Safety In Numbers
He’d watched the Afghan work for months, between performances at the boxing tent. Jackie and the scores of same-looking boys that laboured across the circus were free to roam when the bosses had no use for them, invisible to the paying public.
Working Mr Fred’s tent allowed for a snatched handful of such breaks. Three shows a day, multiple fights per show. Two of the junior boxers would go at it in the first; then the locals. Some town champion always put his hand up to fight one of the traveling pros, or Billy Bligh, Mr Fred’s world-famous roo. They’d take a hiding in either case, usually a less permanent one if they chose the human opponent - Billy was a monster who took the whole crew to corral with any degree of safety. When no heroes were left it was the main event, five rounds, any two of the big names - Jimmy Knuckles, Furious Roy Fitzgerald, Black Harry. Thirteen of the country’s best tent boxers, rotating so you wouldn’t see the same fight twice if you came to every show. And Jackie, stealing in unnoticed around Mr Fred’s crowd-work, wiping the canvas clean for the next jaw-dropping chapter. Then out he’d dash, more often than not into the back of the Afghan’s show, to see punters hear their fortunes and buy rid of curses.
The entertainers paid no more attention to the working boys than the public did, which was only a little less than the odd stick or deafening dressing down they got from the bosses. So when Jackie heard his name, half his body already slipping out under the tent to sprint back to his mop for the hundredth time, it cracked like a firework.
Pulling his head in, he rose and joined the crowd looking up at the Afghan on his platform. ‘Jackie,’ the old man said again. ‘Come up here.’
The audience shuffled and looked around, not feeling Jackie shimmy between them. He was on the makeshift stage before he felt eyes on him.
The Afghan nodded toward a stool for Jackie to sit as he addressed the audience again. ‘Jackie, this boy, is one of the shadows. They build this magic empire, raising it like a lighthouse from the dirt while you sleep. You don’t see them. Jackie thinks I don’t see the shadows, but I do. I see him in here, among you, watching and working and learning. Today, I think the time has come, for Jackie to enter the light!’
On the word, the tent flashed bright and white and Jackie was blind. The air echoed with the hiss of a lit wick, and he felt hands on him, spinning him down and off his seat, then more hands, pushing and pulling as he stumbled to keep his footing.
A moment later he felt the sun on his skin, and the musk of the crowd was gone. His eyes came back after a few more seconds. He was alone, standing in a narrow dusty lane between exhibits.
Jackie could hear Mr Fred, shouting for latecomers for the afternoon show. He’d have to run to take his position, but he couldn’t move yet. Catching his breath, Jackie grasped each forearm with the opposite hand. He felt different, and dazed.
Gathering himself, he walked back toward his work, rolling around the Afghan’s words. It was true he and the other boys were a kind of shadow circus, pulsing below the surface. A handful like him worked for Mr Fred. Many more worked the animals, lugged the waxworks, dragged equipment for the magician or the lantern show or the musicians.
All of them, Jackie presumed, had joined with his same wish to improve their lot, to see a burgeoning country and to build a purse. Whether any lots had improved was a matter for consideration. Jackie had certainly seen vast stretches of outback, from the window of the caravan full of boys he traveled and slept in. Adventure, though often days that was making it dawn to dusk without a boss’s boot. And any fortune seemed some distance away. Though the oasis of tents they could call their own did shimmer, the wage at present was enough, almost exactly, to cover accommodation, board and transportation. And with beer available on tick, most of the boys’ big dream was breaking even.
Still reeling, Jackie entered the boxing tent just as Mr Fred took to the canvas to start the show, and instantly realized his error. Mr Fred began to bellow his introduction, but stared incredulously past the crowd at his tardy blood-boy. A spectacle, arriving at the main entrance, a workers no man’s land.
Jackie’s ear jerked to the side and he skipped after it lest it be torn off. Mr Fred’s son Frank had hold of him, dragging him out of view of the audience with some fury.
Thrown to the ground behind a stack of packing cases, Jackie curled inwards as Frank kicked at him. A couple glanced off and one landed, painfully, before he heard Mr Fred again.
‘Frankie, bring the lad out here will ya?’
Jackie was lifted to his feet and on out to the canvas, his feet grazing the ground twice as they covered the distance.
‘This is one of our workers,’ Mr Fred announced to the crowd. ‘Isn’t that right boy, tell em what you do around here.’
Jackie looked around at a hundred pairs of eyes. Gathering his response, he realised he was beaming back at them. ‘I’m Jackie. I mop up the blood,’ he said.
‘He mops up the blood!’ said Mr Frank. ‘Looks like he enjoys it too, have a look this grin! Should we see if he enjoys spilling some of his own?’
The crowd whooped and the tent buzzed with the feel of a special event. It was an atmosphere that took hold only sparingly, when bad blood had been brewing between the headline boxers, or when a local was particularly well fancied. .
‘Listen to that! Our audience must not be denied young Jackie,’ said Mr Frank. ‘Waltzing in like the champion of the world! Let’s see you back it up. Who wants to see him fight Furious Roy?’
The crowd bayed again, and Jackie scanned their faces, smile fixed.
Mr Frank backed away, leaving Jackie alone in the centre of the canvas. On queue, Furious Roy Fitzgerald stood over him, shirtless and hands wrapped with bandage. Jackie was still, the world spinning around him. All sound left the tent and his heart throbbed in his temple, electricity running from the ground up through his veins.
A bell rang and the roar returned to the room. Roy was on him, fist dropping from the ceiling in slow motion. Jackie moved forward under the punch and slipped around, now facing the man’s back. The noise moved up a decibel. Roy spun to find him and charged again.
Jackie stepped back, and back again, each time ducking under weighty swings.
Roy’s face was beetroot and Jackie felt the tent shift. He began to pick out shouted encouragement - ‘that’s it son!’ and ‘go on, hit the brute!’.
Jackie danced across the canvas as the minutes ticked over, moving toward and away from his opponent, circling as the crowd gathered behind him, willing him to avoid the blows.
The bell rang again to end the round. Mr Frank called him to the side and sat him down.
‘Alright lad, you’ve had your fun. Let one clip you and then stay down, for fuck’s sake.’
Jackie looked across at Furious Roy, slumped on his chair and sucking air, stood and stepped back on the canvas.
The break had time to run and as Roy caught his breath, Jackie turned slowly, taking in the scene. Back by the packing crates, crouched next to Frank, another boy held onto his mop, rooted with nothing to clean.
The second round began and Roy came at him, his intensity a little dimmer. Jackie slipped and skipped, letting the boxer chase him again. The crowd kept up their support and he gingerly started obliging their petitions. He’d move and find himself behind his opponent, take a half step in and jab at the man’s ribs. Slide and let Roy stumble, tapping at his head as he sprawled.
His punches had no effect on his sparring partner, but each one whipped the tent further into fever.
Soon he was sat again, Mr Frank in his ear. ‘OK, OK. They love you don’t they. Have a go then. Have a go.’
The final round began and Jackie floated around the canvas on the noise. Roy approached only half-heartedly now and Jackie was comfortably landing his harmless attacks.
Another bell, and Jackie felt his arm lifted toward the roof, shoulder straining at the socket.
‘And your winner, young Jackie!’
Mr Frank held him by the wrist for another few moments as the sound washed over him, then pulled him behind the crates and out of view again.
‘That was some bullshit son but you had ‘em eating out of your hands. You’re in the troupe now. You’ll still work with the other boys but I’m gonna put you in the ring too. You’ll get double the pay on days you fight. Now fuck off and do your job.’
Jackie watched his boss head back to the canvas and turned to take back his mop. He extended a hand to take it from the boy in his place, but his replacement turned away and maintained his grip.
Jackie took in the situation, then left the boy to it. He searched the wings of the tent to see what work needed doing. Finding nobody in need of help, he found a corner for the remainder of the show.
His fight had taken the place of the junior bout, so local chancers were up next. Jackie leaned against a tent post, laughing while a towering blonde was pummeled across the floor before being put down in the second round.
Mr Fred called for more volunteers, offering Billy Bligh up as the next foe. He presented the giant roo to the crowd. Billy was calm in the open space, held by two workers with ropes looped over his head and with more boys close by at the ready. He advanced on the audience, front paws hitting the mat and the back following, crossing the canvas in one motion. The front row yelped as one, and stepped back into the rows behind.
Nobody raised their hand to tussle with Billy, and Mr Fred waved for him to be taken out.
Jackie seized the chance to be of use and ran out with the other boys to put the animal away. Grabbing a rope, he flexed against the roo as it shuffled after them out of the tent.
Outside, a boy lifted the latch on the cage. Jackie backed in first to guide Billy in, and felt his rope strain tighter. Shuffling toward the back of the cage, he glanced up at the two boys who’d held it with him, still at the door, pushing Billy from behind.
Stepping sideways to look around the roo, Jackie saw all of the boys now, still outside, looking in. He was on his own. The latch clanked.
Jackie dropped the rope and stepped back, into the corner, raising his hands open toward Billy. The animal moved up on him, filling his view and engulfing him with its shadow.
A voice came from outside the cage.
‘Champion of the world!’
Billy Bligh leaned back on his tail, coiled his mighty feet, and began to kick.
Even here and now, in this moment, my hatred for the leader of my country burns so fiercely I wonder that it can’t be seen. It’s hot and searing bright, surely it must illuminate the shadows that I cling to? There is no sign that they see me, though. They continue to watch from all sides, ensuring the safety of the towers.
When did cell towers become strategic locations anyway? Oh yes, I know. The day that El Presidente decided he didn’t like the world watching what he was doing. The day he realised he could control the media if he followed in the footsteps of so many dictators before him and removed the freedom of speech. The day he realised the wider world would not condemn him without evidence. The day he sent the military to take control of cell towers, ISP’s, Satellite Transmitters.
The crazy part? How few people cared. It was as though, once they had made him our leader, they couldn’t criticise. As if allowing even a sliver of doubt about his decisions would start the whole line of dominoes toppling and all their reasons for electing him would come tumbling down. They’d have to face their own responsibility for his empowerment, the triumph of evil. They clung to their bigoted justifications, their jinogistic dogma, all the more fiercely for every horror perpetrated in the name of their freedom.
Not me. Not that I voted for him, but I wouldn’t, couldn’t, let them silence me. I was just one of a thousand stories like mine; my lover taken from me because his parents had been born in another country. Deported; at least, we pray they were deported. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are rife, and more than one suggestion of death camps has been made. I won’t believe it though, I won’t. I won’t believe that my country has fallen so far. I won’t believe they would turn a blind eye to murder. Besides, I would know if he was dead; I would feel it, somehow.
I check my watch; 5 minutes until the shift change. 5 minutes until I get the opportunity to change the future, to get a message out to the rest of the world. 5 long minutes of anticipation, just time to run through the plan one more time.
I flick the popper that holds the grenade at my belt. When the moment is right I will lob that, with the accuracy that hours of practice have given me, into the midst of the four soldiers who patrol here. Don’t worry, it’s just knock out gas; even if they would cheerfully kill me, I won’t do the same to them.
The gas should, should, give me five minutes of safety in which to get into the tower’s control box, connect up my dialler and start the process of calling out. The dialler is pre-programmed with the numbers of data centres in the biggest news outlets in the world. A stream of ones and zeroes will be broadcast, after months of silence, showing the world just exactly what El Presidente has been doing.
The World will not be able to ignore the evidence like it has the harrowing stories of the few survivors that we know have made it out alive. It’s easy to dismiss one person as an anomaly; easy enough for El Presidente to find a way to smear them, to paint them as a terrorist to justify his treatment. Harder to show the systematic cruelty, the institutionalised hatred that has seeped into our country since the night of the election, when only one voice speaks.
When the photographs of the former first family, murdered in their beds, were leaked, El Presidente made a statement to the International Press expressing his sorrow. He blamed extremists and condemned their actions, but inside our country, we knew the truth. As El Presidente had begun his reign of terror, good, decent, moderate people had flocked to the banner of his liberal predecessors. They had become figureheads in the resistance; the movement was soon decapitated.
Even now, they blame extremists; not El Presidente himself. There is never any direct evidence to any particular crime that incriminates him; he has taken plausible deniability to new heights.
But I have it. I have it all. Facts, figures, direct links. It’s all there ready, a stream of ones and zeroes that I can transmit and it cannot be ignored. Facts, that cannot be ignored. Photographs, that cannot be ignored. Video, that cannot be ignored.
A vibration at my wrist alerts me that it is time; I watch as a jeep pulls up and two soldiers get out. I watch as the guards move, floating like inky patches in the darkness down, to brief the newcomers.
My hand finds the grenade, pulls the pin, and I whisper an apology as it arcs through the air and lands between them. I watch them react, one even manages to pull a weapon, but the gas acts like dynamite to their foundations and they crumple to the floor.
Anticipation converts into energy, throwing myself from the shadows I move with the ease of the well-rehearsed and climb the mesh fence, throwing myself easily over the top. I land harder than I hoped, feeling the crushing pain in my ankle. Muttering a curse, I rise, limping towards the control room. The imagined version of today plays alongside the reality; I see myself walking confidently ahead of my injured self and grunt in frustration as reality limps behind. Focus, I tell myself, and narrow my gaze onto the cabinet.
From my tool-belt, I pull out the jimmy that I’m going to use to pop it open; going through the pockets of the unconscious soldiers is not something I have the time, or the stomach, for. The metal bar slides into place, and I lean on it. There’s a cracking sound, and a pop; it’s all much louder than I expected. Pain blossoms in my side.
Looking down I see scarlet drip from the tight fitting blackness of my clothing. I half turn towards the soldiers as a terrible suspicion forms in my mind. A gun points at me and I think, ‘So close…’ but then whatever superhuman effort had allowed him to battle the knockout gas fails, and he slumps back into unconsciousness.
I’m not going to survive this. I’m not being dramatic, just pragmatic. There’s no way that I can complete the task that I assigned myself, with an injured ankle and a bleeding gunshot wound, and get out alive. I can pick one, or the other.
I understand that famous quote now, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I can’t remember who said it, but I feel the truth of it resonating in this moment.
Breathing hard, I start to talk to myself. I become my own personal cheerleader, reminding myself of every step I need to take, cheering myself on when I manage it.
I pull a bundle of cables from the cabinet, slice wires, clip new connections in and fire up my laptop. One last, weary, double click and the software clicks in. Numbers are dialed, linking my computer to news networks all across the world, I hear it whistle and pop out those rows and rows of ones and zeroes. Our pleas for safety, in numbers.
A late mid-summer’s evening. Atlantis Airways flight 874 from London Heathrow to Chicago, Illinois is seven hours into its ten hour journey. For captain Leonard Ross and first officer Michelle Penrose it’s been a routine flight. All systems are working and skies are clear. Passengers are also settled. Some are sleeping, others reading or watching movies in their head rests. Thirty five year old beauty therapist Debbie Shilton is among them.
“It’s always in the back of your mind when you fly that something might go wrong but it was such a beautiful day and the flight had been so smooth that I was very relaxed,” Debbie recalls.
But what is about to happen will shake the airline industry and give the National Transportation Safety Board their most bizarre and mystifying case ever; a case that will only be solved after months of painstaking work. How could a 300 million dollar machine noted for its reliability and state of the art technology crash in perfect weather, without any distress call from its pilot, once terrorism was ruled out?
It is incumbent upon flight 874 to make contact with air traffic control when they emerge from their dead zone over the Atlantic ocean and reach a coastal way point. But as the plane crosses that imaginary line there is no such communication. Air traffic controller Abdul Mahrez then tries to make contact and there is no response. But flight 874 is still apparently visible on radar and proceeding on its course toward Illinois.
Other planes in the vicinity attempt to make contact with flight 874 to no avail. There are a plethora of reasons why it may not be communicating; including a problem with its radio. But post 9/11 there is no room for complacency and within minutes of failing to respond an F16 fighter jet is scrambled to intercept the fast moving passenger plane. The immediate objective isn't to shoot the airliner down, but try determine what is wrong. One possibility is that the plane has experienced a decompression incident. If this is the case, the pilots may have had hypoxia and been incapacitated. Alternatively, the plane may have been hijacked.
But when the F16 tracks down flight 874 and flies alongside the pilot doesn't see telltale signs of decompression, such as clouded windows, or civilians in the cockpit that would suggest a hijacking. At first he cannot believe what he sees and in the fading light he thinks it's a trick. He reports he can see someone in the cockpit but is unable to see them clearly. Meantime, ATC have their own incident to explain. For a few seconds they hear a brief communication from the plane that sounds like someone barking incomprehensible instructions before the airwaves fall silent again.
As the plane reaches the mainland it's dead on course for Chicago. If it crashes in a built up area the carnage could be devastating. Experts at the Federal Aviation Authority are notified of the escalating crisis. Mark Snode is a human behaviour expert who has studied professionals in high pressure situations. He’s brought in to shed light on these perplexing events.
“I had an early start the next day and I remember I'd just brushed my teeth and turned out the light. As soon as my head hit the pillow the phone rang. Someone said this is the FAA, we’ve got a situation on our hands,” he explains.
When Mark Snode hears what’s happened he comes up with a theory. If the captain is under stress or incapacitated his words may be indecipherable. He may have had a stroke or been injured in a struggle.
The President is informed and it’s now up to him to decide what to do. The plane appears to be flying safely and there's no reason to believe it’s been hijacked.The last thing the President wants to do is authorise the shooting down of a plane experiencing a minor problem, like a loss of communications systems, when the lives of hundreds of innocent passengers and several crew are at stake. He orders the F16 to continue to shadow it but take no action. Emergency services in the plane’s flight path are placed on high alert. For the sake of the passengers on board and countless others on the ground, the President must now hope his gamble pays off.
As the plane approaches Illinois it executes its descent perfectly, flying in a series of steps towards the airport as if nothing untoward has occurred. In 2013 Chicago O’Hare airport is the busiest in the world in terms of passengers and take off and landings, but now all flights have been diverted as a precautionary measure and firetrucks are on standby. If the plane is damaged it may have to make a crash landing. It's not known what the fate of its passengers is but suddenly, when the plane is just 30 nautical miles from Chicago Airport and flying at a few thousand feet, it banks suddenly to the left and descends dramatically. It flies downwards at an acute angle, only pulling up when it's just hundreds of feet from the ground.
“For the passengers on board, it must have been a nightmare come true. In such moments bags are thrown from lockers, oxygen masks descend and people are screaming, praying and even wetting themselves,” explains NTSB investigator Greg Flynn.
Air traffic control now know the plane cannot be flying on autopilot. Perhaps there's been a desperate struggle on board. Were hijackers trying to crash the plane? Had they done so, they would have flown into an industrial area containing large buildings. The plane has leveled off and appears to be circling a meat factory that operates at night. If it crashes many lives could be lost.
“I wondered why the plane kept circling the factory and thought it may have lost its hydraulics,” says Joe Lamcello, the pilot of the F16.
If the plane has lost hydraulics the pilots may still be able to steer the plane by varying engine thrust. But just when it seems the plane has stabilized it dives straight towards the ground and crashes.
For Greg Starkey at the NTSB the scattered jigsaw pieces of wreckage are the first step in a long journey as he tries to put together what happened to Flight 874. By examining the plane wreckage, flight data and cockpit voice recordings, ATC transcripts, weather reports and all data at his disposal he hopes to reconstruct the events of that fateful day. An examination of the engines shows they were working perfectly at the time of impact. As were communication instruments and the flight data recorder indicates no mechanical failure. Finally, Greg listens to the cockpit voice recorder. What is heard changes the entire course of the investigation; but it's only months later that the final piece of evidence comes to light. We can now reveal what happened.
At 7.47 EST, as flight 784 approaches the American coast First Officer Michelle Penrose decides to use the bathroom. The Captain says he will go straight after. They are unaware that a dog traveling with his owner as hand luggage has escaped from his container. The diminutive canine slips between the legs of Michelle without her noticing when she opens the door. The dog is now trapped in the cockpit and lets out a whine two minutes later which sounds like the cockpit door opening and closing. Engrossed in his flight manual the captain doesn’t look up for a moment. Then he puts the manual down and leaves the cockpit. He has made a terrible mistake. Both humans are now locked outside the cockpit and the lives of 238 passengers and 7 crew may now depend on the flying skills of a miniature schnauzer.
But as Greg Flynn knows all too well, a dog has never flown a plane before.
“From the moment there was no human in that cockpit I’m pretty sure the plane was doomed,” he says.
The plane flies toward the airport on autopilot but somehow the dog disengages it and the plane plummets. It’s a horrifying ordeal for passengers but it’s also a moment when strangers hold hands, people write hurried messages to their loved ones on sick bags and confront their mortality with remarkable tranquility.
Miraculously, no one on the ground is killed but the passengers are not so fortunate. As emergency services battle the flames it’s clear there is little hope of survivors. Only Debbie Shilton survives the impact and she is in a coma for a year.
Some disasters have silver linings. Survivors live their life with a new sense of gratitude, passengers form irrevocable bonds and heroes discover what they are made of. But the crash of flight 874 brings utter chaos.
Six months later Greg Flynn reads a newspaper report about a fire fighter who reported seeing a dog flee the crash site with sausages in his mouth. He puts it to the back of his mind but as he has no other leads he finally he decides to ring the F16 pilot, who confesses the truth. The CVR had revealed what sounded like a dog barking but at first that theory was dismissed in favour of another.
“I was convinced at the time that it might be a form of trans-global amnesia. It’s a very rare phenomena. The captain could have temporarily forgot who he was and his brain filled in the gaps. All that would have made sense to him was his conviction that he was a dog of some kind,” recalls Mark Snode.
“As soon as we had the testimony of the fighter pilot we conducted a forensic analysis of the cockpit and found traces of dog hair. We were then able to put together a likely scenario,” Greg Flynn adds.
The NTSB now know what brought down flight 874 but with thousands of planes still flying the implications are very grave. Could there be other planes at danger from being flown by dogs? Technicians conduct test flights with dogs at the control in airplane simulators and the results are chilling. No dog is able to successfully fly a plane. Some experts think the events that led to the crash are a highly unlikely event but pets have been on the loose on planes before. On the 20th December 2015 a tortoiseshell cat escaped from its container aboard a Delta Airlines flight, unnerving a flight attendant. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
The crash of Atlantis flight 891 is a tragedy but thanks to the results of the study that emerged from it a raft of safety measures are brought in by the aviation industry which make traveling on a plane safer than ever before. Checks on dog carriers are now made more stringent, sausage factories on flight paths are outlawed and planes are made easier for dogs to fly, a fail-safe, so that in the worse case scenario a plane has a better chance of landing safely.
Finally, there is some suggestion that the pet dog aboard flight 871 may have been dressed up by his owner for the occasion. In the mind of the F16 pilot there is no doubt.
“To this day I’m quite certain that I saw a dog wearing flying goggles and he saluted at me. I don’t think there’s anybody who can tell me any different.”