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Monday, May 23, 2011

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Trading fear for photos on a stricken plane

We took off smoothly for the short flight from Singapore to Jakarta, and I started falling asleep. Suddenly I was woken up by the sound of two bangs, like a bomb or truck tire blowing out. My wife gripped my hand and asked “Do you smell something burning?” Yes, there was a sharp smell stinging my nose. I realized there was something wrong because all the stewardesses ran back with the food carts.

The plane started to vibrate, harder and harder. I held my wife’s hand tightly and looked at her face as she started praying. My two younger children were asleep, after their first ever trip abroad, but not Pradipta, the eldest one. “Pra look through the window and watch outside,” I said. “I see light, I see fire, I see fire,” he said. Then the electricity was switched off.

I realized the plane, an Airbus A330, had a big problem. I was afraid because I thought we would die. Pradipta looked into my eyes and asked: “Will we die?” I was afraid and could not answer the question. I looked at all my children’s faces and held my lovely wife’s hands tightly.
During my many years of assignments as a Reuters photojournalist, when flying I have imagined being on a plane that had a problem that forced an emergency landing, and then taking pictures. But I never imagined this situation with my family. But it happened. We will die together, so we can fly to heaven together, I thought. If we die together, I will not miss my wife’s delicious cooking, I will not miss the smell of my kids’ sweat. There will be no tears among us. My thoughts, to my surprise, stopped me being afraid any more.

“Will we die?” Pradipta asked again. I looked into his eyes, held his hand tightly and said: “No, we’re alive, we’re still alive,” then I gave him a high five just as if we were playing basketball.
After that, I became calm because I was not afraid to die because we would all die together. I started to adjust my camera, which was hanging around my neck. I set the ISO higher, set the white balance, checked the battery was full and saw I had around 300 clicks for the rest of the memory card. I started to take pictures, though it was dark. I forgot my Canon EOS5dmk2 has a full HD video, so I forgot to record the situation. After 20 years living as a photographer, I was thinking as a photographer.
I saw a steward sitting in front of me and shouted: “What happened?” “The engine is on fire and we are flying back to Singapore,” he replied. My wife put life vests on herself and the kids, though there had been no order to do so, and other passengers followed. I asked Pradipta to look out of the window, and he said he could still see a lot of light and we were over the sea. The plane was vibrating but still flying. I opened all my senses to prepare for everything, and heard the airplane wheels come out.
We landed and stopped on the tarmac. I heard the captain say: “I am Captain Brad, the situation is under control and our engine fire has been extinguished. Please wait in a line and walk to exit through the front door, don’t run. And the ground crew will take care of you. Thank you.”

Taking pictures in dangerous situations is part of my job. But taking pictures in a dangerous situation with my family was a whole new experience for me.


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