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Into the Abyss

by Carol Shaben

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1459151,009 (3.89)21
An account of a deadly commuter plane crash that took place in northern Canada in 1984 involving a pilot, a politician, a cop and the criminal he was escorting.
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Shaben gives an account of a plane crash where her father, a politician, was one of the four survivors. The pilot also survived as well as two others, an RCMP officer and the prisoner he was accompanying. The prisoner became the life-saving hero of the crash and was deservedly exonerated.

I remember this disastrous crash well because another politician, Grant Notley, leader of the Alberta NDP party at the time, was also on board and was one of the six who did not survive. He was seen as a potential for sea change in Albertan politics if he managed to uproot the entrenched Conservative party. Eventually it was his daughter Rachel Notley who achieved the feat.

An interesting thing I learned was that a helicopter's fierce rotor speeds creates static electricity and the first rescuer let down on a long line receives a significant jolt. In this case it blasted the rescuer a foot in the air and left him immobile on his back for a minute.

Shaben's book is an engrossing account of the crash as well as the aftermath. ( )
  VivienneR | May 15, 2021 |
The story of the 1984 accident of a commuter plane that crashed killing 6/10 people. This book is the story of the survival of the remaining four. This was an average read for me as I was not familiar with the terrain or politics of Alberta. (One of the survivors was a politician) I think this might be a better read for Canadians which are more familiar with many of the towns and politics of the area. ( )
  Tess_W | Apr 2, 2021 |
On an icy night in October 1984, a Piper Navajo commuter plane carrying 9 passengers crashed in the remote wilderness of northern Alberta, killing 6 people. Four survived: the rookie pilot, a prominent politician, a cop, and the criminal he was escorting to face charges.
White-knuckle account of a terrifying 1984 plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and its improbable reverberations in the lives of four survivors.

National Magazine Award–winning journalist Shaben’s debut has at its center a stranger-than-fiction, cinematic sequence: the injured survivors—the pilot, a politician, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and his prisoner, a fugitive drifter—hanging on to life together overnight in subzero temperatures. The politician, Larry Shaben, Canada’s first Muslim Cabinet minister, was the author’s father. Fortunately, this personal connection only amplifies Shaben’s determination to reconstruct the incident and its aftermath from all four survivors’ perspectives. She places the crash in the context of the shaky standards of the commuter air industry. Her meticulous account first focuses on the survivors’ back stories: She portrays the pilot as well-meaning but guilty of error under pressure (including flying into bad weather with no co-pilot and incomplete instrumentation). The most compelling character arc is that of the drifter, who rescued his captor from the wreckage and was instrumental in keeping the others alive. He was hailed as a hero, yet his life continued on a dark downward spiral, while the cop he saved left the force for a spiritual quest. On top of all this, Shaben also follows the formidable rescue effort quickly mounted by the hardy rural Canadians. Though the book’s propulsive pace slackens in the final sections, dealing with the crash’s aftermath—blame was showered on both the airline’s corner-cutting and on the luckless young pilot, who was frank about his errors and faced a long redemption—this is a complex, chilling narrative rendered with depth and precision, engaged in both its characters and the larger social moment (the crash led to recommendations for commuter air reform, not always followed in the years since).
  MasseyLibrary | Aug 31, 2019 |
On October 19, 1984, Wapiti Airlines Flight 402 went down in the wilderness of northern Alberta. The Piper Navajo was destroyed, and six of the 10 people on board died. The four survivors of the crash then had to survive the night in the cold, already weakened and seriously injured. The titular survivors were as follows: the pilot, who faced immense pressure to fly despite the bad weather and his own fatigue; the politician, an Alberta cabinet minister whose sudden decision to change his usual seat may have saved his life; the criminal, whose drifting lifestyle gave him the skills that were needed to save all of their lives; and the cop who was escorting the criminal to Grande Prairie, who decided to leave his prisoner un-handcuffed, another decision that probably saved all of their lives.

This book is about the crash, the investigation into the crash, and how the four men rebuilt their lives afterward. I could not put it down—I read it in a single afternoon, often with one hand over my mouth as I was overwhelmed by what I was reading. The commuter airline industry—certainly at the time, and still to an extent today—is something of a dirty little secret in Canada, in that it is a lifeline to many remote and northern communities but the operating environment creates intense pressures that lead to operators prioritizing “getting the job done at all costs” over safety. The rate of fatalities in these operations is high, and yet the travelling public doesn’t seem to notice or care in the same way that everyone freaks out when an Air Canada jet skids off the runway, for example, or when Sully landed on the Hudson.

This crash was also the first major inquiry investigated by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, a then-newly established independent agency, and reading about the inquiry was shocking. It was more like a trial than an accident investigation, and the pilot of the crashed plane felt more guilt than he should have had to feel about his role in the accident. It was not the Board’s role in that situation that shocked me—it was the fact that the airline was allowed to basically have a defence counsel and interview witnesses at the inquiry, and that they made disclosures of documents that they hadn’t explicitly told the Board about beforehand! Appalling, and contrary to the spirit of the investigation, which was merely about uncovering safety deficiencies and making recommendations to ensure that a similar accident couldn’t happen again, NOT to assign blame. (Although people did use the information revealed to file lawsuits, including one that blamed Transport Canada because it knew about the problems with the airline’s operations but didn’t do anything about it until it was too late for Flight 402.)

Shaben does an excellent job of explaining technical terms for the lay reader, and another nice touch was including a diagram from Paul Archambault’s unpublished manuscript about his experiences. Paul, the “criminal” of the title, had the biggest role in helping the survivors make it until rescue arrived, and in his manuscript he drew a diagram of the airplane and the crash site that helps the reader picture exactly where everyone was.

The rest of the book is a beautiful story, if one can say that a book about a plane crash is beautiful—how the survivors kept in touch with each other and rebuilt their lives after their near-death experiences. All of them found that the experience brought their true priorities sharply into focus. Paul in particular turned his life around as best he could, although he had the longest road to travel.

This book was amazing and I would recommend it to those who like to read about real-life stories of survival, particularly if they relate to aviation.

A postscript: in 2017 the CBC published an article about the children of Elaine Noskiye, one of the six passengers who did not survive the crash: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/alberta-wapiti-crash-elaine-noskiye-gran... ( )
  rabbitprincess | May 5, 2019 |
The original headline for the book's cover ("Only four men survived the plane crash. The pilot. A politician. A cop... and the criminal he was shackled to.") was the most attention-grabbing I had ever seen. The story itself was extraordinary. The writing of the book itself, and the unreal amount of excellent research necessary to tell the story, was mind-blowing. This is an incredible journalistic achievement, with timelines of events lining up perfectly, and excellent insight garnered from those involved. Halfway through the book, the survivors are rescued, but the coda of their rebuilt and/or shattered lives continued to be compelling all the way to the end. To think, the author learned of the story from a newspaper article, and the entire book, with all its masterful storytelling and subsequent awards was fashioned beginning with simply that. ( )
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
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An account of a deadly commuter plane crash that took place in northern Canada in 1984 involving a pilot, a politician, a cop and the criminal he was escorting.

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