The pace of Down Around Midnight builds quickly, as author Robert Sabbag describes being a passenger on a small commercial airliner that crashes in the woods on Cape Cod. He writes of the incredible force he experiences as the plane hits the trees, ripping his seat from the fuselage and propelling him forward onto the deck of the cabin. He shares his view of remote darkness, the strong smell of leaking jet fuel and the eerie silence after the plane skids to a halt in the foggy woods. He relates the stinging physical pain and the heart-pounding fear as he and the other survivors struggle to escape, alarmed that they might catch fire along with the fuel-soaked aircraft. The sights, sounds, smells and other sensations of the crash are the hook of Down Around Midnight. What follows is Sabbag’s personal journey of recovery—both physical and emotional—and his quest, 28 years after the crash, to talk to fellow survivors.
Remarkably, the June 17, 1979, crash of Air New England Flight 248 claimed only one life: the pilot’s. Nine passengers and the co-pilot lived, and Sabbag uses his training as a journalist to track down some of them almost three decades later. He finds the young woman who braved the dark woods to find help, the medical student who pulled passengers from the wreckage and the Harvard quarterback who tended to the severely injured co-pilot. Their memories of the crash and their reflections on their psychological recovery make for a fascinating examination of how people cope with the aftermath of a traumatic experience.
The only disappointment is that Sabbag, by choice, doesn’t pursue interviews with some survivors, including the co-pilot and three sisters seriously injured in the crash. He also passes on an interview with the pilot’s wife. One can sympathize with Sabbag’s decision based on his sensitivities as a fellow survivor. But as a journalist, he fails to seek all sides of the story; as a result, Down Around Midnight doesn’t close with the same flourish as its energetic beginning. Still, this survivor’s tale should hold the attention of both the seasoned air traveler and the reluctant voyager who has a fear of flying.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.