23 September 2005

Jet Blue Flight 292 and My Last 24 Hours

Before I even start the story, I just want to thank all of my friends- both new and old- for getting in touch with me with kind words, prayers, concerns, and even shitty jokes in the last 24 hours… I am still reeling from an experience I haven’t yet processed, and seeing myself on the news and on the covers of newspapers is only making these impending realizations even more difficult to make.

First, some exposition…

I arrived in Los Angeles last Thursday, taking some extra time off to catch up with friends in town before playing the Six Degrees Festival on Saturday: the reason I was initially flown out on Jet Blue. And, if you haven’t rode that airline, I still fully recommend it as they are one of the classiest airlines I have been on, and I’ve been around the world. I was lucky to stay with my friend Take in Hollywood and have him and his girl Sarah cook for me (I was the guy washing the dishes), and did fun things like take a sunset hike in griffith park, swim in backyard pools and hot-tubs in Bel-Air, shop for records and get VIP treatment from the great folks at Aron’s, share vodka with my friend Anastasia and her neighbor Grover in Laurel Canyon, and go to trashy bars in what I think was Los Feliz (I have no idea, actually). Whatever we did, there was a lot of wine and smiling before Tuesday, which I thought would be my last day in town.

That day, I met with Robert Curcio at Mush and handled the logistics for our workings together (I will be doing my next two records with Mush as they are licensing my record from P-Vine for a December release), and then headed to record a shoegazer rock set with the illustrious Mark McNeill (aka Frosty) at Dublab. Take did an amazing set as well- check out Dublab.com to listen! Then, after a nice dinner with our friend Valida and her roommate Nadine, we headed to the Little Temple for Sketchbook- the illest downtempo night in LA. Kutmah, Take, Orlando, and Eric Coleman spun records, and I performed live to a happy and engaged crowd. As 2AM drove us out onto Santa Monica, I figured it was a wonderful ending to a wonderful trip.

Not quite…

I got on my plane in Burbank completely exhausted the next day- yesterday- the now famous Jet Blue Flight 292. A nice businessman sat to my left and we had a seat open between us, so everything was comfortable. I swiped my credit card and purchased “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” and was able to watch about ten minutes of it before Brad Pitt’s face froze and the pilot came on the air with an announcement:

“Ladies & Gentleman, this is the captain speaking. Unfortunately, we encountered some trouble with the landing gear upon our departure from Burbank, and we are in contact with Burbank and NY to see what course of action we should take.”

Basically, our landing gear didn’t retract after lift-off. I thought this was no problem: just leave it down and, when we get to NY, you won’t have to bring it back out! Obviously, it wasn’t that simple. A little less than a half-an-hour later, the captain announced we’d be doing a low fly-over Long Beach (another Jet Blue terminal) so that someone- with binoculars (!!)- would be able to ascertain if our landing gear was in fact down or if it was only a computer glitch. Either way, as they were figuring out what to do, we knew we weren’t making it to NY that day, and would have to perform some sort of an emergency landing at LAX.

My neighbor suggested I stop watching the movie as I would have to watch the beginning all over again on my next flight, so I started switching around on Jet Blue’s Direct TV channels. I stopped at MSNBC, but could’ve stopped at any network: Hurricane Rita’s coverage was interrupted by footage of a Jet Blue Airliner in the sky, with the caption “Jet Plane Is Burning Fuel Before Attempting Landing.” It was our plane.

My heart sunk, and I could taste the anxiety in my throat. The cabin-attendant lights were blowing up in every row, and the stewards and stewardesses were calmly making their way around the airplane and reassuring everyone that this was nothing out of the ordinary and that everything would be fine. Well, the trouble was that now more than half of the passengers- including myself- were watching the news, and were being informed that our landing gear was skewed 90 degrees from its landing path! The potential was there for it to simply break off in what was going to be our crash landing, and any moron could surmise a possible result: the nose of our plane scraping the runway at well over 150 miles an hour and a fire that would eventually ignite in the fuselage. To many of us, there was little comfort in the commentators’ assumptions and predictions…

People started to mill about in the cabin- some cried, some just stared- but everyone wanted to know what was going on. I became terrified in one moment, and tears came to my eyes as I watched our small, white plane hanging in the sky on the little television screen. I felt humbled and scared yet surprisingly disconnected, because it was as if the news broadcast somehow extricated me from the reality of the situation and things continued as they would in a movie: a now-public experience shared with strangers I later learned were lined up on the freeways watching in real-time. I needed a drink.

Jet Blue wouldn’t give me anything at that point, but my neighbor passed me a large bottle of what looked like seltzer and said, “Have some of this- it’s leaded.” He had smuggled a huge mixed vodka-tonic on the plane. It reminded me of my little subway whisky cocktails in coke bottles and I had a whole new appreciation for people’s creativity and guts. I’ve been ticketed for drinking a 40 on the subway, but who is going to stop someone with a bottle of seltzer?

So, the vodka took the edge off so much that the situation was rendered completely surreal. I became frustrated with the news and opted for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, switching back and forth from Comedy Central to the news networks. After three hours of circling around with nervous/scared/confused passengers, the stewardesses instructed us on how to brace for our emergency landing. Almost like a mantra, the staff and what seemed like at least 25 passengers continually shouted “Brace! Brace! Brace!” as we sensed the ground getting closer and closer outside the window and underneath us. Our satelite signal was cut off about 15 minutes prior to our televised landing, but we would’ve been unable to watch it anyway since we had our heads between our legs and were too busy praying or just closing our eyes, accepting the skid of the landing gear along the runway.

Truth be told, it was an amazingly smooth landing! We touched our back wheels down and basically did a wheelie down the runway before the pilot gently inched down the nose of the plane. Fumes of burnt rubber and smoke filled our nostrils but, miraculously, none of the fire and smoke made it inside the plane. We grinded to a halt and everyone erupted in enthusiastic and grateful cheers: we were safe.

I had tried calling my dad earlier and got no signal, but now T-Mobile was coming in loud and clear. He was in the garage and had no idea what was happening, so my explanation of our emergency landing came out of left field! Friends in LA started calling me immediately, some watching the live news broadcast.

As I was exiting the plane I was talking with Take. Watching the news, he informed me they were filming everyone walking down the ramp and to the tarmac. So when I got to the door, he recognized me and told me to wave. We both started to laugh, and I was waving around my hand- holding the cell phone- saying hi to him through the news cameras. That is the story behind the photo so many of you have seen on what made front page of the LA Times and other publications.

The mood was emotional, humbling, warm, and bizarre. I was still pretty drunk, and we were shuttled by bus to the terminal where we were debriefed. “There is a lot of media at the gate, and you don’t have to talk to them if you don’t want to,” they told us. When we made our way to collect our checked bags, we were bumrushed by microphones, lights, and cameras. I spoke with reporters from what could’ve been 50 or 100 different television networks and newspapers, relaying the same story over and over again in a bit of a haze, but I felt surprisingly coherent through it all: I was alive.

Soon, a producer for CBS’ Early Show named Alan approached me to interview the next morning, and I even turned down Good Morning America! This was the ultimate in surreal. I was driven to the Beverly Hilton where I stayed in a beautiful room on CBS’ tab, and we relaxed for about 10 minutes while taking care of some more logistics with the network. We flipped through the channels, and I did double-takes seeing the footage of the interviews I had just done on the flat-screen TV. I had made CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS, and local stations like KTLA. Huh? I just wanted to eat- we went for sushi and Sapporo on La Cienega and Wilshire.

I returned to my room at around midnight and showered, but had no clean clothes- all of the dirty clothes in my duffle were used to wrap and cushion all of the promo CDs I had gotten from Mush! So, I slept for just over 2 hours and awoke at 2:55 AM…
I was taken via limo to CBS studios to film the early show, followed by a local interview for KCBS and a third interview with the anchor, Kent. I was joined by another passenger from my flight whom I had recognized, Christiana Lund from NY via LA. She had just moved to NY 2 weeks prior and had returned home to get her cat Margot. She was a sweetheart and so was her cat, and we had fun being in a daze together covered in airbrushed make-up.

In the limo back to my hotel just after 8 AM, I did two interviews with local LA radio stations KNX & the Coast 103.5, receiving calls from Fox News, the LA Times, and the beginnings of calls from friends out east who were just starting to learn of my little adventure. I was literally on the phone for the first half of the day, eventually doing another AP interview and just sleepwalking through security at the airport after CBS met me to film my check-in.

Getting on the plane felt natural, although at times the memories slid in and I was reminded of yesterday. But, soon enough, I was watching Mr. & Mrs Smith, having tea and almonds, and it was if nothing had happened. A gin and tonic eased my landing as I watched the end of a Monty Python episode, and we were safe in NY.

Jet Blue had arranged people to meet and greet me, giving me a bag of snacks including fresh fruits, cheeses, and bread, and we waited for my one checked bag. CBS was there once more, doing one final interview to see how I felt now that I had landed in NY, and I was taken via a car (thanks to Jet Blue) back to my apartment in Brooklyn where my roommate Swati and two of her friends were having a little picnic in our living room.

Having some whiskey and opening up my inbox was a little daunting… I had 72 messages in my hotmail box alone and felt simultaneously so happy that so many of you took the time to get in touch and so frustrated that I couldn’t respond to everyone personally. I have been doing my best to answer my phone and return phone calls as well- please know I am getting your messages and am so thankful to be hearing from all of you guys. And I am amazed that people who had seen my CNN interviews and such looked me up on google and found my myspace page, even posting about me on their own websites! Thank you so much. A friend jokingly said this was “the best publicity stunt [I] ever pulled” but, ironically, I was able to get in touch with new and interesting people. And, most obviously of all, I am able to share this experience with all of you.

You can see Christiana and me on the CBS Early Show interview here:

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/09/22/earlyshow/main878702.shtml

Anyway, thank you so much for reading. Know life is more fragile than you can ever imagine, and live it like you understand…