What do you do when you suddenly realize that death is unavoidable, and how does that moment differ from your life right now?
I received an interesting insight into that question today, when I was told about a 1987 incident in California. Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 was taken over by a gunman, a disgruntled ex-employee who managed to get around the slack security system for airline workers at that time, overtook the cockpit, and shot and killed the pilots.
With the pilots dead and slumped over the controls, the plane began its descent, which accelerated with time, before crashing and killing everyone on board. It's horrifying to consider, but the passengers, who could clearly hear and see the gunfire, must have been aware of the situation, and the plane then took some six minutes to crash.
Investigators, I'm told, sifting through the wreckage found notes written by many of the passengers on the back of magazines, air sickness bags, and scrap paper in their final six minutes, saying their last goodbyes and expressing their love to those back home. It's heartbreaking, but it's also a little encouraging about the human spirit to see that those facing their imminent demise contemplated love, not hatred and rage.
Charles Bukowski once said “We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” The victims of PSA 1771 teach us that the terror and the flattening and the devouring are due to our denial of the fact that we're all going to die, every last one of us, but that realization of our own mortality can and has brought out our love for each other.