This will forever be my memory of Christmas 2008: huge flames streaking past the windows. Snow and dirt flying past as we augered into the ground. The inside of the plane so orange with firelight that I could see the destruction—the overhead baggage compartments destroyed and pieces of plastic hanging down, wires everywhere and the acrid smell of burning plastic and jet fuel suddenly thick in the cabin.
We'd been on the way to Houston from Denver to visit my wife's family for Christmas. My own parents had flown in earlier in the day. We'd given ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport, an extra half hour so we wouldn't have to go too fast on the icy Colorado roads. Check-in was a breeze by most standards. We sped through security, enjoyed a glass of Chianti and a Cobb salad. My wife noticed a woman boarding with her two children, one of them a toddler, and remarked to me how difficult it would be to manage kids during Christmas air travel. The tarmac was icy near the gates, but the as we taxied onto the runway, I was relieved to see that it was dry.
Things went horribly wrong shortly after we began takeoff. At first, we gained speed just like any flight, then it got a little bumpy, and then a little too bumpy. Then we made a hard, arcing left turn off the runway. That's when what was happening hit home: We'd clearly left the tarmac and gone off-road. Every bump and dip slammed me into my seat, the walls and the bulkhead behind me. People erupted into cries and prayers. I was sure it would stop soon, but we just kept going. What I recall most is the incredible violence of it, like the roughest roller coaster you've ever ridden but with a desperate, roaring engine noise that seemed to get louder as we bounced more and more.
Things were flying around the cabin—books, newspapers, bags. After an especially hard bounce, the lights went out, and there was a sudden, terrible stillness. We saw later what had happened: The runway we were on is about 60 feet higher than the plains below, and we had sped over the edge at what one passenger who has military flight experience later estimated to be 150 miles per hour. The plane must have floated somewhat, or we'd have gone down nose-first; instead we belly-flopped onto a runway below. That's when the right engine burst into flames and the fuselage cracked in half. My wife, Ashley, in the seat beside me, screamed over and over, "I love you, Jeb!" I pulled her head into my lap, away from the debris I was sure would slam into us.
Amazingly, it never did. It took a minute for us to realize we weren't moving anymore, that the engine noise and the wrenching, roaring destruction had stopped. Voices screamed, "Get out! Get out! The plane's going to blow up!" The right wing was entirely engulfed in flame, but thankfully, the fire was still outside the plane. There was a crush at the tail as everyone tried to push through. Ashley and I were out quickly because we'd been in the last row of seats. We clambered over the spongy rubber emergency slides and out into a dark, snowy, windy field. Everyone was running as fast as they could away from the fire, and against the flames we saw surreal silhouettes of people scattering in all directions.
I'd managed to grab my bag, which had a phone, sweater and jacket, and I took Ashley's hand and the two of us ran slipping through the snow toward lights and buildings we saw above us on a hill. Eventually, all the passengers ended up there. It was a runway firehouse, and emergency teams were already taking care of the most seriously injured—the pilots—who were on backboards in the kitchen, one moaning and bloody and the other talking on a cell phone. We waited there for hours, absorbing what had happened. The mother with her child and toddler were there. She was ashen, her baby sleeping so deeply that she couldn't wake him up. All three were loaded into an ambulance and hurried away.
Continental eventually bused us and the other passengers back to the terminal, and then to a hotel in Denver. People around us were rehashing their stories and trying to guess what had happened. A failed left engine? A gust of wind? We booed at the hotel bar when news reports described us as having "exited the runway"—a little disaster-management euphemism that didn't do justice to our ordeal. This morning, we awoke stiff and sore and trudged to breakfast, where we saw the woman with her child and toddler, the baby bright-eyed and smiling. "We're going to get on another plane and go to Houston," she told the older boy. "But no fires this time?" he asked. "No fires this time," she said. "No fires this time."