Reflections on a plane crash and a bus ride

August 13, 2007

A hundred questions raced through my mind as I sat in a taxi zigzagging through traffic towards what first reports described as a major disaster area, a rush-hour plane crash in downtown Sao Paulo.

Will my taxi be able to get close enough to the crash? Will I have to hike the city’s dangerous streets with my camera gear? Will my cell phone connect to the Internet as thousands of people call their relatives? Are other photographers already at the site? What scenes of disaster and grieving will I encounter? Will my longest lens be long enough?

crash 1

Amid all these thoughts, despite the screaming sirens and my urgency to arrive, my mind flashed back 15 years in time to a distant memory¬†- a bus ride in Bolivia. That bus ride, along an Andean mountain track that is popularly known as the world’s most dangerous road, was the last time in memory that I traveled anywhere without carrying anxiety as part of my emotional baggage.

Then, I rode in a window seat of a rusty, 45-passenger bus with my head out the window observing the breathtaking scenery. I couldn’t help noticing how curious it was to watch the bus’ rear tire skirting the edge of the cliff and pushing stones into the green abyss as it rounded every tight curve of the winding road, a road not always wide enough for the bus I was in.

I sensed only curiosity. No fear. No thoughts of the consequences of a simple driver error, a loose boulder falling onto the roadbed or even brake failure.

One day soon after that ride I was called out, just as I was called to this tragedy in Sao Paulo, to photograph the crash of a bus identical to the one I had traveled in. It had slipped off the edge of that same mountain road and broken into pieces as it tumbled into the rocky jungle below.

The bodies and belongings of the 45 occupants were strewn all down the cliff face. Some hung from trees. Relatives arrived at the site in despair. Rescue workers brought the remains up from the gorge in a scene that I would soon learn was all too common along that perilous route.

That was the first accident story of my news career, and traveling has never felt the same since.
After that crash I returned many times to visit that spectacular part of Bolivia, but never again in a bus too wide for the road.

A few years later I covered my first plane crash in Uruguay. Again, I lost my serenity forever. Since then I have never flown without feeling a certain anxiety about what I had seen can happen to airplanes.

crash 4

crash 2

Today, several bus and plane crashes later, a disaster like this one in Sao Paulo is to me another grim reminder of what can happen to a relatively few, very unfortunate travelers.

crash 3

The crash site I finally arrived at in Sao Paulo was one of devastation and disbelief. It was still too early for grief, but the following days were dominated by it.

crash 5

I pity the distraught relatives of the 187 unsuspecting occupants of the TAM Airbus that ended in tragedy. As I return to the job of covering more routine news, they will relive that day relentlessly for years to come.

crash 7

After photographing the accident that has since been labeled as Brazils worst-ever plane crash, I expect to feel maybe a little more anxiety the next time I step into a plane.

But whenever that happens the memory I will most likely recall, for better or for worse, is that of a serene bus ride along the worlds most dangerous road.

(credits from top: Rickey Rogers – photos 1, 2, 3, 5, 6; Paulo Whitaker – photo 4)

5 comments

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Rickey, you touched on something that I’ve been wondering for a while: working in a dangerous city.
What extra precautions would one take working an area known to have a lot of gang activity, muggings, and general violence? Especially carrying more than a Car’s worth of equipment in a couple of bags.
Maybe sometime in the future we’ll see something on the subject on this addictive blog.

-dario

what a wonderful description of the difficult but important work you do. keep it up Rickey

Posted by abby sivan | Report as abusive

I have traveled a few of those mountain-perched roads. I have flown on some rickety third-world airplanes. When the engine of one Peruvian plane exploded on take-off while at a tremendously high mountain town, all I could think of was chugging the first of three or four straight-up scotch drinks. When the plane landed, a flight attendent ripped off his seat belt and fled into the limping machine’s bathroom. What rattles me perhaps the most is the thought that while I have a choice in such matters, electing what roads to travel and skies to fly, most native peoples do not. It is those for whom I feel the most frequent pangs of anxiety.

Posted by Peggy Johnson | Report as abusive

I’m interested in how you approach people who are recently grieving in order to photograph them. In my (limited) experience I’ve seen people respond very negatively to the idea of any kind of journalist around in a time of tragedy, especially a photographer. Yet looking at your pictures you’re obviously able to get quite close to these people. Any tips?

Posted by Skyler Reid | Report as abusive

Like you I always feel “at risk” in a traditional passenger plane. I get through this by thinking: “Hey the pilot wants to enjoy his life.” I have another friend who feels similarly his answer down fly unless it is a light aircraft and you know the pilot. I was 37 before I took a scheduled flight. I have photographed lots of car wrecks but never worried about driving motorcycles or cars as it is a control thing!