"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LIX)
Governor Pietrantoni was wearing his full hazmat suit again. It had suffered a tear during the fight, on its right sleeve, but it was not a very large tear, and they had covered it with masking tape.
It would do, he hoped, since his limited knowledge of the ebola virus was that it was transmitted by bodily fluids.
With the help of the pilot, they had laid the unconscious boy on two of the airplane’s seats that faced each other, bridging the space between them with a small compartment door that they tore off from an overhead compartment. Then, they had secured Francisco with the seatbelts of the two seats.
“I’m going to descend to eight thousand feet,” Martínez told the Governor. “When we reach that altitude, you are going to have to open the main cabin door. Normally, at our normal cruising altitude, the door would be unable to open because of the pressure. But at eight thousand feet, the pressure will be equalized inside and outside. So you’ll be able to get it open. You won’t be sucked out of the plane either, because of the equalized pressure. But you should be holding on securely to something when you push the stretcher out, just in case, because it's going to be blustery and rough in here.”
“What do I need to do to open the door?” Pietrantoni asked.
“Do you see the red button by the lower right hand corner of the door? Just press it when I tell you to.” Martínez instructed him. "Then hold on until it opens completely."
“We have to do this now. We’re about fifty minutes away from Washington. If we’re going to get rid of this thing, it’s going to be now,” the pilot said.
Pietrantoni nodded, looking determined but concerned.
“The door is going to deploy by itself. However, it is very possible that you will not be able to close it back, and that we’re going to have to fly and land the plane with the door open.”
“I understand,” the Governor replied.
“We should move the stretcher next to the door, so that when the door opens, you shove the stretcher out.”
“And remember, when that door opens, wind is going to continuously rush inside the cabin. Anything unsecured will fly around, and may blind you. So…be prepared.”
Pietrantoni nodded. “I’ll be prepared.”
“Good man!" Martínez said with fake cheerfulness he did not feel. "Now let’s do this!”
* * *
The two men rolled the stretcher next to the plane’s exit, and then Martínez walked back into the cockpit. The stretcher’s plastic bubble had been removed, to reduce the drag of the wind once the plane’s hatch was opened.
There was nothing to tie up Pietrantoni and secure him from falling out of the plane, so he wrapped his left arm around the seatbelt of the seat immediately to the left of the exit, while holding on to the stretcher with his right hand.
“Descending to eight thousand feet!” Martínez shouted from the cockpit.
Next to him, his copilot Emmanuel watched him warily, the wound in his back throbbing painfully. They were at an altitude of 12,000 feet, so it would not take long to descend to the desired elevation.
“Get ready to open the door when I tell you!”
Martínez eased the plane’s throttle, reducing its speed to 130 miles per hour. The jet would stall and begin to spin towards the ground if its speed dropped to under 105 miles per hour, and once the door opened, the jet would be subjected to extra drag that would additionally decrease the speed of his plane.
Quietly, the pilot watched the altitude gauge fall to ten, nine, and then reach eight thousand feet.
“Now!” he shouted. “Open the door!”
Pietrantoni crouched to press the red button by the plane’s exit, but with the seatbelt wrapped around his left arm, he could not reach it. Untangling his arm from the belt, he stretched until he touched the button, and taking a deep breath, pressed it. He immediately stepped back, and grabbed the backrest of the seat for support.
For a few moments, the cabin filled with a shrill whistle, as the cool air from the outside sky began to filter through the widening crack of the door. Then, the upper two thirds of the door opened outwards like a mini-wing, and the whistle changed to a roar, increasing in volume as the lower part of the door extended its bottom metallic-steps.
The wind of the flying jet rushed into the cabin, filling it with snowflake-like particles of foam, and sheets of paper and plastic. The plane felt sluggish and began to vibrate, jolting periodically when it caught pockets of unstable air. Pietrantoni’s eyes filled with tears as the hood of his hazmat suit was almost blown away from his head and assailed by ceaseless gusts of air.
Hardly able to see, the Governor ripped his headgear off and let it fly away.
Pietrantoni braced himself, wrapping his left arm around the seat’s backrest and opening his legs for better balance,
With his other arm, he began to pull the stretcher towards the open door, finding it more difficult than he thought. The rushing air inflated the stretcher’s sheets, and then tore them off completely. The gurney shook wildly, the wind shooting though it producing a high pitched wail, as if the stretcher had suddenly gained a life of its own, and struggled to avoid getting tossed into the outside void.
Finally, Pietrantoni managed to drag the front half of the stretcher past the frame of the door, its center slammed repeatedly by the unrelenting blast of air flowing into the cabin. To Pietrantoni’s relief, the gurney began to tilt toward the outside, as it readied to fall.
And then, its front wheels suddenly got stuck on the steps below the door.
Pietrantoni pulled with all his strength while holding on to the seat, but the stretcher would not budge.
Pausing to catch his breath, he considered what he could do to dislodge the stuck gurney, still tilting downward. He would have to raise it to a more even level, he decided, and then shove it through the door.
Pietrantoni let go the back of the seat, and stumbled like a drunkard toward the back to the stuck stretcher. He would have to be quick, if he managed to dislodge the gurney and shove it in one big uninterrupted motion out of the plane.
Taking hold of the upraised end of the tilting stretcher, he tried to pull it down, but it would not budge. He tried shaking it several times, but still the stubborn metallic frame refused to yield.
Then, desperately, he rested his waist on the unwavering object and, separating his feet from the floor, began to bounce on it up and down.
Abruptly, the stretcher “popped” free and rapidly began to slide out of the door, dragging the Governor with it.
Terrified, Pietrantoni frantically pushed himself out of the gurney just as it fell into the void. Nevertheless, his head and part of his torso slipped out of the door before he managed to stop himself by holding on desperately to the door frame his right arm.
Nearly panic-stricken and afraid that one of the air pockets would make the jet tilt sideways and propel him headfirst out of the cabin into dark, night sky, he pushed himself away from the open door. Then, safely inside the cabin, he tried to get up. No sooner had his chest cleared the carpet, however, that the streaming wind pushed him back, slamming him into one of the seats plane's seat.
Panting and shaking, Pietrantoni looked into the cockpit, where he could see the the right half outline of Martínez, struggling to maintain as stable as possible the bucking plane.
“The stretcher is out!” he shouted through the wind’s roar.
Somehow, Martínez heard him.
“Can you close the door?” he shouted back.
Pietrantoni glanced at the jet’s open hatch. His heart was still beating so hard that he feared it would burst out of his chest.
In order to close the hatch, he would have to lean out of the door frame, and press the same red button he had pressed to open it.
There was no way he was going to do that.
“No!” he responded loudly.
He saw Martínez nod.
“Okay!” the pilot shouted. “I’ll advise the authorities that we need to make an emergency landing.”
* * *
In addition to the original ambulance that had been scheduled to pick up Francisco, two other ambulances and three fire trucks were waiting by the Andrews Air Force Base's designated runway—the air base to where the plane had been diverted—to deal with any last moment mishap.
Captain Martínez had radioed ahead, notifying the authorities that they had been the target of a terrorist attack, and that in the ensuing struggle, the main door to the airplane’s cockpit had been “accidentally” opened, even though both terrorists had been killed.
Martínez had made no mention of the nuclear device that had been dumped into the sea.
Two F-4 Phantom jets had been dispatched to escort the crippled plane into the air base, and had promptly been able to verify that the cabin’s door was open.
The Puerto Rican pilot had made a textbook landing, avoiding dragging the extended steps of the jet’s entrance over the landing strip until the very last moment. By then, the aircraft had substantially decreased its landing speed, the door steps shooting off a stream of bright sparks that illuminated its undercarriage, the jet's slowing progress marked by the line of siren-wailing vehicles that pursued it.
Pietrantoni had been able to retrieve his discarded hood, finding it close to the entrance of the cockpit, and had put it on again. He was kneeling next to his son, having crawled to him and embraced him after his nearly fatal shove of the gurney.
Still unconscious, Francisco seemed to be resting peacefully, oblivious of the chaos that surrounded him.
“Don’t you worry, my son,” the Governor whispered to his boy. “We’re here. We’re here. Everything will be all right.”
The jet finally came to a complete stop, and Captain Martínez turned off the engines, allowing the shrieks of the pursuing ambulances and fire trucks to filter through the open door.
The relieved pilot sat for a few more seconds in his seat, rubbing tiredly the bridge of his nose. Then he took off his headphones and his seatbelt, covered his head with his hazmat suit’s protective gear, and stood up. He helped Emmanuel to stand up, placing one of the copilot’s arms over his shoulders, and began walking out of the cockpit.
“Oh!” he said to Pietrantoni in an artificial, surprised tone. “I see you’ve opened the hatch already!”
It was still night outside, close to four in the morning, and the lights of the various emergency vehicles flashed into the plane’s cabin in dizzying, random bursts of red and blue.
Stopping by the Governor, Martínez shook Pietrantoni’s hand. “Well done,” he told him. “Well done.”
“On the contrary,” the Governor replied. “We owe our lives to your quick thinking, captain. And your great heart. Thank you for saving my son. I will never forget it.”
The men heard the noise of feet climbing up the metallic steps, and suddenly several men, all of them dressed in hazmat suits and armed with rifles, rushed into the plane.
* * *
Hurricane Fay Advisory Number 17A
NWS National Hurricane Center Miami FL
500 AM AST (900 UTC)
...POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC HURRICANE FAY CONTINUES WEST-
NORTHWESTWARD TOWARD THE VIRGIN ISLANDS AND PUERTO RICO...
...PREPARATIONS AGAINST LIFE-THREATENING STORM SURGE AND RAINFALL
FLOODING AND DESTRUCTIVE WINDS SHOULD BE RUSHED TO COMPLETION...
SUMMARY OF 500 AM AST...900 UTC...INFORMATION
ABOUT 115 MI...180 KM W OF GUADELOUPE
ABOUT 150 MI...240 KM SE OF ST. CROIX
MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS...170 MPH...274 KM/H
PRESENT MOVEMENT...WNW OR 300 DEGREES AT 9 MPH…14.5 KM/H
MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE...923 MB...27.37 INCHES
WATCHES AND WARNINGS
CHANGES WITH THIS ADVISORY:
SUMMARY OF WATCHES AND WARNINGS IN EFFECT:
A Hurricane Warning is in effect for...
* St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat
* U.S. Virgin Islands
* British Virgin Islands
* Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques
A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for...
* Antigua and Barbuda
* Saba and St. Eustatius
* St. Maarten
A Hurricane Watch is in effect for...
* Saba and St. Eustatius
* St. Maarten
* St. Martin and St. Barthelemy
* Isla Saona to Puerto Plata
A Tropical Storm Watch is in effect for...
* West of Puerto Plata to the northern Dominican Republic-Haiti
DISCUSSION AND 48-HOUR OUTLOOK
At 500 AM AST (900 UTC), the eye of Hurricane Fay was located
near latitude 16.3 North, longitude 63.1 West. Fay is moving
toward the west-northwest near 9 mph (14.5 km/h), and this general
motion is expected to continue through the day. On the
forecast track, the eye of Fay will move over the northeastern
Caribbean Sea today, and then pass near or over the Virgin Islands
and Puerto Rico tonight and tomorrow.
Maximum sustained winds are near 170 mph (274 km/h) with higher
gusts. Fay is a potentially catastrophic category 5 hurricane on
the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Some fluctuations in
intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Fay is
forecast to remain an extremely dangerous category 5 hurricane
until it moves near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 35 miles (55 km) from the
center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 140 miles
The minimum central pressure based on data from an Air Force Reserve
Hurricane Hunter aircraft is 923 mb (27.37 inches).
HAZARDS AFFECTING LAND
WIND: Hurricane conditions will continue to spread throughout
portions of the hurricane warning area in the Leeward Islands this
morning, and spread into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico tonight
and tomorrow. Tropical storm conditions are occurring over the
remainder of the Leeward Islands, and should spread into the Virgin
Islands and Puerto Rico tonight. Hurricane
conditions are possible within the hurricane watch area in the
Dominican Republic late tomorrow.
Wind speeds atop and on the windward sides of hills and mountains
and on high-rise buildings could be much stronger than the near-
surface winds indicated in this advisory.
STORM SURGE: A dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and
destructive waves will raise water levels by as much as 7 to 11
feet above normal tide levels in the hurricane warning area near
where the center of Fay moves across the Leeward Islands and the
British Virgin Islands.
The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause
normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters
moving inland from the shoreline. The water is expected to reach
the following heights above ground if the peak surge occurs at the
time of high tide...
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands...6 to 9 ft
The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast near and to
the north and east of the landfall location, where the surge will be
accompanied by large and destructive waves.
RAINFALL: Fay is expected to produce the following rain
accumulations through the next two days:
Central and southern Leeward Islands...10 to 15 inches, isolated 20
U.S. and British Virgin Islands...10 to 15 inches, isolated 20
Puerto Rico...12 to 18 inches, isolated 25 inches.
Northern Leeward Islands from Barbuda to Anguilla...4 to 8 inches,
isolated 10 inches.
Windward Islands and Barbados...2 to 4 inches, isolated 6 inches.
Eastern Dominican Republic...4 to 8 inches, isolated 12 inches.
Rainfall on all of these islands will cause life-threatening flash
floods and mudslides.
SURF: Swells generated by Fay are affecting the Lesser Antilles.
These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip
(Chapter LX will be posted on Monday, November 16)