“My attention shifts to the fact that the comforting engine hum is eerily gone. Where has the comforting hum of the engines gone. Something has gone very, very wrong, the plane continued to shake.”
-Daniel Goncalves, recalling the terror of Air Transat Flight 236
I'm sitting here in an airport, reading a harrowing first person account of Air Transat Flight 236, which fell out of the sky when it lost all power on Aug. 24, 2001.
The plane was bound from Toronto, Ontario to Lisbon, Portugal when a fuel leak in the right engine began 3 hrs and 46 min after takeoff (at 04:38 UTC). The leak went undetected by the flight crew for over an hour, when it finally became apparent that the remaining fuel was insufficient to reach their destination in Lisbon. At 05:45 UTC, the pilot diverted the flight to Lajes Field on Terceira Island in the Azores, a cluster of islands about 850 miles west of Portugal.
Air Transat Flight 236 with its emergency slides deployed, sitting on the tarmac of Lajes Field in the Azores island of Terceira, after an emergency landing on Friday, Aug, 24, 2001.
Here, Mr. Goncalves' gripping narrative should speak for itself.
“All lights turn off, TV's off, P.A. system off, emergency lights light up the floors marking the emergency exit door. What the hell is going on? Is this a joke? Another clearly tense voice takes over and tried to address the 300+ passengers without the aid of a P.A. system. "Everyone put on their life vest and prepare for emergency ditching at sea." Huh? What the hell does that mean? Are you kidding me? Disbelief. "The captain has informed us that we are two hours away from Lisbon and we will not make it. We are preparing for an emergency ditch at sea. When you hear BRACE, BRACE, BRACE, lean against the seat in front of you, fold your arms and brace yourself."
WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT????? Oh my God, what is happening. We're going into the cold and black Atlantic? Now? Why? Is this a Joke? Are we part of that Just for Laughs show? Stop playing, come on. No joke. I was in denial. This fully loaded Airbus A330 was going into the ocean and all I knew was that my poor family were there with me. It hit me. This wasn't going to go away. This was it. This really was it. The end. Unimaginable death by catastrophe.”
-Daniel Goncalves, My Air Transat flight 236 story
I'm reading this story because of a very unique paper published recently in Clinical Psychological Science (McKinnon et al. 2014), a study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and memory in survivors of the near-fatal Air Transat flight. Fifteen of the individuals WHO WERE ACTUALLY ON THAT FLIGHT participated in an experiment of autobiographical memory for the event, a shared horror of impending death. The comparison events were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) and a neutral event from around the same time.1
Seven of the survivors had been diagnosed with PTSD, six did not have PTSD, and the status of the remaining two was unknown. This immediately raises the caveat of very small comparison groups, further complicated by the fact that some of the assessment instruments were missing from various participants (e.g., the NEO-Five Factor Inventory of personality was missing from four).
The study was conducted in the lab of Dr. Brian Levine, a well-known memory researcher at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. Adding another unexpected twist, the first author of the paper, Dr. Margaret C. McKinnon, was a passenger on Flight AT236!
Now I'm flying in an Airbus 319, returning home. The setting sun to my right is blinding across the aisle.
Here is the series of events on AT236 as recounted by Goncalves:
4:38am-fuel started leaking
5:45am- diverted to Lages Air Base in Azores
5:48am- emergency declared
6:13am- engine no 2 flamed out 217 km from Lages Air Base, full thrust to engine #1 on left wing and plane descended 6,000 feet (this was scary and when when the passengers first found out something was very wrong).
6:23am- Mayday declared
6:26am- engine no 1 flamed out 120 km from Lages Air Base
6:45am- plane touched down hard on runway 33
Then a flight attendant came over the PA system on my flight:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a little turbulence, please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.”
OK, there's the turbulence, good thing I took an anti-emetic...
But the bumpiness was quite short-lived, so back to our main story.
McKinnon et al. (2014) administered the Autobiographical Interview (AI) and a number of other questionnaires to the AT236 survivors. A group of control participants (n=15) were queried about 9/11, a neutral event, and a personally negative event. The AI distinguishes between episodic and non-episodic details (e.g., facts you might hear on the news), and has been used to probe autobiographical memory in number of different patient populations, including those with dementia, mild cognitive impairment, medial temporal lobe amnesia, and epilepsy (Levine et al., 2002).
The results of the study indicated that the passengers recalled vivid details of the flight, which was not surprising. Neither the number of details recalled, nor the accuracy of memories (their veridicality in relation to actual events) was associated with PTSD. Instead, it was recall of extraneous details, repetition of events in the retelling of their stories, and additional commentary or editorializing about the events that was associated with PTSD. This pattern held for all three of the autobiographical events, although some of the statistical results were rather weak.
Fig. 1 (adapted from McKinnon et al., 2014). Mean number of details recalled across all events for passengers (with and without PTSD) and healthy controls (HCs) for the Autobiographical Interview.
[NOTE: Internal = episodic and External = non-episodic (semantic, repetitions, metacognitive statements, external events).]
Cognitive Control Deficits Were Associated With PTSD
The authors suggested that greater difficulty in constraining and editing the content of one's autobiographical narratives, whether recalling the Air Transat flight or a neutral event, was associated with a PTSD diagnosis in this small sample of trauma survivors. This could reflect a more general deficit in cognitive control, i.e. the ability to regulate complex cognitive processes to achieve goal-directed behavior (Lenartowicz et al., 2010).
While a unique and important study, we must keep in mind the limited and perhaps self-selected nature of the population (7 with PTSD, 6 without PTSD). The experiment required recalling the most frightening and horrific 30 min imaginable, and many survivors may have declined to sign up for that.
The authors acknowledged these and other weaknesses:
The participants in this study reflect only a small percentage of the 306 passengers aboard AT Flight 236; we did not have access to the passenger manifest, and individuals with more significant psychopathology may have avoided participation for fear of retraumatization. Thus, the current study was limited to a small number of participants. Moreover, as passengers’ memory was assessed several years after the traumatic incident (approximately 3.5 years later), it remains unknown how trauma might have impacted memory in the more acute stages of trauma exposure among this sample.
NBC News also addressed these issues in a quote from Mr. Goncalves, who wrote about his ordeal in a blog post to avoid having to retell it over and over:
“Just reading something about it, I’ll lose myself in thought, catch myself visualizing it and get sweaty fingers,” said study subject Daniel Goncalves, who was 24 while traveling with his family on Flight 236 to see a dying uncle in Portugal. He was never formally diagnosed with PTSD. “I’m getting goose bumps now, talking about it.” 2
Today, working as a photographer in Dallas, Goncalves, has sometimes shied away from discussing the event. To help friends understand, he wrote a blog post about those the 32 minutes so “I can send them over there instead of going through the whole ordeal and avoid getting emotional.”
Daniel Goncalves, My Air Transat flight 236 story:
“Later on we found out that those white knuckle, torturous last few seconds which were filled with terrible thoughts waiting for impact stretched to fill an unbearable 32 minutes of misery. I still can't explain how terrible it was waiting, expecting it to be any second now and that going on for 32 mins. It felt like an eternity of waiting for a very bad thing to happen. During these 32 minutes the plane never stopped shaking. You could hear the plane cut through the air, no engine noise, muttering of prayers, crys, pleads. The whole time.”
In the end, Captain Robert Piché, the heroic pilot, was able to glide the powerless plane to a safe landing at Lajes Field. None of the 306 passengers died, and there were only 18 minor injuries. Many thought of this feat as a miracle, or at least “a moment of miraculous relief.” Daniel Goncalves considered this the day he was reborn.
1 The neutral event was uniquely generated by each participant prior to the start of the autobiographical memory interviews, I believe.
2 These symptoms are all highly consistent with a PTSD diagnosis.
McKinnon, M., Palombo, D., Nazarov, A., Kumar, N., Khuu, W., & Levine, B. (2014). Threat of Death and Autobiographical Memory: A Study of Passengers From Flight AT236. Clinical Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/2167702614542280
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