A face caught on my shoe. A human face, with a seal brown mustache and a keyboard of strong yellow teeth, was snagged by the toe of my brogan. The eyes were open and the jaw was slack, a startled expression, which was understandable since the back of the head was missing and my shoe had sunk into gore behind an ear.
My hand found a tree trunk, made soft by moss, and I braced myself to scrape the face off my shoe, trying to be respectful of the dead, yet determined to loosen the face so I wouldn't have to walk with it clinging to me like an errant piece of tape. The nausea would come later. It always did.
The face finally dropped off my shoe, and I started again for the cones of sterile white light, glimpsed through the trunks of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. The spring melt was well underway, but the night's ice crust had formed on the remaining snow, and my shoes cracked through it with each step. I hadn't had time to dress for the mountains. Under the shelter of trees and on stone outcroppings, the snow was gone, and I could move quickly, but some drifts were up to my knees, and I had to high-step, the snow crawling up my pants. I breathed the chilled air in huge gulps.
The light ahead was broken by stabs of red and blue, quick strobe pulses that cut the night. A generator's rumble reached me, made deeper by the long echo from steep slopes all around. Shouted orders were carried in the sough of the wind in the trees. I pushed through a bank of licorice ferns and stepped over a rotted log. These woods had been clear-cut long ago, and old, crumbling stumps marked my way. A canopy of boughs from newer trees blocked most of the moonlight, and cast the snow in dappled blue-black shadows. The cold air held the elemental scents of red cedar and Pacific yew, and of aviation fuel.
I climbed toward the light, sidestepping a rangy wild rhododendron. The wail of sirens came from down the hill, from the way I had come. My foot slipped on a skunk cabbage and I skidded downhill. I grabbed a juniper branch to steady myself, then moved up again, the snow to my calves. I had no gloves, and my fingers were aching from the cold.
I should have thought this through, realized the dangers of my destination, and found some mountain clothing and maybe snowshoes, but there had been no time. Dread had pushed away useful thoughts. I had rushed into the mountains unprepared for the snow and for everything else I knew I would find. My stomach was sour, and only some of my trembling was from the cold.
The Forest Service road off Interstate 5 had taken me several miles south of the highway, and then to a narrow logging road a mile or two farther. Snow had been compressed by snowmobiles and cross-country skis, and my four-wheel-drive Explorer had no trouble, but I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I had seen the glow of the white lights, but couldn't find the way there in my rig. So I had abandoned the Explorer and had taken off on foot, thinking the light only two or three hundred yards up the forested hill. And now I was tramping through snow, wet to my knees, sweat running down my back, realizing my estimate had been off by about a thousand yards. I plowed through the snow, but the pool of eerie white light seemed to recede ahead of me.
The cold was as sharp as flint. Frozen breath drifting over my shoulder, I passed a copse of lodgepole pine -- the trunks are so straight that settlers could make cabins from them -- and walked around a chokecherry, and in the darkness almost bumped into a man and woman sitting in chairs in a patch of blue wildrye that had poked through the snow. The couple was wearing matching ski sweaters, and she was gripping a purse on her lap. Their legs ended in bloody stumps at the knees, and the snow under their seats had wicked away their blood. Safety belts had kept them in their chairs.
A few more steps brought me to a lower leg lying across a box elder. The leg had been ripped from the body at the knee. A running shoe was on the foot. Hanging from the shoelace was a silver charm, a tiny pair of crossed skis. Maybe the leg belonged to the woman in the ski sweater, but maybe not. A shrill cry drifted with the wind from the south. A hair-raising yip, yip, yip. Probably a coyote. I prayed it was a coyote. I pushed ahead, toward the light.
I stepped on a piece of flat metal I hadn't seen, and it slipped from under my foot like a sled. I caught myself, sinking to a knee. Struggling uphill, I skirted a poison hemlock and approached a propeller, rising out of the snow as if it had been growing there. I am one of the few people alive who can recognize a Hamilton Standard 14SF-11 four-blade propeller at twenty yards on a dark night on the side of a snowy mountain. The blades were bent only slightly rearward, perhaps indicating the engine was generating little or no power at impact, and that the propeller had been windmilling.
I instinctively reached for the kit strapped to my waist, but found only my belt buckle. A year ago I buried my kit in a basement trunk and swore I would never put it back on.
Next came luggage, thrown among the trees and littering the slope. Suitcases had burst like popcorn kernels, spewing out their contents. Pants and a ski parka hung from hemlock boughs. Crystal perfume bottles were here and there, and a cloying cosmetics-counter odor mixed with the winter scents of the mountain. I almost tripped over a package of three JCPenney T-shirts, still in their store wrapping.
Several boughs lay on the snow, torn from pine trees by a turboprop engine. I tried to step around a half-dozen fractured skis and snowboards without disturbing their location, which would be mapped soon enough, along with everything else larger than a pin on this grisly field. I approached an engine, a Pratt & Whitney Canada. The cowling had been ripped away, and the machinery lay exposed. The engine had slid down the hill a few yards, pushing snow in front of it, exposing mountain heather and chickweed.
At a granite outcropping, I grabbed the rough trunk of a Scotch broom to pull myself up. A man was peeking over a rock ledge above, staring down at me. I climbed higher, and saw he was missing both arms. A laptop computer lay next to him, its CD-ROM slot open. Bicycle playing cards lay all around. I moved through hemlock trees toward the white light.
A new scent turned my head. Then I heard a low crackling. A brake of Alaska cedar hid a fire off to my left, I was sure of it. I pushed toward it, ducking boughs and crunching through the snow. I crawled uphill over English ivy, partly covered with snow and as slippery as an ice fall, wound through a labyrinth of cedar trunks, and came to part of the fuselage. Fire worked on the wall panels, and the six passengers still strapped to their chairs were burned to black and resembled beef jerky. This portion of the fuselage was fairly large, indicating the plane had not been flying at a high altitude or great speed when it came apart. Wind picked up black ash and my jaw involuntarily opened at the odor of charred flesh. I had smelled it before, many times. I bit my lower lip hard enough to taste blood, trying to keep my dinner in my stomach. I had never been able to adjust to the carnage, and it had cost me my career.
I stumbled away from the fire. Above me a woman hung upside down, her ankle caught in the fork of a tree, her skirt hiding her face, like Mussolini's mistress. When I came to a patch of bare rock, my shoes scattered rivets, dozens of them, popped from the skin of the plane. Thousands more would be found. I slipped on clubmoss, and slid sideways into a snowdrift, almost bumping into landing gear. The Dunlop wheel was still attached, the tire still holding air. I used juniper boughs to pull myself from the deep snow. A few more steps uphill through the snow -- my knees rising almost to my breastbone -- brought me to the crest of the plateau, where the rescue operation lay before me.
There was likely no one to rescue, of course, but the Kittitas County sheriff and his deputies knew their first duty was to look for the living. Their cars -- bubble tops throwing shafts of blue and red light -- lined the logging road I had been unable to find. A dozen fire trucks had also arrived, different colors from different jurisdictions, some pulling into the field to make way for more vehicles. Two trailers with portable generators and klieg lights on telescoping poles were already in place. The kliegs produced the clinical white light I had seen from afar. Everything was in stark white and black, robbing the field of dimension, and making the scene even more nightmarish than it would be in daylight. The tortured ground looked like a garbage dump, and was covered with shreds of cloth, strips of insulation, wiring, torn sheets of aluminum, and flesh and viscera.
Two television vans had arrived, and technicians were aiming the cab-top satellite dishes. A reporter was getting ready for his broadcast, preening himself in front of a mirror held up by his soundman. One truck had KITTITAS COUNTY EMERGENCY SERVICES painted on its side panel. Police and firefighters roamed the site, many looking dazed.
A wing and more of the fuselage and other parts of the plane had fallen onto this small plateau. Bodies were flung across the place, some whole, some in pieces. This flat area looked as if it had been graded at one time, and had been a logging staging area, where line skidders, log loaders, donkey engines, and logging trucks went about their business. The hill began its steep climb again just west of the logging site.
The severed cockpit had also landed here. On its nose was Sacajawea, painted in blue. The cockpit's interior was visible, like a cutaway drawing. Instruments glowed eerily green and red, still powered by the backup system. The copilot was in his seat but the pilot and his seat were missing. Firemen poured water from a pumper onto another chunk of the fuselage. Steam hissed away from the wreckage. Near the cockpit was a woman, leaning back against a fir trunk, sitting as if at a picnic, except that she was dead and naked, her clothing having been sucked off her. Cops were cordoning off the area with yellow tape.
A deputy carried a piece of the plane -- one of the black boxes -- toward his boss, the county sheriff. I caught up with him, stepping over a Fatbob snowboard and a backpack.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked.
The fellow had tears running down his face. He turned away quickly to wipe them, then demanded gruffly to compensate, "Who are you?" He was wearing a peaked cap and a plastic yellow vest with SHERIFF stamped on the back.
"I'm from the National Transportation Safety Board." A small lie. "I need to know where you picked up the black box."
Planes contain two such boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, each about the size of a fisherman's tackle box. Black box is a misnomer, as this one -- and almost all of them -- was Day-Glo orange. FLIGHT DATA RECORDER DO NOT OPEN was printed on the box in English and Spanish.
"Back there." He nodded toward the east. "Near some trees."
I held up a hand like a traffic cop, a gesture he would appreciate. "Look, I want you to give me the box, then retrace your steps and try to discover where you found it. It'll be important."
"Sure." He handed it over. "There was a man back there, lying near the box, in a ski sweater. He had a piece of metal stuck through him. A lot of blood. I can find the place again, and I'll..." His voice broke and he walked away, back the way he had come, his shoulders hunched protectively.
I had seen this before. Cops and firemen, no matter how tough and street smart, just aren't ready for their first big crash site. NTSB investigators calls these sites majors. I had seen quite a few majors, and I was never ready, either.
A deputy sheriff was piling up metal pieces of the fuselage, stacking them like cordwood. Carrying the black box, I rushed over, as quickly as the calf-deep snow allowed.
"Don't do that," I ordered. "Leave the pieces where they fell."
"Shouldn't we be cleaning up?" His voice was distant and vague. He inhaled a huge draught of air. "I mean, I should do something. I should help." He cringed, as if I might tell him to collect body parts.
"Search for survivors."
He moved his hand in a small way. "Nobody could live through this."
"Search anyway. Let's make sure nobody lucky enough to survive the crash freezes to death in these mountains."
I left him there, and headed toward the sheriff, who was holding a cell phone to his ear and a map in his other hand. A deputy was standing at his shoulder and pointing a flashlight for him. The sheriff wiped his mouth and looked around. His face flashed blue and red from his car lights.
I crunched over the snow to the sheriff. "Has anybody been found who needs medical attention?"
He looked up. "No. Not likely, either."
"Have you found any more pieces of the plane that are still burning?"
"We've put out as many fires as we've found." He looked closely at my face, as if peering through a misted window. "And we're still finding them."
"Who have you notified?" I asked.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Joe Durant. Senior investigator for the NTSB." My name was truthful. The rest was another small lie.
"You got any ID?" he demanded.
Cops at a wreckage site always feel better if they can see a badge, and that's the only reason NTSB investigators carry them.
"It's at home on my dresser, right next to my reading glasses." Another lie. If you don't turn in your badge your last day on the job, you don't get your last paycheck. "You want some help or not?"
The sheriff hesitated, then allowed a trace of relief to cross his face. He introduced himself as Don Kingman, Kittitas County sheriff, elected just this year. "I received the call from the FAA. They said they were notifying the NTSB and the Red Cross and the FBI. I've called our county services. I'll have some experienced people here soon, medical and rescue folks, and dogs."
"Your deputies' safety is paramount, and the firemen's. Sometimes radioactive isotopes and other dangerous materials are in a cargo bay. Have you found anything like that?"
He shook his head.
"Or any gas containers or flammable solids or organic peroxides or corrosive materials? Or lab specimens? They could all be dangerous."
"Nothing like that yet."
More vehicles arrived. Another television station truck and a flatbed carrying a winch and generator.
I said, "Tell your men to treat this area as a crime scene."
It was a phrase cops understood, and it galvanized the sheriff. He turned to his deputies and began issuing orders to leave the wreckage where it lay and to preserve any fleeting evidence, such as soot deposits, by photography or notation, and to leave as little indication of their passage as possible. And he ordered his deputies to try to detect the scent of explosives, which would blow away quickly. He was well aware of a psychological factor that would affect those early at the site, the irresistible urge to act, even when lives were not at stake. He had to slow them down, to preserve the evidence. After a halting start, the sheriff was proving himself.
Standing near a prowl car's bumper, a deputy spoke into another cell phone, relaying the readout from a handheld global positioning system. We were three or four miles from Snoqualmie Pass, the east-west route through the Cascade Mountains, and were sixty or so miles east of Seattle. To the northwest I could see the reflection of the lights illuminating Snoqualmie Pass ski runs.
The deputy turned to the sheriff and asked, "What kind of plane was it?"
The sheriff looked at me.
"An Aero Transport France 94, a twin turboprop," I said. "Emerald Airlines, en route from Hailey, Idaho, to Seattle. The plane was called Sacajawea." Emerald Airlines named all its planes after northwest explorers and pioneers.
The Sheriff had an aggressive jaw, stuck out into the air. He rubbed it ruefully, then stepped closer, out of earshot of his subordinates. "You're the investigator. What else do I do now?" His lips were thin and bloodless, and he pressed them together. He loathed having to ask for help.
"Secure the area against the curious, who'll show up in an hour or two, so they don't move things around. And against looters." Over thirty people were charged with stealing from the Lockerbie site.
"Check everyone's credentials. Don't let any lawyers on the site, no matter what they say."
He smiled sourly. "Do I look like a dunce?"
"And insurance representatives. Keep them away."
Firemen were trying to hack their way to a point higher on the mountain where part of the fuselage had fallen. An orange glow could be seen through the trees and undergrowth above us. Left untended, a fire in an airplane section might burn for hours. Ash settled on the snow, speckling it.
Two ambulances arrived, but had to remain a hundred yards down the narrow logging road due to the congestion. A driver tried his siren for a moment, but the Red Cross truck in front of the ambulance had nowhere to go. The hollow pounding of a helicopter came from the west.
A man in a red parka approached us, holding up identification.
"I know who you are, Frank," the sheriff said with acid sweetness. "You can put your ID away."
I was introduced to the county hazardous materials coordinator. Frank Jessup had the clipped diction of an officious bank clerk. He said, "I'm ready to declare this place a biological hazard, Sheriff. Do you agree?"
The sheriff looked at me. Having the site declared a hazard would complicate the investigation, and it would be hard on the investigators' bladders because they would rather hold their pee than perform all the scrubbing and clothes changing required to leave and return to the site. But here there was no choice.
When I nodded almost imperceptibly, the sheriff said, "Agreed."
"I'll start bringing in my equipment." Jessup walked away.
The sheriff commented, "Jessup is the biggest pain in the ass in the entire goddamn world."
"You've never worked with me, that's clear." My banter was an attempt to keep my stomach under control. I was losing the fight.
The sheriff grinned narrowly. "The bodies make this a bio hazard? Blood-borne pathogens?"
I swallowed several times. My mouth under my tongue was tingling, and I was salivating heavily. I was all too familiar with these precursors. My shirt was stuck to my back with sweat that had begun to chill me. I said, "It'll be slower up here in the mountains, with the cold, but even so the bodies will quickly become dangerous."
Sheriff Kingman indicated me with his thumb and ordered a deputy, "Get this man some gloves and a better coat."
The helicopter loomed overhead. I couldn't make out its markings. The effect of its nose spotlight was lost in the kliegs. The copter slowly moved south, illuminating the logging road. Landing areas were scarce in the mountains.
My quick visual survey of the site indicated half or two-thirds of the plane had landed on this small plateau. The remainder would be strewn across the forest east of here, a wreckage trail that might be five miles long. Above me to the east, just at the upper cusp of the light thrown by the kliegs, several trees had been chopped off, their tops lying in the snow. The plane had clipped the trees on its way in.
Two men entered the site from between fire trucks. I had worked with them before. They were father and son, and almost identical in appearance, a generation apart. Charles Ray was the founder and chairman of Emerald Airlines. His son Wayne was the chief executive officer. They crossed the snow, Charles's hand on his son's arm, the son supporting the father. Charles was as bald as a peeled egg while his son had a full head of dark hair, carefully coiffed, even in his distress. Charles blinked rapidly, one hand delicately on his temple as if exploring it for a bruise. They gathered in the horrifying scene, their faces open and undefended, and slowly crossed the snow toward the sheriff. Their days ahead would be dreadful.
A deputy wearing a Kevlar vest handed me gloves and a parka with SHERIFF on the back, then drew Kingman away to confer. The sheriff's brisk efficiency had been an antidote to my nausea, but when he stepped away the sickness returned. No single body organ should be able to hold a person hostage for years, but my weak stomach had done it. I desperately looked around for a discrete place, my gaze sweeping over the butchery, my bile rising.
And my grief returning. This time -- on this wreckage site -- there was the grief. At least, I think it was grief. Hard to tell, with the chaos of rubble and corpses all around, and my churning stomach. Perhaps bereavement should have immobilized me. But right now I needed to find an out-of-the-way place, and quickly.
I moved around a knot of tossed luggage and clothing, and found a suitable stump near some rock brake at the edge of the clearing. The loggers had left a length of skid cable here, still shiny and curled like a snake. I swallowed repeatedly, breathing huge quaffs of air. I put the black box on the stump. The klieg lights made my new sheriff's coat glow a soft green. After a moment, my innards subsided a bit. Maybe I was getting tougher in middle age. After a few more long, even breaths, I took a step back toward the sheriff.
Then I saw a doll lying on the snow. A little girl's doll, with pudgy hands, a gingham dress, a tiny red ribbon in curly hair, and an eternal, dimpled smile. I folded like a jackknife and vomited.
I heaved and heaved, gripping the edge of the rotting stump, bent over, spilling my dinner onto the snow, some of it on my shoes, none of this for the first time, goddamn it. Finally I was empty, and could lever myself upright. I wiped my mouth with the back of a glove.
The governor of the State of Washington had arrived. A gun muzzle at his temple wouldn't make him miss a photo op. He must have been in the helicopter. The governor removed his cap to run his fingers through his sparse blond hair, readying himself for the television interviews. He was as silky as politicians come. And now running awkwardly in old-fashioned galoshes into the klieg light was Allen Chapman, head of the pilots' union, who worked for Alaska Airlines and was based in Seattle. And then came a Red Cross official whose face I remembered but not her name. She and Chapman walked across the snow toward the governor. Also arriving was the Kittitas County coroner, who had no reason to be here. She'd see the bodies soon enough without a visit. She too had been unable to find the logging road, and had come in following my path, her pants damp to her thighs.
I lifted a handful of snow, made sure it was clean, then chewed on it to clear my mouth. A National Guard Hummer drove along the side of the road, bypassing police trucks. Another helicopter appeared, this from Seattle's KOMO television station.
My legs wobbled as I stepped around a flight attendant's cart, a few peanut packages still in an open tray.
"Joe," someone called. "Joe Durant."
I recognized the voice. Richard Dahlberg, NTSB regional director.
He padded his way over the snow toward me. "I'm surprised to see you here, Joe."
"I'm surprised to be here."
Dahlberg probably wasn't on this week's Go Team, but his job would be to establish NTSB control of the site, handle the press, and provide the initial stakedown, to administer site security pending the team's arrival.
He said, "I saw someone tossing a meal over by a tree stump and figured it must be you."
I smiled weakly. "You've seen me puke more often than you'd care to, I'd imagine."
Dahlberg chewed on his lip a moment, indecision on his face. He should have been stitched taut, full of disapproval at my presence, but as a friend for a decade he was going to give me the benefit of the doubt. Dahlberg's face was seamed with harsh angles, and his eyes were always narrowed, as if he were looking into the sun. He had been a navy pilot, and still looked it. He was carrying his field kit, hadn't yet strapped it on.
He said, not unkindly, "Last I heard, Joe, you don't work for me anymore."
"No. I don't suppose I do."
"You aren't employed by the NTSB. Aren't an investigator anymore."
I rubbed my chin with a glove. "No, Dick. I'm not."
"Why are you out here, then?"
"Yeah." I drew in a sharp breath. "She was on this flight."
Copyright © 1999 by James Stewart Thayer