Back PageSeptember 2001: Vol. 80, No. 4

When the friendly skies are not so friendly

Geology professor Sally Walker has returned to flying after surviving an airplane crash that killed 83 people last fall

by Lee Shearer (AB '72)

Saturday, June 23, was a big day for Sally Walker—but not one she was entirely looking forward to, as the UGA geology professor flew to Nassau to conduct research on the bottom of the ocean floor.

Walker is part of a team of scientists investigating the phenomenon of taphonomy—how things get buried and over time become fossils. Six years ago, the team left dozens of shells and wood samples in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Every summer, Walker and her colleagues dive as deep as 2,000 feet in two- and four-person submarines, to see what's become of their experiment.

The plane crash made life a lot tougher, but also a lot sweeter, says Walker, because now "everything is a gift."
The diving part is a joy for Walker, but the thought of getting to Nassau filled her with dread. When Walker boarded a Delta jet in Atlanta, it was only the second time she had flown since last October—when she survived a Singapore Airlines crash in Taiwan that killed 83 of the 179 people aboard a Boeing 747.

Those images are burned forever into Walker's memory. This kind of trauma does more than just make people nervous about flying; it actually changes a person chemically and physically, says Walker, who was flying back to the U.S. from an academic conference in Bali.

A typhoon engulfed Taiwan as her plane made a scheduled stop to refuel before embarking for Los Angeles. "Wave after wave of water was falling in a very strange movement," Walker recalls. "All I can remember is rain and darkness meeting. It was one big wall of darkness."

"Do 747s fly through this?" she asked a steward. "Oh, yeah," said the steward. "We fly 747s through typhoons all the time."

Walker's assigned seat was 58A, a window seat on the back row that would enable her to take photos from the air. But this time, something told her she should move away from the window. She switched to the empty seat next to her before the plane taxied away from the terminal.

"I've never moved seats before, but I'm glad I did," she recalls, because in a few minutes seat 58A wasn't there anymore.

Moments after liftoff, there were a couple of bumps and then people were thrown violently about the cabin.

"It was like someone had a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking us toward the front," she recalls. "I thought, This is it, because you don't survive these things."

Walker's reaction was to do a meditation she learned in studies of Tibetan Buddhism. She was trying to exude as much positive energy as possible in order to go into death with courage and affirmation.

"If I were going to die," she says, "I wanted to give back as much of the good energy as possible that people have given me in my life."

In a few twisting, grinding seconds, the plane was still, lying in pieces on the runway. But a fireball roared through the middle of the plane, where the death toll was greatest. In the very front, most of the first-class passengers made it out alive, but not most of those in business—probably because they picked the wrong escape route.

Bleeding, dazed, yet coursing with adrenaline, Walker found her way out, along with most of the people in the tail section. She remembers how gigantic the blades of grass looked, and the water droplets on the tarmac. She learned later that the pilot had gone down the wrong runway—one under construction—then tried to take off too quickly after he saw two concrete barriers and a crane looming in front of him. The plane struck the barriers, then plowed into the crane.

Six days later, Walker was on a plane again; there was no other way to get back home but to fly. But since then, she's declined trips that would have required air travel—until her June 23 flight to Nassau. The worst part was takeoff. But there was no typhoon-ravaged airport, no rain-soaked darkness in Atlanta. The sky was sunny, the flight smooth, and Walker had several friends with her.

There was a bad moment later, when Walker switched planes for the last leg of the trip. The flight was delayed for hours because of mechanical problems.

"Because of that delay, the flight was scheduled to take off as a thunderstorm was nearing the airport," Walker wrote in an e-mail several days later. "I was very stressed out, and made a point to sit right by the emergency door once we were able to board. Shaking, I considered getting off the plane, but I could see that in the direction we were going, the sky was clear."

In the months since the tragedy on Taiwan, Walker has learned a lot about post-traumatic stress syndrome. In her case, it has meant high anxiety when she hears a plane overhead, or a powerful urge to flee when she smells gasoline. What she's battling is not unusual, something she knows after talking to both other crash survivors and to veterans of Vietnam and World War II.

"You have a reaction to certain sounds or smells, and you don't know why," she says. "'I still feel pretty leaky emotionally. I cry a lot for no reason."

In many ways, the crash made life a lot tougher for Walker. But it's also made life sweeter. "When I got home, the sky was brighter," she says, "I paid attention to the texture of the sidewalks. It was like being in a movie."

What used to be stressful—writing a grant application, meeting a deadline—is not so bad any more, and Walker has found herself becoming more spontaneous, enjoying life more.

Now, she says, "Everything is a gift."

Lee Shearer (AB '72) is a staff writer for the Athens Banner-Hearald, which ran a similar version of this story.

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