Down around Midnight: A Memoir of Crash and Survival by Robert Sabbag

This is one scary book, even though the writer survived something horrific. It’s also addictive as all get-out.

In June 1979, Robert Sabbag, seven other passengers, and the co-pilot survived the crash of a small commuter plane on Cape Cod. The pilot died in the crash. Their plane crashed into a forest, and it was hours before they were rescued. During that time, they were drenched in aircraft fuel and most were badly injured. One young woman was able to go for help, stumbling out of the woods to stun the passersby who picked her up.

Yikes. What a story. And it’s made even better by the restraint of the author, who states the facts simply and rather beautifully. This is a stunning book. And a surprising one.

One of the initial things that surprised me is that the author wrote this account 30 years after the crash. The reasons for the lag time are fascinating. Sabbag posits that people who have gone through a terrible situation (airplane crash, war, etc.) rarely talk about the experience afterward, even with those who lived through the experience alongside them. Posttraumatic stress disorder, survival guilt—it’s all here. He has worked as a journalist for decades, but he writes that he found it surprising that it was so difficult to even ask the questions of his fellow survivors. It was as though it felt indelicate, if not almost indecent, to bring up the crash.

The next thing that is surprising is that none of the survivors saw each other after their rescue. They spent several horrible post-crash hours together in a Massachusetts forest and then never saw each other again, until Sabbag began researching his book. He interviewed those survivors who were willing to talk with him, as well as paramedics, firefighters, and medical personnel. And he interweaves brief anecdotes from his own life that illustrate some of the effects the crash has had on him, even if he was not able to see the effects until a good friend pointed them out.

Finally, two random comments about how this book ties into my reading pattern at the moment:
1. While I was most definitely not thinking of this book as a segue from my Buddy Holly reading spree, I found myself thinking about him on page 8, which is where Robert Sabbag describes what it was like to be aboard the airplane immediately before the crash. Since they were flying through fog, he said he didn’t have any indication that they were in any trouble. He puts it like this: “Time never had a chance to stand still.” (p. 8) I cannot tell you how reassuring this is, for some very strange reason.

2. Reading this book now also may seem to indicate that I’m on an aviation crash spree (having just read Huston’s Marine One)—which I certainly hope I am not, given that that would be creepy.