On May 2, 1970, a DC-9 jet with 57 passengers and a crew of six departed New York's JFK International Airport en route to the tropical island of St. Maarten. The flight ended four hours and 34 minutes later in the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean. It was, and remains, the only open-water ditching of a commercial jet. The subsequent rescue of survivors took nearly three hours and involved the coast guard, navy, and marines. This gripping account of that fateful day recounts what was happening inside the cabin, the cockpit, and the helicopters as the crews struggled against the weather and dwindling daylight to rescue the survivors who have only their life vests and a lone escape chute to keep them afloat.
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As with his previous book “Scapegoat”, Emilio Corsetti III does it again with his new audiobook release titled “35 Miles from Shore: The Ditching and Rescue of ALM Flight 980”. In the book he tells a gripping, action packed, well researched story that is wonderfully narrated by Fred Filbrich. Portions of the story include re-enacted communications from various transcripts or interviews which brings it more to life. It would be difficult to write an action thriller as good as this book, and it is often hard to believe the events told occurred in real life as a piece of non-fiction. If you are one who enjoys stories around flight or airplanes, this is a must read/listen. If you are someone who likes documentaries of people surviving difficult situations along with the many complicated efforts involving search, rescue, and accident investigations, this is a must read for you too.
I am a certified private pilot (Cessna 172s) and have enjoyed books on flying most of my life. However, this story, as told by the author involves so much more than just another airplane or flying tale. It reveals the actual events that occurred in 1970 when a DC-9 jet aircraft was required to perform a water ditch (landing) due to fuel exhaustion. It is the only known event of its kind at the time of the book’s writing; sense then other ditching events have occurred but they are rare. Mr. Corsetti provides the reader with a first-class seat into what airlines, aircraft, and air travel, looked like back in the 1970s, and I can say it was very different from what it is today. Yet, in many ways it has not changed. It is amazing that this event was the largest and most involved search and rescue to have ever happened in the Caribbean Sea. It received assistance from the Coast Guard, Navy, Marines and a handful of local vessels.
The book opens by informing the reader about the concept of an “accident chain”. This idea claims that any type of accident (aviation or not) really is a chain of events that if only one can be prevented the accident most likely will be prevented. Mr. Corsetti walks the reader though all the various issues and events that led to the eventual accident. This involved mostly people and process errors, the machine itself did what it was expected to do when it ran out of fuel. He goes in detail about the flight events leading up to the disaster. Goes over the seconds just prior to the ditching and the events right after the crash viewed from different perspectives based on people’s testimonies.
I think what surprised me the most were the many errors and complications around the search and rescue portion. The lack of communication, and even when communication was established between rescuers, both often spoke to each other in what appeared to be different languages. We also learn of the struggles of the rescue gear such as the life jackets that for some this life saving gear may have caused more harm than good. The ability to hoist civilians up into a helicopter while swells of 30-40 feet were below and rain, low ceiling, and poor visibility above. It was amazing that anyone from the crash survived and that there were not causalities with the rescue teams themselves because many risked their own lives to save the others.
There are some good chapters covering the post-rescue events detailing the many injuries some of the passengers faced along with those that perished or were never found. Injuries were anywhere from a cut finger and bruises to broken backs and nearly everything in between. As one would expect from such a disaster, investigations and litigations quickly followed; as is usually the case. There are some good chapters later in the book about the survivors including the crew and what they are doing today along with the accident investigation findings.
Let me turn my attention from the story to the book’s narration by Fred Filbrich. Mr. Filbrich did an excellent job narrating the book and paced it well. I will note for those, like me, who like clean professionally edited audio, be aware that there are some slight audio artifacts such as volume consistency and swallowing in a few parts of the book. It was not throughout the entire book, but only in select areas. I would not let this prevent you from listening to the book in any way.
I am grateful to the author and narrator for bringing me this true-to-life story of disaster and survival. It was well worth my time and will have a lasting impact on me in the future.
Disclaimer: I was given this free review copy audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.
As I flew into SFO from PHX, I had a new perspective on air travel. I immediately found the life rafts. There were multiple and above the center aisle behind what looked like plastic attic doors. I kneeled and looked under my seat for the life vest. I turned off my audiobook as I listened intently for the instructions on how to inflate the life vest and made sure to get an aisle seat near the front cabin door. I wondered if my head would hit the tray table if I braced for impact. I now knew to wait to inflate my life vest until after I left the plane. I looked intently out the window as we passed over the bay and onto dry land in San Francisco. I could breathe again. This book will change how you travel, make you aware of your surroundings, and bring you one step closer to understanding what really makes for a safe airline and what doesn’t.
Emilio Corsetti III, in 35 Miles from Shore: The Ditching and Rescue of ALM Flight 980, starts with a strong hook, an airplane in the middle of the ocean that no one has come to investigate or pull out of the water because it’s a mile down. How did it get there? Why has it been down there so long? What happened? There are many directions Mr. Corsetti could have gone: a focus on the passengers’ point-of-view, the captain and flight crew’s, or the before and after on shore. He managed to weave all of the pieces together from the history of the airline itself, to the pilot’s backstory, the dramatic event, and the aftermath. While the general recommendation is to start in medias res, in the middle of the action, to create a dramatic beginning, the snapshot of the plane in the ocean was enough to propel a reader into the story and once there, he or she would not be disappointed with the narrative.
The premise is straightforward: Why did this tragedy happen? Emilio Corsetti III elevates the non-fiction genre to detective non-fiction where we learn everything about everyone in such a well articulated and compelling narrative that it doesn’t feel like we are in the classroom. Rather, we feel as if we are hearing the stories from multiple people as if we were the investigators ourselves. Corsetti III breathes life into technical jargon, complex procedural pieces, and turns what the mechanic sees into a vivid graphic through artful word choice and plain language.
The tower dialogues gave the audiobook an authentic theatrical feel more script-like than book. The explanations were so clear such that any bit of minutia or jargon found an explanation. From explaining tunnel vision as cognitive narrowing to the rationales for certain pilot altitude and airspeed choices, throughout the book I felt as if I had a mentor, a coach, teaching me about being a pilot. This is truly a book for anyone, it respects the jargon and speaks to the aviation enthusiast, but it speaks to us on a human level. What is it like to go through such an ordeal? How does a communication breakdown lead to a life-altering mistake? How do different people respond?
Because we are so invested in each character, know they are real; the last half of the book creates a satisfying closure to every thread of the story. It’s a rare author who can teach from the narrative rostrum with such detail as to both educate the reader and leave him looking around and appreciating the humanity in the giant machine of an airplane we take for granted. The irony of hell in a Caribbean paradise will not be lost on any of the readers. Is it worth reading? It’s worth listening right now.
Fred Filbrich, the narrator, does a wonderful job with both the narrative and the dialogue. The book was more than an easy listen; it was one that I tried to fit in the spaces of time at the grocery store and on the way to and from work. Filbrich continue to press page-turning narrative with subtle elevations of his voice, empathetic caresses towards a tragedy, and the straightforward talk as if I was the only person in the room. It is the work of a consummate professional.
Audiobook was provided for review by the author.
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