Monday, September 21, 2009

Five years after the crash

It has already been five years.

Five years since a mysterious tragedy that led to a miraculous discovery, a global controversy and an even larger, more disturbing mystery.

On Sept. 22, 2004, Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 left Sydney for Los Angeles at 2:15 p.m., Australia time, carrying 324 passengers and crew. Six hours into the flight, all contact with the Boeing 777 was lost -- never to be re-established. Everyone on board was presumed to have died in a crash, likely into the Indian Ocean. This air tragedy, which claimed many American lives, came 3 years and 11 days after the horrifying 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Coming up empty, the airline called off the search for the fallen plane after a few weeks, angering many of the victims' families. One of Oceanic's own employees, an IT technician named Sam Thomas, gained notoriety with his own Web campaign urging the airline to resume the search; his girlfriend was among the passengers on the plane.

But Thomas wouldn't have to wait long for answers.

Two months after the crash, a salvage ship off the coast of Bali discovered the wreckage of Flight 815 in the Indian Ocean's Sunda Trench, 2,800 miles northwest of Sydney. Footage of the wreckage captured by ROV vehicles, not unlike those made famous in the opening scenes of James Cameron's "Titanic," was broadcast around the world. Some news outlets, perhaps emboldened in a way by the horrors of 9/11, went so far as to show the body of the plane's pilot, Seth Norris, frozen at the helm of the craft. We would later learn that among the plane's cargo was the body of a Los Angeles doctor who died in Sydney, granted a burial at sea along with the rest of the flight's unfortunate souls.

The discovery of the plane seemed to be the end of the story; surely, no one could have survived the impact, let alone the subsequent plunge down a 5-mile-deep trench. Families suffered through funerals for their loved ones, memorial funds were established, and President George W. Bush delivered a moving address at Los Angeles International Airport alongside John Howard, then the prime minister of Australia. Many credit that speech with delivering the final blow to John Kerry's unsuccessful bid for the presidency that November. One of the quirkier tributes to the victims came from, of all places, the Boston Red Sox: Among Oceanic 815's victims was Charlie Pace, bass player for British one-hit wonders DriveShaft. The team adopted "You All Everybody" as its victory song in a playoff run that ended with Boston's first World Series title in 86 years.

But then, inevitably, came the 815 "Truth" movement, an offshoot of the conspiracy theories that still threaten to defile our memories of the 9/11 attacks. An Oceanic pilot named Frank Lapidus made headlines for claiming the pilot shown at the bottom of the trench couldn't be Seth Norris -- the body wasn't wearing a wedding band, and Norris, he insisted, would never be caught dead without it. Many so-called experts said Oceanic's account of what happened made no sense, that the plane shouldn't have been that far off course when it crashed. A Manhattanite claimed his neighbor, mother to Oceanic 815 victim Michael Dawson and grandmother to victim Walt Lloyd, was visited by her "deceased" relatives in December of 2004. She, of course, denied this, and pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage rushed to the woman's defense, painting the neighbor as a far-Left loon.

Then, on Jan. 7, 2005, the truly unthinkable happened: Six survivors of Oceanic 815 aboard an inflatable raft washed up on the shores of Sumba, an island in the Indian Ocean.

The tale of their survival begs credulity. The very identities of the survivors demand it. The Oceanic Six, as they came to be known, included Hugo Reyes, a mentally unstable multi-millionaire; Sayid Jarrah, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard; Jack Shephard, the son of the doctor whose coffin was in the cargo hold; Sun-Hwa Kwon, the daughter of a prominent South Korean industrialist; and, amazingly, a fugitive named Kate Austen and her infant son, Aaron, to whom she gave birth sometime during the 108 days between the crash and their rescue.

These six unlikely survivors asked us to believe the following narrative: Eight passengers swam out of the plane shortly after its crash, floating in the Indian Ocean on seat cushions. They were carried by ocean currents to the deserted island of Membata, where the allegedly pregnant Austen took care of her fellow survivors. (Shephard testified to this at Austen's trial for the murder of her father, several bank robberies, and assorted other crimes.) Three survivors, including the former rock star Pace, died on Membata. 75 days after the crash, Austen is said to have given birth to Aaron, whose father remains unknown. 103 days after the crash, an Indonesian fishing boat washed up on Membata's shore after a typhoon, and the six remaining survivors took the boat's raft to Sumba, where they were able to make contact with civilization.

The questions started at this press conference, and
never really stopped.

Practically no one believes this story, and the Oceanic Six became something of a laughingstock. Jarrah made an ill-advised appearance on Nancy Grace's cable show, in which the host grilled the Iraqi native at length about the narrative and expressed her disdain for Austen. Jarrah stormed off the set mid-interview. Reyes, already a celebrity in California before the crash thanks to his record-setting lottery win, had a breakdown of a different kind on "The Tonight Show," crying when Kevin Eubanks and the house band played "You All Everybody" as he was introduced to the crowd. Months later, Reyes would be re-committed to the Santa Rosa Mental Health Institute after leading L.A.'s finest on a high-speed chase for apparently no reason.

Kwon, who lost her husband Jin-Soo Kwon in the crash, distinguished herself after the rescue, using her settlement from Oceanic Airlines to buy a controlling interest in Paik Heavy Industries, her father's Seoul-based firm. But Kwon did give birth to a daughter, Ji Yeon, in July 2005 -- 10 months after the crash, a fact that reignited conspiracy theorists.

This cable documentary directly accused Oceanic
Airlines of a conspiracy.

Shephard's testimony helped acquit Austen, and the pair got married shortly after the trial concluded. Shephard resurfaced in the news when he saved the lives of a family involved in a car crash.

But the story took its most unbelievable turn in 2007, when five of the six survivors found themselves on an Ajira Airways flight from L.A. to Guam piloted by Lapidus, the former Oceanic pilot who came forward with conspiracy theories of his own. That plane -- which was almost empty, because Reyes bought 79 tickets just for himself -- disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.

Two years later, we still have no answers, and no sign that anyone aboard Ajira 316 survived. But the questions are many, and obvious: How the hell could these people have survived in the fashion they described? How the hell could they have all been in a second plane crash?

Many theories have captured the public's imagination; the most ridiculous came from a New York model-turned-prostitute named Arturo Mendoza, who wrote a book detailing a magical, moving island that was lorded over by one of his occasional clients. His story, which included submarines, time travel and a sentient cloud of black smoke, was treated by most as a great work of science fiction, and enjoyed some time on the New York Times best-seller's list.

But really, would that story be any stranger than the one the public has been asked to accept? We may never know what really happened to Oceanic 815 or Ajira 316, but we can honor those lost in these tragedies by continuing to fight for the truth.

• • •

Thanks to for the details of the Oceanic Six story, some of which are my invention for this admittedly silly exercise.

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