I first learned of my father's plane crash from the Jerusalem Post. I was twenty-two and working as a journalist in the Middle East. The crash happened on October 19, 1984, but I didn't find out about it until two days later. I was sitting at my old metal desk with a cup of mint tea and the morning paper. That day it wasn't regional conflict or politics that caught my attention, but the headline of a short news item buried at the bottom of an inside page: Party Leader Killed in Alberta Plane Crash.
The article was tiny — fewer than fifty words — but its impact was staggering. "Grant Notley, leader of the New Democratic Party in Alberta, and five other people were killed in the crash of their twin engine plane," the Associated Press reported in the opening line. I read on in disbelief. Four survivors had spent the night and much of the next day huddled in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures before being rescued. Among them was the provincial housing minister, Larry Shaben: my father.
I dropped the paper, grabbed the phone. My brother James picked up.
"Dad's fine," he assured me, but for some reason I didn't believe him.
"Put Mom on," I practically yelled.
"He's okay," my mother told me. "We were going to call, but it's been crazy and, well . . . we didn't want to worry you."
I was crying, feeling very far away. "I'm coming home," I said.
It was Christmas before I could get time off work to return to Canada. Two months had passed and my father's physical wounds had healed. Inside, however, something elemental had changed. He was subdued, quietly haunted, in a way I had never seen before. He'd lost a close colleague that night and had seen others from our town and the surrounding communities die.
My family had experienced the event firsthand and assimilated its extraordinary details. The survivors of the crash — a rookie pilot, an accused criminal, a cop taking him to face charges, and my dad, a prominent politician — had boarded the plane as total strangers. Men from wildly different backgrounds, they had helped one another survive a long, bitter night in the Canadian wilderness. The story had a mythical quality that tested the bounds of reality.
Distance, the crash's impact on my father, and the unlikely friendships that formed between the survivors lodged the event firmly in my psyche. Who were these men? What had they experienced on that snowy, fog-drenched night as they struggled together to cheat death? How had it altered them? If I faced a similar near-death experience, would it change me? Would I continue to live my life as I had been living it?
My curiosity was insatiable. Though I peppered my dad with questions, his answers were disappointingly vague or simply not forthcoming. The crash had affected him deeply, but how remained a mystery he kept largely to himself. He refused to discuss the people who had died or what he had shared with the men who had survived.
"It was a long, cold night," the Edmonton Journal quoted him as saying shortly after the crash. "We talked about things, private things I'd rather not discuss."
"He has nightmares," was all my mother would say.
In the months and years following the crash, my father forged extraordinary bonds with his fellow survivors, especially Paul Archambault, the twenty-seven-year-old criminal on the plane. Every so often, the scruffy drifter would arrive unannounced. No matter how busy my father's schedule was, he always had time for Paul. My dad would talk about these meetings with delight and obvious affection. Their relationship was important to him in a way I never fully understood. He cared deeply about how Paul's life was progressing and worried during his long absences, as a father would for an itinerant son. After one visit, my dad spoke enthusiastically about a dog-eared sheaf of papers that Paul had brought with him, a manuscript he was writing about his experience that night.
My dad also kept in touch with Erik Vogel, the young pilot who had flown the plane. Every year on the anniversary of the crash, Dad would call him to talk about how lucky they were to be alive. Erik had been just twenty-four — two years older than I was at the time — when the crash occurred. Years later, though juggling the demands of parenthood and my own business, I felt compelled to seek him out. I found him working in a nearby city as a firefighter and living with his family on a quiet tract of land less than an hour's drive from my home.
I arranged a meeting and drove out to Erik's farm. The former pilot's first words to me were "I've been waiting years for you." Over coffee in his kitchen, within sight of a solid wood butcher-block table on loan from Scott Deschamps, the fourth crash survivor, Erik shared his story. Though almost twenty years had passed since the ordeal, he cried as he recounted the events of that night. They had never left him. Nor had his burden of guilt over the deaths of six passengers. When I drove away hours later, I carried his dust-covered leather flight bag — a tote the size of a small suitcase in which he had filed away his pilot logbook, years of airline rejection letters, court documents, photos and every newspaper clipping he had seen about the tragedy or those involved. Sifting through the contents of Erik's flight bag was like opening the door to a lost world. All of a sudden an event that had seemed surreal came into sharp, dramatic focus. My dad, it turned out, was not the only one to have been transfigured by what happened that long-ago night.
Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who coined the phrase "follow your bliss," wrote extensively about man's quest for meaning. According to Campbell, all heroic journeys, from the time of the ancients to the present day, begin with a call to adventure — a challenge or opportunity to face the unknown and gain something of physical or spiritual value. This call often comes in the form of a transformative crisis, an event that kicks out our foundations of complacency and makes us examine universal questions of existence: Why was I born? What happens when I die? How can I overcome my fears and weaknesses and be happy?
Few of us will ever face the kind of life-and-death trauma experienced by the men in this story. Their ordeal forced them to confront the precious and limited nature of their existence on earth. In the words of Campbell, they entered the forest "at the darkest point where there is no path." How these four men found their way forward that night and in the years that followed is both remarkable and inspirational.
Reprinted by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., from Into The Abyss by Carol Shaben. Copyright 2012 by Carol Shaben.