I awoke to crushing pain radiating from my legs. My arms were dangling above my head and my hands were resting on the overhead panel of the aircraft. Fighting to remain conscious, it took me a moment to figure out I was upside down.
I yelled and squirmed in an attempt to stop the slide into nothingness and to relieve the agony in my legs. Neither relaxed the all-consuming pain. If anything, my thrashing sharpened it, making me aware of a stabbing throb in my chest.
We were on approach to Dallas-Fort Worth when … what? I could not remember why I would be upside down and in such misery. A black hole filled my mind, erasing what happened between everything being normal as we approached the runway and the torture of the present.
Wind whistled through the shattered cockpit windows, ruffling my hair. Shards of glass littered the overhead panel. Smoke that stank of burned jet fuel and something vaguely ominous drifted in.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! Fire! I had to get the flight attendants and passengers to safety! The evacuation training we practiced every nine months kicked in before I remembered we had been ferrying the empty aircraft from a maintenance facility in San Salvador.
Damn! The agony made rational thoughts impossible. I mentally worked to block the misery so I could think.
Ned! Why hadn’t the first officer, who had been the pilot flying, made a sound?
When I looked across the cockpit, I screamed.
The overhead panel had bowed in and crushed the forty-something husband and father’s head backward at an extreme angle against his headrest. A lifeless eye bulged from his distorted, bloody face. It stared straight ahead.
The laid-back pilot with a dry sense of humor looked like a ghoul from a Hollywood movie.
How could he be dead? He had been joking with me just moments ago.
To distance myself from the sight, I squeezed my eyes shut while fumbling for the seatbelt buckle of my five-strap harness, then hesitated. If I released it, I would plant my head into the overhead panel, which was filled with numerous toggle switches. Even if I didn’t impale on a switch or break my neck, the agony in my legs made me question if I could work them enough to crawl from the aircraft.
I risked a glance. Whatever had happened to us had bent the instrument panel down, trapping my lower extremities under it. The femur in my right leg poked out through a tear in my pants. A constant stream of blood ran from the tip of the broken bone.
I recoiled, and the bone moved.
An intense spike of nausea erupted, emptying my stomach. Vomit burned my throat, ran into my eyes, and up my nose.
I swiped my face with my arm to clear my vision, sending a wave of blackness rolling through me. A part of me welcomed an end to my misery, while another part of me worried I would never regain consciousness. I couldn’t leave my wife, son, and daughter.
The sounds of large diesel engines approached. Air brakes hissed. Were they from the crash and rescue trucks?
“Help.” My cry was a gurgle from the vomit in my mouth. I spit.
The smoke outside was so thick now I couldn’t see the ground. Would they find me before I was consumed by fire? “Help!”
I didn’t see any movement or hear any voices. I would not die helplessly. I had to get out of the airplane.
The intensity of the torment in my side grew, making it harder to breathe. When the yoke rammed into me had it broken a rib, or my sternum? Punctured a lung?
A shove on the yoke to move it forward proved futile.
If I slid the seat back, I might breathe easier and free my legs. It would also aid in getting the hell out of the cockpit.
Twisting to yank the lever at the base of my seat stabbed my chest. With my free hand, I shoved on the glareshield, normally at shoulder height but now waist level, hoping to ease the pressure against my chest. The seat did not move nor slacken the crushing force in my chest.
It also intensified the torture in my legs. I doubted a chainsaw cutting into them would hurt worse. The bellow I unleashed didn’t summon the strength needed to distance me from the yoke. The intensity of the torment was so great, I almost blacked out.
If I slipped back under, I might either bleed or burn to death.
I sat as still as I could, panting.
The gulps of air I took didn’t relieve my shortness of breath.
Through gritted teeth, I pushed on the glareshield, yanking on the seat adjustment lever at the same time. When I didn’t move, I attempted to shove my feet against the floor under the instrument panel. Unimaginable agony consumed me, plunging me into inky darkness.