Without attempting to be crass or insensitive to the people who die in plane crashes, the last one—as of this writing—was beautiful. It pictured a cemetery in Montana, the old stone grave markers in long perspective to the edge of pines, the last tree on the right in orange flames bursting forth under a ruthless cloud of black smoke. Beauty amid terrible chaos.
Perhaps the juxtaposition of cemetery and the fuel tank exploding in flames is an over-cooked metaphor, one that even a Hollywood pyrotechnic would think is over the top. But the reality is the Holy Cross Cemetery lay under the approach for the Butte airport, as good as any place to let the dead rest. That is where it crashed.
The photograph, taken by Butte resident Martha Guidoni, is slightly tilted to the side, an angle that suggests the camera was lifted to the eye in haste. Yet this somehow adds to the amateur charm of the photograph and the fact that she and her husband did not intend to take pictures but save anyone who would be alive. Her moment of capture spares us the horrific scene of an actual aircraft filled with 14 living souls slamming into the ground at hundreds of miles per hour. All we see of the devastation is a burning tree, as if we are witness to a lighting strike, the first tree to be burned in a forest fire.
Guidoni says she heard the plane’s engine and saw plane drop. “Right into the ground,” she was quoted in the LA Times. “And then it was immediately on fire. It just shot up in flames, and it looked like it caught some of the headstones on fire, that’s how hot it was.”
I stared at the picture on my computer screen, then quickly glanced through the Times article, then back to the picture again. Then I clicked cross-country over to the New York Times, hit the National link, and scrolled down to their story. The picture was bigger, the grainy, pixels still intact. The victim’s names were not released. It only said that 14 people were on board, seven of whom were children. The plane, a Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 turboprop, had begun its flight in Redlands, California, flying to Oroville for refueling and to pick up more passengers. There, Tom Hagler, owner of an aviation business at the airport, witnessed the children playing about the airport (“A lot of really cute kids,” he said) and the adults stretching their legs. He was the last person to see them alive.
From there the plane traveled over the upper Great Basin of Nevada, over the Sawtooth Range of Idaho and into Western Montana. Along the way the pilot changed his flight plans for reasons yet unknown.
I clicked on Facebook, a daily voyeuristic chore in case there’s news about my “friend’s” lives that I should know about as it pertains to me, and noticed a strange posting from my brother. “Mark Willey is remembering playing GI Joes with Erin J. Rest in peace my friend.”
Erin Jacobson was my brother's best childhood friend. A couple of years ago, my brother, mother, (who also lives in St. Helena) and I went out for pizza with Erin. I hadn't seen Erin since he was in grade school, a thick round of curly brown hair on his head, a quiet, thoughtful, peaceful kid, as I remember. Now he was grown up, a prominent doctor in the area with a burgeoning ophthalmology practice in Napa and St. Helena. And there in that upscale pizza parlor in the Napa Valley, he was much the same as that faithful friend of my brother those years ago. His childhood qualities were still recognizable—a difficult task in the continuum of life that is often contaminated by adulthood progress.
I emailed my brother to be sure this was the same Erin Jacobson that he had known. He emailed me back: “I used to hide from my mom when she came to pick me up from playing at his house. He was the kind of friend you just wanted to keep hanging out with. We used to walk into the hills together and put red ants down black ant holes, then count how many made it out. We dug a fort once, in the side of a hill, and a snake crawled right out from between Erin's legs. He picked it up and moved it where it would be safe from our shovels. I remember the day he didn't come to school because he'd been bitten by a spider. It wasn't a good day without him and I couldn't wait to go by his house on my way home and make sure he was okay.
“I think though that he was a better friend to me than I was to him. It seems, as I remember back, I leaned on him, depended on him, more than he on me. He was there to listen on one of the hardest days of my high school life, the day after mum told me why she and dad had divorced and that she was going to fight my wish to see him half time. I don't remember helping Erin through any tough times. He was always so steady, but he helped me.
“One day, in early fall, my fourth grade year at Loma Linda Elementary (near San Bernardino, CA), Erin and I sat perched near the top of a jungle gym. I told him that I would be leaving Loma Linda to attend a little school in the mountains and asked him if he would come with me. I wish he had, or that I had stayed. We stayed in touch and were good friends again for a year in high school before he moved to Napa Valley, but I would like to have made more memories of his friendship. The ones I do have are all good and that will have to be enough.”
With this the plane crash came into focus and my mind’s eye went beyond the photo of the cemetery and up into the fuselage of the plane to where Erin must have grabbed his wife’s hand, must have pulled his seatbelt tight, his daughter closer as the plane swayed violently in the air. The terror of time slowed to wide-open seconds of consciousness; not so much his life flashing before the eyes, but the denial that all of this was really happening. And I hope that Erin and all those aboard possessed a hope that they would live. And failing that, they did not know the split second their good life ended nor felt the ache of losing it.
This is the first plane crash where I have known one of the victims. For that reason it is a crash that hits closer to home. Now, as I remember Erin Jacobson and his family it will be impossible to erase that photograph of the last place he and his family experienced life. A Montana pine burned into my memory, the blackest of smoke trailing into the sky. It is still a beautiful image, made poignant and without irony by the gravestones honoring the dead. I just wish it hadn’t happened.