mercredi 3 juin 2009

Derrière les chiffres il y a des hommes

I've been thinking a lot about Air France flight 447. For one thing, it has gotten extensive media coverage, which is only natural given that air accidents of this magnitude are - thankfully - rare. A debate rages in the blogosphere about whether or not air travel really is the safest mode of transport. Something like 2.6 billion people were transported by plane last year, with a surprisingly small number of deaths. The thing is, as everyone says, when a jumbo jet goes down, there are many, many deaths at the same instant.

I have flown a lot in my lifetime -- not as many hours as a pilot or a flight attendant, of course -- so I feel exposed when I hear about a crash. And I have developed strategies for keeping anxiety at bay when I fly. How many people truly enjoy flying, though? I really don't, especially now that flying has become totally banal as an activity. Except on international flights -- and sometimes even on them -- conditions are barely acceptable. No food, not much refreshment, not much leg room, too much stuff crammed in overhead compartments, seats too small and too close together. On the last flight I took, returning from NY to Seattle, the rather large woman in the seat next to mine had her arm resting on the controls for my music and visuals the entire time. Had she not been asleep, I might have asked her to move so that I could find some suitable music or watch some crappy movie to pass the time.

One of my false beliefs is that disaster only happens on take-off or landing. If the plane can get off the ground without something going really wrong, then there will be nothing to fear until it is time to land. And landings have gotten much, much smoother in the last ten years or so. I bet everyone would agree with this. It is obvious. Air France flight 447 disappeared after more than four hours in the air. In other words, it violated one of my sacred wrong beliefs. My sacred wrong beliefs are the ones that keep me from having an anxiety or panic attack and, on occasion, I have felt that these beliefs actually help to keep the plane in the air and on course. I know this is utterly ludicrous. I knew a Canadian woman in China who was pathalogically afraid to fly. She was a career expat in Shanghai, which meant that the occasional trip back home to Vancouver, BC, had to be taken by sea. She told me that she actually did force herself to fly once, and knitted the entire way. She was afraid that if she stopped knitting the plane would go down. She did stop for just a second and the plane immediately entered a pocket of turbulence, thus proving the basic psychological truth of her wrong sacred belief. She had no choice but to stick to the knitting.

I heard a Norwegian woman being interviewed on the radio today, who had lost her daughter and one of her grandchildren in this tragedy. Her son-in-law and second grandchild had taken a different flight because they had some frequent flyer miles to use up. Their flight landed at Roissy at 4 pm, which is when the son-in-law and his child learned that flight 447, due in earlier the same day (at 11 am), was lost and that its passengers had perished. Another woman who was interviewed had to change her plans at the last minute, or she would have been on Flight 447.

Finally, Le Monde has written the article that captures the human element. 228 names and lives lost; many more destinies shattered. It delineates the process by which a raw piece of news slowly becomes a story of individual sorrow. Here's a quick translation:

For a few hours, they were just numbers. Classified according to the general criteria used by airlines and their insurers. Two hundred and twenty eight missing. That's 12 crew members and 216 passengers. Among the latter, there were 126 men, 82 women, 7 children and a baby.

A little later, they became a list of names. And finally, a small society of individuals, couples, families struck by fate. Alexander Bjoroy, 11 years old, was returning from Rio via Paris to his boarding school in Bristol. He had just spent a few days on vacation with his mother, Jane, and his father, Robin, an engineer for the Brazilian oil industry.

Ten French employees from the same company, CGED, each one accompanied by a spouse or a friend, were also among those aboard flight AF447 Rio-Paris. They had won a company-wide contest that, each year, rewards the top ten salespeople in the French Southwest. In Bordeaux, in Artigues, in nearly every one of CGED's small regional agencies, at least one employee was lost. Like Stéphane Artiguenave and his wife, Sandrine, "much more worried", explains a colleague of Stéphane, "about the reputation Brazil has of being a dangerous place and of losing their two children (aged 9 and 4) than of an airplane accident".

At the regional headquarters of CGED in Bordeaux, people are also counting the terrible twists of fate. Like this young saleswoman for CGED, 23-year old Laetitia Alazard, who got to go to Brazil because one of her colleagues was unable to. Since her boyfriend could not get away, she asked her best friend, Aurélia, to go with her. "Viva Brazil!", she had written with enthusiasm on her Facebook page.

CGED is not the only company in mourning. While there were more than 150 tourists aboard flight AF 447, there were also many business travelers, attesting to Brazil's recent economic development.

Michelin also lost three top executives. Luiz Roberto Anastacio, 50 years old and with Michelin for twenty-seven years, had just been appointed chairman of Michelin Latin America on May 4. He was en route to Clermont-Ferrand, where he had a meeting at the tire manufacturer's global headquarters. He was traveling with Antonio Gueiros, head of IT at the Rio office, and a French engineer, Christine Pieraerts, who was returning to France after a vacation. "In addition to losing two men and one woman who were loved, we are losing highly valued managers", says a spokesperson for the company, who adds that the company lost its own chairman and CEO, Edouard Michelin, in a boating accident.

The city of Ermenonville has lost three elected officials. Three friends, Nathalie Marroig, 41, and Marie-Josée Treillou, 70, who were on vacation in Brazil, and Anne Grimout, 49, who was the head of the cabine crew on AF 447. A seasoned professional, she frequently worked the Rio-Paris flight.

In fact, the entire crew was made up of veterans. The captain, aged 58, had 11 000 flight hours under his belt, of which 1 700 on planes of the same type as the Airbus A330-200. His two co-pilots, aged 37 and 32, had logged in 9 000 flight hours between them.

But these flights, which link one end of the planet to the other, are also little worlds unto themselves. The passengers represented 32 different nations: France (73), Brazil (58), Germany (26), China (9), Italy (9), Switzerland (6), the UK (5), Lebanon (5), Hungary (44), Slovakia (3), Norway (3), Ireland (3), the US (2), Poland (2), Morocco (2), Spain (2) and Iceland (1). (According to the NY Times: "The airline said victims included 2 Americans, an Argentine, an Austrian, a Belgian, 58 Brazilians, 5 Britons, a Canadian, 9 Chinese, a Croatian, a Dane, a Dutch citizen, an Estonian, a Filipino, 61 French citizens, a Gambian, 26 Germans, 4 Hungarians, 3 Irish, an Icelander, 10 Italians, 5 Lebanese, 2 Moroccans, 3 Norwegians, 2 Poles, a Romanian, a Russian, 3 Slovakians, 2 Spaniards, a Swede, 6 Swiss and a Turk.")

After France, Brazil paid the highest price in lives lost. Taken the night before the flight, one photo has appeared in all the Brazilian papers. It shows Eduardo Macario, a young lawyer, and Bianca Cotta, 25, the woman he had just married. The young couple had planned to honeymoon in Europe, after celebrating their union the night before with 500 guests at a club in Niteroi, the city across from Rio on the other side of Guanabara Bay. Monday, after the accident was announced, the young woman's father spent the day glued to his computer looking at maps of the Atlantic, and trying desperately to find an island where the plane could have effected an emergency landing.

Pierre-Louis d'Orléans-Bragance, 26, one of the heirs to the Brazilian imperial throne, was also on the Rio-Paris flight. Born in 1983 in Rio, with a degree in economics, the young man was fourth in line to the throne. He was returning to Luxembourg, where he lived, after visiting his parents, who live in Petropolis, the city where the former imperial palace is located. "Dom Pierre-Louis" was the great-great-grandson of Isabelle de Bragance, the princess who, in 1888, abolished slavery, just a year before the Empire was wiped out.

In the UK, in Italy, in Germany, a thousand similar dramas played out. For example, that involving a 61-year old British engineer named Arthur Coakley, who had gone to Rio on business for his oil company. Coakley was supposed to be on the earlier flight, which was overbooked. So he was transferred to this Air France flight.

The story of Brazilian choreographer Gustavo Ciriaco is a miracle. For 200 euros, he traded his ticket on this flight with a young woman who had a seat on the earlier flight.

Italy lost a mayor from the Trentino region, Luigi Zortea, who had gone to Brazil to establish a sister city relationship with the village of Zortea, which bears his name, in the state of Santa Caterina. Germany lost one of the executive directors of ThyssenKrupp, Erich Heine, who was returning from a visit to the Brazilian subsidiary. His compatriot, the architect Moritz Kock, was returning from a meeting with his famous Brazilian colleague, the centennial architect Oscar Niemeyer. And three young Irish doctors, an American geologist, and so many others.

They will be remembered in their country of origin. An ecumenical ceremony was held this afternoon at Notre-Dame, in Paris. Next Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet with the families of the French victims.

Written by Raphaëlle Bacqué with Jean-Pierre Langellier in Rio, Marie de Vergès in Berlin, Philippe Ridet in Rome and Virginie Malingre in London.

Translated by Peggy Ganong