It was a perfect summer day by the seaside. We sat on the beach looking out over a cloudless blue sky – the sea sparkling beneath it. Behind us, over the Shoreham Airfield, we could see a small plane doing crazy loop-the-loops and barrel rolls, climbing to the top of an arc of white smoke and then plummeting downwards. For a few moments it would disappear from sight behind the buildings between us and the Shoreham Airfield, just a couple of miles away. My heart was in my mouth each time. But then it would rocket upwards again. Relief!
Then a large fighter plane flew in over the sea. I didn’t notice where it came from. It’s sleek, triangular shape like a dark bird of prey in the summer sky. We tried to guess what kind of plane it was, laughed as we made up names for it, forgot it as it disappeared over our heads. And we went on getting ready to swim in the sea.
There was something so simple and peaceful about the sea. The purity of the horizon. The ice cold entry and the gradual acclimatisation of my body and then letting the waves take over. Floating on my back I listened to the rustle of pebbles being raked forwards and backwards underwater. Back on the beach one of the kids said quietly. “There must have been an accident…” We all turned to see a vast cloud of black smoke unfolding over the direction of the airfield.
There could have been no doubt as to what had happened, but somehow we all seemed to enter a long period of denial, reluctant to admit that people might have died. Reluctant to give up the peace and joy of the summer seaside. “Oh, you know, they sometimes re-enact World War II scenes, it’s probably that”. But when no more planes entered the sky, we knew it was not a re-enactment. The lady in the chip shop told us that the pilot had managed to escape and was in hospital. “Oh, thank god,” we said. “What a miracle! That’s alright then.” And we went on enjoying our day with a sigh of relief.
We didn’t want to even entertain the idea that others might have been hurt or killed or traumatised, although, thinking about it now, we should have realised that was a strong possibility. We kept checking twitter – mainly to see how our journey home would be affected – and no more news of fatalities came through. As we joined the gridlocked traffic on the roundabout outside the entrance to the air show, the smell of burning fuel and metal drifted in through the open windows. Ambulances and police cars carved a path through the stationary lines of cars. But very soon we were out of the jam and back on our usual road home.
It was only when we got home – reconnected with the internet – that we saw the video footage of the Hawker Hunter climbing to the top of its loop and plummeting downwards – just like the little plane had done. But this one never did reappear. It was only then that we learned that at least seven people had lost their lives and many others been injured when the plane crashed into cars and motorbikes at a red traffic light on the A27…
These two images keep playing simultaneously in my mind.
The vast, perfect blue sky and being supported in the chill green ocean – chips and ice cream and dogs leaping into the sea after flung tennis balls, children shrieking with joy.
And – just a couple of miles away – a vast fireball tearing through the lives of seven people like a bomb. A bomb whose impact waves will crash through the lives of each of those seven people’s families, their friends, their colleagues… waves of horror for everyone who witnessed it.
If the image keeps coming back to me, who only saw a cloud of smoke, what nightmares must those who were there, or whose loved ones were killed, be having, over and over?
On the packed train back to London, as often happens when disaster strikes, strangers started speaking to each other. A couple who had been part of the audience at the airfield were still stunned. They said that when the plane crashed there was complete silence on the airfield. The commentator just stopped talking as everyone tried to readjust their take on reality from lovely day out to unspeakable horror. “We had packed a picnic and a bottle of wine, but we just haven’t had the heart to open it…” the husband said quietly.
Also in the news today the attempted terrorist attack on a French TGV train and a man killed by police in a siege in South London. The fallout from the chemical factory explosion in China continues… reminding us that every moment someone somewhere is dying, in less or more horrifying circumstances. When it happens a mile or so away from you (or yards away, or to someone you know and love) your natural barrier to that knowledge breaks down. You feel guilty for enjoying the sea, your chips, laughter with your family, for having a picnic and a bottle of wine. It all seems so trivial in comparison. The danger then is that you won’t be able to close that breach. That the horror, and potential horror, will continue to pour in and overwhelm you so that you can no longer function.
But the truth is that we live in a far safer and more peaceful world than in any other time in history. Fewer people are being killed in wars, violent crime is reducing, there are fewer maternal deaths in childbirth and more children are surviving too. The HIV pandemic is slowing down, we seem on the verge of a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer… And for all our frustration with and mocking of the Health and Safety brigade, we are undeniably safer and more healthy because of them.
After the crash, a friend recalled watching the Red Arrows performing earlier in the week and reflected that it is a human trait to tempt fate. And sometimes fate gives in to temptation. But we cannot give in to the temptation to let the horror take over. It’s vital to see beyond the horror at the countless normal everyday acts of reassurance that people love each other and are safe, however banal and trivial that may seem. They are not trivial – they are the very core of life. Also on that packed train was a Rastafarian father bonding with his tiny baby, tickling laughs from it, bursting with love at the sound. A couple of tattooed gay guys got on at Gatwick glowing from their holiday. A mother and son of about seven hugged and giggled after having to sit on the floor under the luggage racks of the overcrowded train.
An interview with a mother who escaped with her children from her car just 15 meters from the crash contained the expression “…it was great”. She was talking about the way the police had reacted, arriving in seconds, keeping everyone at a safe distance in case of a second explosion. She was talking about how people helped each other and gave each other advice…
In everyday life, just as in the heat of a disaster, this is what we all need to do. Take care of each other. Take care of yourself – so that you are safe and so that you can take care of others. Take care of the planet.
Background: At least seven people were killed and many injured when a Hawker Hunter plane crashed into cars on the A27 during Shoreham Air Show on Saturday August 22nd. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34027260