Friday, April 17, 2015

Unglücksmaschine: The Germanwings Tragedy

The terrible loss of an airplane en route from Barcelona to Düsseldorf on March 24th had no immediate explanation. First reports simply stated the plane had crashed in the French Alps. There were two babies on board and a group of tenth graders, among 150 people. Why a pilot with 6,000 flight hours, a freshly inspected plane, and a clear weather day would crash land in the mountains defied quick theorizing. Only after the remote site was reached and the cockpit recorder retrieved did a chain of evidence yield a conclusion that has distressed us all: the copilot had locked himself in the cockpit and set the plane for direct descent into a rocky canyon. The pilot died pounding on the door to be let back past the anti-terrorist lock system. Oh, miserable fate.

I first learned of the crash listening to NPR's All Things Considered in Ohio. I was in my childhood bedroom, sorting out the last of my old belongings to help downsize my parents' household. The news felt "close to home"--we flew Germany to Spain for vacation last summer. I had flown the previous day myself, Frankfurt to Detroit. More troubling, I awaited my daughter and husband three days later, also coming Frankfurt to Detroit. At the very least, a recent crash makes us uneasy to fly, even if we're reminded of the normal safety statistics, even if we try to realize the isolated nature of one event.

Away from German media, I still felt the disabling blow to the nation. What a sad loss! Miriam kept me up to date on the news flowing through her class message boards. She is in 9th grade and can readily identify with the traveling 10th graders. My heart hangs on the opera singer with the baby. Miriam was the one who first told me the news that the co-pilot had wittingly caused the crash. One German word for "intentional" is mutwillig. Mut means "courage" and willig means "willing." An awful courage underlies such an exercise of intention.

Like so many others, I followed the flow of reporting in the New York Times coverage of the crash. Interestingly, we heard a convocation address by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet while visiting in Oberlin. He spoke of the Times' quick reporting of the story and the enormous number of readers coming to the Times website.

Kölner Dom nachts 2013.jpg
„Kölner Dom nachts 2013“ von Thomas Wolf,
Eigenes Werk. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 de
über Wikimedia Commons.
Now, three and a half weeks later, my family has completed our own plane travel and returned safely home to our lives in Flein. Gratefully. Today mourners gathered in the Cologne Cathedral for an ecumenical worship service followed by a state ceremony to commemorate the tragedy. If you have ever taken the train into Cologne, you've seen this building. As the archbishop reminded us, people have been gathering on that spot for 1,600 years. A protestant pastor, Annette Kurschus (with the title Präses, which I can't yet translate), spoke well and used a soothing phrase: God, let my tears fall into your cup.

An opera singer colleague of the two singers killed in the crash was brave enough to perform the Pie Jesu from Fauré's requiem. A collective choir, including many singers who appeared to be the age of the students who died, sang and sometimes shed tears.

During the state ceremony, of the many tender addresses, the words of Germany's president Joachim Gauck made the strongest impression on me. In contrast to the religious focus on eternal life and comfort in God, Gauck's speech took on the troubling role of the co-pilot. The link provides a written summary (in German) of his words, in which he talked about the wound to our sense of trust and the importance of healthy trust to enable our society to live.

With the extensive media coverage, I doubt many are searching for more material. Still, while livestreaming the ceremonies on ARD, I noticed two items to recommend, both in German. One is a brief summary video of today's events at the Cologne Cathedral. The other is a half-hour documentary about the lasting results of the tragedy, from grief to solidarity to airline safety. One commentator uses the fitting term of Unglücksmaschine, which means both "unlucky machine" and "machine of accident/mishap." A voice of experience comes from a mother who lost her child in the Winnenden school shooting in 2009. She speaks eloquently of her journey in grief. Now a new group of friends and family from 18 countries face the vertigo of incompression and the searing ache of absence. As the documentary reminds us, others already tread the same path. Perhaps we can help each other.