my niece and nephews, assuming uncle duties while my brother and sister-in-law braved the blistering heat of Rome to locate a pharmacy.
The flight felt like a victory – like I was walking away with more than I had given. Though it was a small accident, the specter of death had drawn uncomfortably close. It reminded me of those videos where a dangerous shark pursues a surfer, only to dart away at the last moment for no apparent reason. A strange whiff, perhaps. Or a shift in the tides.
Not today, the ominous shadow seemed to whisper, though it had made its presence known.
Thank you, was my silent and humble reply.