It wasn’t hard to get lost in the crowd, go unnoticed, stay anonymous, especially if you were determined and experienced, shadows who followed, waiting for the right opportunity. The Terrence B. Lettsome International Airport in the British Virgin Islands was exactly the place to do it. Two people, dressed to blend in with the tourists, tailed their quarry to the airport and almost accomplished their task at the curb. In the confusion of luggage being unloaded from taxis and vans, travelers were focused on one thing—keeping track of belongings and getting inside. The stalkers made one attempt, but at the last moment a porter stepped in the way. Without even being aware of it, the luggage handler grabbed a suitcase from their intended target, blocking the quick movement of a determined hand. Too late, and their quarry disappeared through the automatic doors. They followed, stepping into the chaos of the interior.
The terminal was teeming with people. A few were BVIslanders—families or business people going to Puerto Rico or on to the States, Canada, or the UK. Most were tourists just arriving in the islands to spend a week or two sailing the island paradise or on their way home, sunburned and wearing island garb.
Finally they spotted their target at the ticket counter checking in for Island Air Flight 45 to Puerto Rico. They tailed their mark to the gate and waited for an opening. It didn’t come. A couple of uniformed cops were standing around, shooting the shit and watching the endless flow of handbags and briefcases move through the electronic scanner. Before there was another opportunity, their quarry had made it through security and into the waiting area, where an agent would eventually lead the passengers across the already hot tarmac to the plane.
One option remained. They went back to the ticket counter. A couple, late but too involved in fondling each other to care, stood at the counter when they got there. They stepped behind them in line. A baggage handler was grabbing suitcases that were in a pile for the flight and throwing them onto a cart, unconcerned about what was going into the heap. Behind the counter, the ticket agent scrambled to issue last-minute tickets, determined to get the flight out on time. This was it. There couldn’t be more mistakes. Otherwise, they would pay.
Island Air Flight 45 was a fifteen-passenger turboprop with two pilots. The old Beech 99 was completely refurbished for luxury, with leather seats and soft overhead lighting. The flights were too short and the aircraft too small for any inflight service, but each flight was stocked for creature comforts with everything from the Wall Street Journal and the London Times to goody bags filled with snacks, juices, and even a small bottle of island rum. The airline was building its reputation based on all the frills.
On that Saturday morning, Flight 45 carried ten passengers, nine adults and one child. It took off as scheduled at 9:32 A.M., lifting off the runway into a cloudless Caribbean sky and climbing to four hundred feet. It was due to arrive in Puerto Rico at 10:14. It never made it.
The tower heard the first indications of trouble at 9:36 when the captain yelled, “Pull up, pull up!” At 9:39, Flight 45 plunged into the sea.
I was on my knees, head buried in the boat locker, ass pointed to the sky, trying to reach one of my diving fins, when the plane went down. I’d been aware of the irritating whine of the engines piercing the morning calm as the aircraft flew low overhead. I’d extracted myself from the tangle of gear in the locker and was considering an obscene and useless gesture when everything turned silent. Then the silver tube took a graceful arc and started falling straight towards our boat.
Christ, it was going to hit us! A vast ocean—and the airplane was going to explode into the one square mile of water where our boat drifted and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I was still on my knees, fin in hand, when the thing hit not one hundred feet off our bow, sending a tidal wave of water over the rails. I landed in the cockpit in a tangle of equipment, stunned and in denial.
Finally, my mind caught up with what my body already knew. People were out there, dead or dying. When I stood, I could see the plane already beginning to sink.
I glanced back to the stern, where Jimmy Snyder, my dive partner, stood dazed and clutching the lifeline. Moments before, he’d switched off his radio and had been standing on the bow, hand shielding his eyes, watching the aircraft take off from the new airport on Beef Island. Nothing bigger than a small jet could make its way on or off that “international” runway, which ended at the water’s edge. This plane had been a little, twin-engine island hopper.
Jimmy and I had been out at the east end of Tortola on the police boat. I was teaching the kid the intricacies of underwater crime scenes. Chief Dunn, my boss and head of Tortola PD, figured Jimmy was the ideal candidate to become my dive partner in underwater recovery and crime scene investigation.
Jimmy was a quick study but fearless, the latter a liability as far as I was concerned. I wanted someone next to me at a hundred feet down who had as much respect for the ocean as I did. I was of the philosophy that diving was the most unnatural thing a human could do—that every time I went under, I was pushing the limits of what good old Mother Nature would allow. Someday, she’d say Enough, and send an air embolism my way or a Portuguese man-of-war. Hell, it could be as innocuous as a sharp piece of coral that cut my hose.
We’d just been suiting up for the first dive of the day. Jimmy had had the damned radio blaring. If it hadn’t been Bob Marley, I’d have complained. Something about suiting up to Marley’s “Please don’ ya rock my boat, ‘cause I don’ want my boat to be rockin’” put me in the right frame of mind—that being Lighten up, Sampson, he’s just a kid, he’ll figure it out.
Every hour on the hour the weather forecaster came on to report what everyone already knew. It was a beautiful day in paradise. The only glitch was the tropical storm forming a thousand miles off the west coast of Africa. It was September—off-season in the British Virgin Islands. A sailboater’s paradise, it was abandoned now. Only a few sails dotted the horizon and everyone monitored the weather. It was hurricane season in paradise.
But today was a sunny, blue-sky day, and plenty hot. The water was as clear as crystal. It had been a glorious day until the plane went down. It floated for just a second, then tipped. The nose pointed down and it headed to the bottom, tail jutting skyward.
Suddenly the aft cabin door burst open and a woman appeared. We were so close I could see the desperation and horror in her eyes. Her fingers gripped the side of the door as she tried to push her way out against the water that was rushing into the aircraft. In sheer panic, she kept fighting, straining against the surge. Then a man came into view right behind her. He wrapped one arm around the woman and plunged into the maelstrom. But the plane was sliding fast now. Water gushed into the open door and they vanished in a raging turmoil of foam. Then water swirled around the tail and the whole plane disappeared in a confusion of angry water.
I scanned the froth, watching for any signs of them. Nothing but a caldron of bubbling water. Then in the next instant heads popped up, the man with one arm still locked around the woman.
Jimmy threw him the yellow horseshoe and the guy managed to swim to it, still holding fast to the woman. They were okay. The guy gave us a wave. No way I was taking the time fish them out and pull them aboard the Wahoo. I knew that other boats would be converging on the area quickly. The two victims in the water would be fine until then.
I shouted instructions to Jimmy as we pulled on our dive gear.
“We need to get to that wreck fast. I’ll go in and start hauling people out. You stay by the plane door and get them to the surface.” Pretty simple plan. It would get a whole lot more complicated once we got down there.
I was in the water within minutes, Jimmy right behind me. I hoped he was up to what lay ahead. I couldn’t afford to have a diver in trouble right now.
We headed down. I knew the bottom was only sixty feet below and sandy. God only knew whether we could get to anyone in time. We dove into a rush of bubbling water. It gushed around us, trying to force us back to the surface. I could barely make out the dark shape of the plane through the swirling brown clouds of sediment. The aircraft was just settling on the bottom, tail raised, air still captured in the back section. I kicked hard, forcing my body through the mayhem of turbulent water.
Finally I found the dark square that was the door. It was still open. I was about to head into the cabin when a passenger swam right into me, arms and legs working hard. It was a woman, her eyes determined black marbles set in a pale face. A red mane of hair floated around her head. She was clearly going to claw over me or anyone else who got in her way. I shoved her toward Jimmy. He grabbed her, jammed his extra regulator into her mouth, and headed to the surface.
I prayed that by now there were people up top ready to assist. I needed Jimmy back down here fast. I shone my light into the darkness and started into the cabin. It was a relatively small plane, one cabin with five rows, one seat on each side, stretching into what seemed like eternity to the cockpit door. In the aft section another two rows of seats were affixed two abreast and then a door marked “restroom” was tucked way back in the tail section.
I could see six people still in their seats. Way up in the front row, two passengers slumped in their chairs. A black swirl of water drifting around them turned red in the beam of my light. They would probably have bled to death by the time I got to them. But hell, they might already be dead. I knew the only logical approach to the rescue was to make my way down the aisle, get to the closest victims first, and start pulling people out before they drowned. I swallowed the fear working its way up my throat and headed to the first occupied seat.
Damned if the guy didn’t look right at me, more confused than panicked. He was bald with a fringe of hair all the way around the edges of his head and a shirt with green fronds and parrots that had “tourist” written all over it. He held his mouth clamped tight, trying to trap precious air in his lungs and keep the seawater out. He was fumbling with his seat belt, trying unsuccessfully to get it off.
I pointed to my extra regulator, indicating that he should put it in his mouth. He ignored me and went on with his single-minded struggle with the seat belt. Realization, and with it panic had set in. All he knew was that he wanted out. I jammed the regulator into his mouth and nodded, trying to keep him calm. He looked at me muddled, then took a deep rasping breath of air. I could see him relax a bit, and some coherence returning. I didn’t have time to coddle the guy though.
I released the belt, grabbed him around the arms, and swam to the doorway. He had a death grip on my dive vest when Jimmy got there. Still way over the edge of reason, he wanted nothing to do with giving up my regulator or letting go of my vest. I couldn’t blame him. He had an ocean of water above his head and I was asking him to relinquish his only connection to an air source. I yanked the regulator out of his mouth, probably jarring a couple of teeth loose. Jimmy quickly shoved his extra regulator in and headed back to the surface with a firm grip on the guy’s parrot shirt.
I went back into the gloom and swam to the only guy in the next row. He appeared to be gazing out the window, his head twisted at an impossible angle. I glanced out too and caught sight of a shark swimming by. The guy wasn’t worried though. He was dead.
I moved on to the next seats forward, where a young couple sat, deeply tanned, hands interlocked across the aisle. A shiny gold band graced the man’s left finger. She wore a sundress and her hair was woven into island braids and adorned with colorful beads. He had a baseball cap clutched in his other hand. Their heads were propped back in the seats. Both were unconscious. No doubt their lungs were already filled with water.
It seemed to take forever to release their seat belts, his first. I pulled him out of his seat, let him drift there and released her seat belt. Somehow I managed to get hold of both of them and pushed him in front of me while pulling her behind by her braids. When I got to the door, I could see Jimmy coming through the blue, ignoring the growing swirl of sharks. He nodded, grabbed the guy’s collar and her dress, and disappeared again.
Time was really running out. I had serious doubts I’d get anyone else out alive. How long had it been? Fifteen minutes? More? I checked my pressure gauge. I’d been using my air fast, breathing hard and sharing it with the panicked guy in the parrot shirt. I had enough for maybe twenty more minutes.
Just the one couple was left now, way up at the bulkhead. Beyond, the cockpit door was closed. With luck maybe the pilots had made it out a cockpit window. About the time I reached the front of the cabin, the plane shifted. The air that had been caught in the tail was leaking out.
The passengers in the first row were a distinguished-looking pair—even waterlogged. Her fingers, nails polished a bright red, clutching a handbag. She wore a white linen suit and a red necklace, complemented by matching lipstick. Her mascara hadn’t even smudged her cheeks. A copy of Cruising World was lying in the man’s lap, held in place under his arm. It was opened to the newest and most expensive advances in sailboats.
A cloud of pink water still circulated around them. At first glance, they looked unscathed, sitting there. Then I realized their legs had been severed just below the knees and a sharp piece of metal was embedded in the flesh. Evidently it had once framed the plane’s outer shell. How the hell it had managed to end up slicing through their legs was a question for a physicist or, more aptly, for someone who could explain the unexplainable. It would be a “guess their time was up” kind of explanation.
I left them where they sat and tried the cockpit door, twisting the handle. It turned but didn’t open—jammed. I pushed, pushed again, and the thing gave way. Damned if I didn’t see Jimmy through the cockpit window. He had smashed a rock through the glass and was pulling the copilot out of the right seat. I gave him the thumbs-up and indicated I’d get the other—the captain, I presumed. Jimmy just shook his head. I knew why when I swam inside and got a good look at the guy from the front. His face had been shoved into his skull on impact.
I left him where he was and headed back through the cabin. I swam past the dead, my air bubbles shimmering through a tunnel of gloom. I would return for the bodies later. I never risked my life for the dead. God knows how many at the surface would pull through. I made it to the doorway and hovered there, taking one last look down the length of the cabin.
A few small reef sharks had made their way through the broken cockpit window and were already swimming into the cabin. Three were fighting over the bleeding couple, and another was making its way down the aisle right toward me.
I’d never heard of a shark attacking a diver anywhere in the Caribbean except when some asshole decided to grab the tail of a resting nurse shark or hand-feed a lemon shark. I’d say the diver deserved it. In most instances, a shark will take off at the first sight of a diver. But that didn’t mean I was going to push it, especially in an airplane that was turning into a feeding ground. I wanted to get out of the damned plane before I was considered lunch.
I could see more sharks schooling outside the aircraft. I was going to have to swim right though them. I grabbed the sides of the doorway and was just about to pull myself out and away from the carnage when I heard it. A meowing sound. A cat? No way. Hallucination? Possible.
I’d been down now for close to thirty minutes, not that long to be breathing compressed air except for the fact that conditions had been extreme. High doses of adrenaline had coursed through my veins from the moment I’d jumped in the water. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks.
Then I heard it again. There was no ignoring it. The sound was coming from somewhere in the tail section. I twisted away from the door and peered into the dark recesses of the plane. Debris floated all around me—Styrofoam cups, pieces of paper, a CD. I found no explanation for the sound. I knew I’d heard something, but at sixty feet, the ocean can play games. Maybe it was simply a final air pocket filling or the scraping of metal against a rock.
I held my breath, working to silence the bubbles and the rasping noise of air intake. I listened. I’d made a mistake before—taken my situation and the underwater environment for granted. Only once. I’d never let it happen again. So I waited. A shark brushed past and swam out the door. I closed my eyes, hovered, focused, and waited some more. Just a couple of seconds longer and I’d get out.
The plane shifted slightly and I heard it again—a whimper, coming from the tail. I hadn’t worried about anyone being in the bathroom. The plane had been just taking off. No one should have been moving around the cabin or in the john. I swam to the door and pulled it opened.
I caught a sudden flash of red and then a glancing blow hit the edge of my mask, followed quickly by another. This one hit me square in the nose. When my vision cleared, I saw it—a red high-topped tennis shoe. It was a kid. He had managed to wedge himself up into the ceiling. He was kicking his feet like crazy and sucking on the last pocket of air in the space. He wasn’t ready to give up his position either. When I grabbed his leg, he kicked again. This time I was ready. I grabbed his ankle and tried to pull him down toward me. He didn’t budge. He was stuck on something. I swam up into the air space and wedged myself in next to him. He had his head tipped back and was gasping for every breath. His eyes were wild with fear. No kid should have to experience this kind of fear.
He had a camera wrapped around his shoulder. The strap was caught around a hook and the kid was hanging on to it for dear life. The thing had probably saved him. It was keeping him in the air pocket. He wasn’t about to let me release it.
I looked him in the eye and forced him to focus on me. He was fighting me all the way. I grabbed his face in my hands and shook him. Then I took my regulator out of my mouth and took a breath of stale air. Seawater bubble up around us. In seconds the kid’s only source of oxygen would be gone.
“Kid—kid, we’ve got to get out of here,” I said, shaking him again. “I’m taking you out. I’m going to untangle the strap. When I release it, you’ll sink under the water, but I’m going to give you this thing to breathe through.” I show him my spare regulator.
He took a quick look at it and nodded.
“The water will sting your eyes, but it will be okay. All you have to do is breathe. I want you to grab my tank and hold on. Are you ready?”
I put my arm around him and waited. He nodded, took the regulator, and put it into his mouth. I watched him take a breath, then another. He learned fast—nothing like a kid. I untangled the strap and he grabbed me around the neck. I found my spare regulator, breathed through it once, then we sank together into the water, swam through the bathroom door, and out into the gathering of gray sharks.
I could feel his his fingers digging into my neck. This had to be a kid’s worst nightmare—swimming into a pack of jaws. These were no great whites, but to this kid they probably looked it.
A small lemon shark came right at us. I punched it with a fist and it veered, its dorsal fin skittering along my belly as it swam away. I could see it coming around for a second look, another shark right behind it. If I could have spoken, I would have told the kid not to worry, that the damned things looked ferocious but would not bother us. It was raw bleeding flesh that they were after. Instead, I kept moving up.