Gone: Construction of a Catastrophe

One fine afternoon on a sun-drenched island, hundreds of lives are destroyed. A true story.

A teaser of my writing project for WNFIN non-fiction writing challenge. You can view it also on Scriggler.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.  
Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

We’re going! says the Captain, spooling up his engines.

In the rear of the Boeing 747, the passengers are relieved to be finally getting off the ground, having spent the better part of three hours stranded during an unscheduled stop. This airline, like all of them, promises efficiency and on-time travel. The promotional literature tucked in the back of the seats brags confidently about their safety record and reputation for getting their passengers where they need to go, when they need to get there. Nobody stops to ponder the occasionally contradictory nature of these aims.

Just as fate would sometimes have it, our Captain is now enslaved in the grip of irreconcilable goals, impossible expectations. Yet this fact remain beneath his awareness.

He is agitated, confused and in an awful hurry, and in his haste he has overlooked one crucial piece of information: he has never actually been given clearance to take off.

Seconds later, the pilot of another 747, similarly loaded with passengers and still taxiing on the active runway, sights the grim specter of expanding orbs of light through the dense fog. In a grotesque flash of insight, all becomes clear.

“There he is!” he cries, pushing the thrust levers to full power, desperately trying to steer his massive charge out of the path of carnage. “Look at him! That son of a bitch is coming!”


We humans tend to think about fate or destiny in positive terms. When something wonderful and unexpected happens – a lottery win, being offered a dream job, meeting your soulmate randomly on a street corner - we say that the stars aligned, we finally got our lucky break, and by some miracle the perfect ingredients of happenstance came together to grant our most fervently held dreams. But what about those occasions that, rather than representing the happy results of the rarest chain of coincidence, produce the opposite? Those times when the stars did indeed align – but instead, for the perfect storm?

Nobody likes to think about those situations. After all, they throw a dire challenge to our sense of hope, to our belief in the basically benevolent design of the universe. Instead, they seem to point darkly to the existence of malicious deities, to an indifferent - even hostile - world.

The story I am about to tell you concerns just this kind of incident.

 We are not in the present, but some four decades in the past. The society and its inhabitants are only superficially unfamiliar. Do not be deceived by nostalgia or regret for innocence lost. Probe a little deeper and you will learn much about where we have come from, and just how we got to where we are now.

Americans are enjoying for the first time the benefits of affordable international air travel and, along with that, mass tourism. Jumping on a flight and heading off for an overseas jaunt is becoming a middle class thing to do. Along with the optimism and sense of adventure, there is some trepidation. Terrorism has been rearing its head in recent years, making uncomfortable inroads into everyday life. It is four years since the Munich Massacre. In two years there will be a critical tipping point in the evolution of Islamic radicalism, very visibly brought home to Americans in the form of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the corroding wound to national self-esteem that incident represents.

Our passengers are in the middle of this unfolding historical drama. 

They are destined for Las Palmas in the Canaries, a regional hub for tourism of the joyful and sun-drenched kind.  Las Palmas is the springboard for international flights to and from the Canaries, and the departure point for major cruise liners travelling to destinations in the Mediterranean, North Africa and South America. But on the fateful day, shortly before they are due to touch down, a bomb explodes at a florist’s shop on the main concourse of the international terminal at Las Palmas airport.

The scene is total chaos. There is significant damage to the inside of the terminal, now littered with shattered glass, shards of broken plaster and terrified humans that dart in all directions until some sense of order can be restored. Eight people are seriously injured.

A telephone call arrives at a service desk hinting at the presence of a second bomb located somewhere inside the terminal.

The mystery caller is a member of the Canary Islands separatists, formally the Canary Islands Independence Movement (CIIM). CIIM, based in Algeria, are engaged in various violent actions against the Spanish who control the Canary Islands. This attack on the terminal is one of many such gestures of fury and vindictiveness deemed richly deserved. We are in the sunset days of empire, and all over the world, the oppressed and dispossessed are launching campaigns against their collapsing European masters. Seeking independence for places they call home, many find comfort in the ideologies of Islamic radicalism. CIIM will have it be known that the Canaries were originally the property of Berber peoples – not the Spanish. They frequently target their attacks against the symbols of modernity and internationalization, air travel and tourism.

As much as they desire to inflict disruption and carnage they can have no idea of the scale of disaster they are about to unleash.

With the threat of another bomb, as yet undetected, somewhere in the airport the Spanish authorities immediately evacuate the terminal and implement a directive to divert all incoming aircraft to Los Rodeos on the neighbouring island of Tenerife.

Miguel Torrens is a controller at Los Rodeos airport. He later explains that in his view the situation at Las Palmas is so alarming and chaotic that they simply make a unilateral decision to divert all aircraft to Los Rodeos, despite the fact that this solution is not without its own problems. There is no leeway in the directive; an exception is made for two Iberia flights because they can disembark their passengers via a hangar at Las Palmas, rather than through the terminal. Why could this not be done with other flights? Torrens asked, his hands raised in a gesture of helplessness and futility. He didn’t know.

Los Rodeos is a small regional airport. Its airstrips and facilities are designed to accommodate smaller planes of the type that complete short haul flights in and around the Canaries. It has only one runway - strictly two, runway 12 and runway 30. They form one continuous stretch of tarmac, laid out end to end. There is one major parallel taxiway. The main taxiway and runway are joined by four smaller taxiways. Visualise an oblong crossed over the middle with little white lines. Now, all of the sudden, a stream of large wide body jets from international carriers are arriving, rerouted from Las Palmas, and waiting to land at the tiny airport.

Just Torrens and one other controller, Fernando Azcunaga, are on duty in the tower at Los Rodeos, approaching the end of their shift after a busy day. From time to time they have been called on to accept diverted traffic, and it is all well and good that they accommodate one or two Boeing 747s on their tiny parking apron. But this is an entirely different story; there are several large jets circling above, waiting to land, with more to arrive. It is a situation they are unused to. Already the men are starting to sweat.

Azcunaga, a Spanish national from the Basque region, is an experienced professional, having worked as a controller since 1964, well over a decade. He’s used to dealing with substandard equipment and long shifts due to understaffing, but he loves his job. Some twenty years after the disaster he summed up the working conditions for controllers at Los Rodeos at the time with one well-chosen, powerfully descriptive word: “atrocious”.

The airport at Los Rodeos also presents a number of idiosyncrasies that make his job uniquely challenging. It is located 2073 feet above sea level, and clouds that are normally 200 feet above sea level are here on the ground. The thick clouds roll down the nearby mountains onto the runways, resulting in rapidly changing visibility conditions. The local high terrain also causes the so-called venturi effect. Increased wind speed and decreased pressure increases the cloud density. There is, at this time, no ground radar at the airport, so Azcunaga and his colleagues are sometimes in the position of directing traffic on the ground that they cannot even see. He relies on the cockpit crews to accurately report their position.

At around 1.30 pm, Azcunaga receives a request for landing clearance from a KLM jet. The KLM is a Boeing 747, registration PH-BUF, which has departed Schipol Airport in Amsterdam at nine in the morning carrying 234 passengers, mostly young Dutch nationals escaping the cold northern winter for holidays in the Canaries. There are two Australians, four Germans and four Americans. Amongst the passengers are 48 children – and three babies.  

By this time several international flights have already landed at Los Rodeos. With limited space to accommodate them, Azcunaga directs them to the parking apron situated between the main taxiway and the holding point for runway 12. Very quickly the parking apron is full, and the planes start spilling out onto the main taxiway parallel to the active runway.

After landing, the KLM taxis across the last intersecting taxiway to clear the runway and parks behind a Norwegian Boeing 737 ahead of it in the queue. Once Las Palmas reopens, KLM will have to wait for several planes ahead of it to take off, since the parked planes block the path to the only active runway.

Azcunaga and Torrens are up against it. From one point of view this is just an ordinary day at work – stress, lots of problems to solve, potential chaos that must be forced into a shape of order and predictability. This is the life of any controller. From another perspective, it isn’t a normal day at all. The circumstances are unprecedented in their experience, and layered with complexity and the potential for strife.

Who knows how long it will be before Las Palmas reopens? How many more planes will arrive? It is not a good situation for anyone – not them, nor any of the crews operating the jets down on the ground. Vaguely, they worry about the possibility of a terrorist attack on Los Rodeos itself. With all the traffic now crowding the small airport, and passengers now disembarking the planes and flooding the small terminal, such an eventuality would be disastrous.

Even with all the problems confronting them, what is in fact about to transpire is only the remotest of possibilities in their minds.

1 comment:

  1. This piece is also published on Scriggler at https://scriggler.com/DetailPost/Opinion/48566