The only weakness in this book is the title. There is no abyss. 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.
With or without the hype, journalist Carol Shaben’s material, in which her 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 second-generation Arab Canadian who was a role model for Canadian Muslims — was a last-minute addition to the passengers on a flight bound from Edmonton to a series of towns in 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, was so happy to be flying for a living that he 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 when it came to safety. The kind of flying that Vogel and Wapiti practiced is called “bush,” after the often treeless 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 and bush flying consistently ranks in the top three of the world’s most dangerous professions, after commercial fishermen and loggers.”
With heavily overcast skies and no co-pilot, not to mention his fatigue, Vogel should not have taken a plane up that night. But as his boss used to say, “If we never pushed the weather, we’d never stay in business.” When ice formed on the windshield, Vogel relied largely on his memory of the flight path. In his mind, he placed the aircraft ahead of where it actually was, so that 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 — the hill on which 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, although he’d lost his glasses and was virtually blind without them. The other politician was among the six fatalities. The prisoner was alive and in the best shape of all, 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. At one point, unsure whether the plane’s signaling device is in the on or off position, Vogel returns to the wrecked plane and flips the switch the other way, his plan being to flip it back half an hour later, so that one way or another a signal will get through. Meanwhile, the rescuers are not only puzzled by the loss of the signal they had been relying on but just about helpless until it goes back on.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but 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, as one might expect, 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.
INTO THE ABYSS
An Extraordinary True Story
By Carol Shaben
Grand Central. 311 pp. $25