Germanwings Flight 9525 has haunted my thoughts this week, and I know I’m not alone. As details of the crash emerged — and particularly, the contents of the mangled cockpit voice recorder — it was impossible to not feel the horror of the 149 people co-pilot Andreas Lubitz took to their deaths.
They had eight minutes. Eight minutes from the moment Lubitz locked Captain Patrick Sonderheimer out of the cockpit and started the Airbus A320 on a steady descent until it slammed into a remote mountainside at more than 400 mph.
Death was instantaneous, according to authorities. The cockpit voice recorder picked up screams only in the final moments before impact, indicating passengers did not know what was happening until the very end.
A mercy. Still, it’s excruciating to imagine the plight of Sonderheimer, who first knocked lightly on the cockpit door, then more forcefully and, finally — as what was happening became clear — tried to break down the door with an ax. And to feel, too, in our own guts, how it must have been for the passengers:
A faint awareness of something amiss, as the plane began descending from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet as if for landing, though it was just half an hour into a two-hour flight.
A growing sense of uneasiness as the Airbus continued to lose altitude at a rate of more than 3,000 feet a minute.
Fear as the snow-capped French Alps, which should have been far below the belly of the aircraft, rose to meet it.
Finally, understanding, and with it, terror, however short-lived. This excerpt from Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas:
“Just for one second, he would have had to know, wouldn’t he? There must have been a blur, a sense of the world exploding, a flashpoint of receiving more damage than a human body could endure. ”
A horrible death, but then death comes in a thousand unspeakable ways. Was this worse, really, than a protracted battle with cancer or some other implacable disease? The loss of mind and identity that characterizes Alzheimer’s? Was it worse than lingering after a car crash, or an overdose?
Perhaps this seems so awful because we cannot help but put ourselves in their places: ordinary people going about ordinary lives, unaware that they are about to end in an unthinkable manner. Any one of us could have been any one of them.
And, too, there is Lubitz, the diabolus ex machina of this story. His opaqueness almost makes me wish he had been a terrorist, that this had been an act impelled by some sense of greater purpose, however twisted.
But there is only a 27-year-old man who, before March 24, seemed unremarkable. In an article published today, The New York Times put it this way: “Time and again, the same adjectives pop up when people remember Mr. Lubitz. He was courteous and friendly, but reserved and not someone who drew attention to himself — thoroughly normal.”
Ordinary, it seemed — one of us — but apparently made extraordinary by mental illness of a kind that is impossible to comprehend. Not just depression, which often leads to suicide, but rarely to mass murder. Something more; something else. Something hidden.
And on the cockpit voice recorder: his silence, his steady breathing, his composure. His calmness; their terror. Lubitz was impassive as death itself, and just as impersonal. For eight long minutes, he was a kind of human being we cannot comprehend, and that is as painful to contemplate as the terror of the people he flew into that mountainside.
Unthinkable, all of it. Unthinkable.