Book review Monday: Into the Abyss, by Carol Shaben

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. In fact, I’ve been craving it. There’s just something about real stories with an impact on real human lives that’s been appealing to me more than fiction. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I just finished a first draft of my second manuscript (huzzah!) and so I’ve been so immersed in my own brand of fiction that I’ve wanted a break from it when I sit down to read at night. In any case, over the last couple weeks, I’ve read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s excellent Half The Sky, about the importance of ending the oppression of women worldwide, Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse, which I discussed last week, and, most recently, Carol Shaben’s Into the Abyss: An Extraordinary True Story, which tells the story of a plane crash in Canada in 1984 that killed six and left four survivors, including Shaben’s father, Larry.

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Shaben, by interviewing her father and other survivors of the crash, managed to piece together the tragic story of Wapiti Flight 402, which crashed in the Canadian wilderness on October 19, 1984. The four survivors were Shaben’s father, Larry Shaben, a prominent Alberta politician, Erik Vogel, the pilot of the plane, Scott Deschamps, a young officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Paul Archambault, a criminal in Deschamps’ custody. The other six passengers, including another prominent Alberta politician, Grant Notley, perished. The commuter flight had been traveling from Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, to High Prairie, Alberta, transporting people who worked in Edmonton (including Shaben and Notley, the other politician on the flight) to their homes.

In the book, Shaben explores the factors that led to the crash — including pilot exhaustion leading to a loss of situational awareness, plus Wapiti Aviation policies that forced pilots to “push” bad weather to stay on schedule, despite severe safety risks. Ultimately, the pilot of Wapiti 402 lost track of where he was as he was flying and became so confused he crashed the plane. Shaben explains:

Whether in aviation, mountain climbing or other high-risk scenarios, several factors can predispose individuals to lose situational awareness. Broadly, these factors are environmental, psychological and physiological. Erik experienced all three. Foul weather reduced his visual information to nil and severe icing had slowed his speed over ground to a degree that put him several miles further back from his destination than he’d estimated. Psychological factors — those imposing an additional processing load on the conscious brain — taxed Erik’s ability to determine his exact location using dead reckoning, and impaired his decision-making. 

Shaben goes on to explain that Vogel simultaneously had to battle task saturation, during which he “needed to handle more information than his highly stressed brain could process” and fatigue, which contributed to his making an error in reckoning that led to him trying to land approximately 40 km outside of the airport. Considering Vogel’s fatigue plus the bad weather in which he was forced to fly, Wapiti Flight 402 had a high probability of crashing.

Shaben delves into the long night in the wilderness that the four survivors spent together and their struggle to stay alive in the brutal cold despite the lack of adequate firewood and serious injuries sustained by three out of four of them. Shaben tells each of the survivors’ stories: how they came to be aboard Wapiti Flight 402 in the first place, as well as their lives after the crash. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching story was that of Paul Archambault, the prisoner who was being transported from Edmonton back to High Prairie to go to court for his previous offenses. Archambault was, according to the other three survivors, a hero. He helped keep the other three men alive, even going back to the wreckage of the plane to rescue his police escort, Deschamps, from where he was trapped. After the crash and the survivors’ eventual rescue, Archambault tried to start his life over, giving up alcohol, holding down a steady job, and falling in love. But things eventually fell apart for him, and, in a twist of cruel irony, he died at age 33 of exposure in Grande Praire, Alberta, near a men’s shelter where he had been staying.

The thing about non-fiction is that the stories don’t always come out the way you want them to. If the story of the crash of Wapiti 402 had been a work of fiction, miracles would have happened to the survivors, and their lives would have changed for the better in some sort of grand Karmic righting-of-wrongs. But in reality, the survivors of the crash struggled. Some of them ultimately ended up happy, but some of them, like Archambault, experienced even more tragedy after surviving their ordeal. Shaben’s book is sensitive to their stories and their struggles, and she doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties all four of the men experienced as a direct result of the crash of Wapiti 402.

Highly recommended for fellow non-fiction lovers, people interested in aviation, and anyone looking for sensitive journalism about an avoidable tragedy.

 

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