Ahigbe watched his little sister, Ikazuabe, as she played with her pigtails and pulled at her seat belt. She didn’t want the restraint to wrinkle her new white cotton dress.
“Ika, regarde à l’extérieur et dis-moi ce que tu vois. (Ika, look outside and tell me what you see),” he said.
The six-year-old gazed out the airplane window at the dense tropical jungle sliding away below.
“Des arbres et des plantes (Trees and plants),” she answered.
This was her first trip from her home in Cotonou, Benin, to Paris, and though the family had left the central African nation not quite an hour ago, she was starting to squirm, and Ahigbe realized the novelty of flying already had worn off for her.
“Combien de temps pour qu’on arrive là-bas, maman? (How long until we get there, Mama?)” Ikazuabe asked.
“Keep looking for the Mediterranean Sea, dear. When you see that, it won’t be long.”
Ahigbe was in the middle seat, his mother on the aisle. In a bid for temporary peace, he reached under the seat in front of him for his bag.
“Ika, let’s read a book. Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?”
“Yes, I do, Sam I Am!” The little girl giggled, her hands on her hips, pleased with the word game she had played with her brother. He opened the book and read the first page aloud.
Suddenly a ferocious quake jolted them. A loud bang followed it, accompanied by painful pressure in Ahigbe’s ears. Screams erupted as the plane lurched to one side, and he could only see the ground below through the window and only bright sky above. Ika was shrieking, her hands on her ears. He grabbed for her before his sister was thrown from her seat.
The man in the seat in front of him flew up, his head colliding with the overhead compartment with a sickening, wet crunch. Blood sprayed around the cabin and into Ahigbe’s face, soaking him.
Everything was chaos. A screaming, howling wind deafened the boy and tore at his exposed flesh. Something hard hit him in the head. Wincing in pain, he wiped the blood from his eyes. Bags and laptops flew through the cabin. The yellow oxygen masks had dropped, but they were waving wildly about, eluding his frantic grasp. Gasping for a full breath, for any air that would come, Ahigbe clawed desperately for the yellow mask. His world constricted to the excruciating burning in his chest and the yellow blob bouncing around in front of him, and black spots filled his eyes. Another savage twist of the plane, and he was crushed into his seat, the remaining breath squeezed from his burning lungs. A moment as long as a lifetime later, mercifully, dark night came down like a curtain before his eyes.
Ahigbe woke up and saw…trees? But where is the side of the plane? he asked himself. Dazed, he sat for a moment, trying to make sense of his now-stationary world. Slowly reality started to form around him again as he returned to his senses. The trees were still there, and Ika was lying like a limp doll in her seat.
“Ika! Ika!” he cried, shaking his unresponsive sister. Panic clutched the twelve-year-old boy, but then he saw her little chest rise and fall. She coughed and opened her eyes.
“Ahi!” she cried, and reached for her brother.
“It’s okay, Ika. I’m here.”
Ahigbe winced as he turned his head to the left at the sound of a cough and saw his mother covering her mouth with a bleeding hand. In the rows in front of him and behind, children cried and coughed as smoke roiled through what remained of the cabin. To his right, a woman was yelling. He jerked his head around, which made him wince again.
“You’ve got to get out of there! Now!” she screamed in French. “Come here, toward me,” she said, motioning with her hands.
His mother heard and saw the woman too, and she undid her seat belt. Ahigbe did the same and reached over to help Ika.
“C’mon. Hurry!” the woman yelled again.
Now that he was able to move, he got a better view of her. She was standing on the wing of the plane just a few feet from them, visible through the gaping hole. The woman wore a long white coat over a skirt and a white top. A golden light glinted off something that hung around her neck. She was gesturing frantically, a look of panic on her face.
Clutching Ika to his chest, Ahigbe set one foot on the edge of the broken fuselage and swung his other foot as far as he could to reach the wing, which was about a foot away and two feet above. He thrust hard with his back leg and pushed up onto the wing, freeing the two of them from the wreckage. Ika breathed deeply and coughed once more when she was in the cleaner air.
When he set Ika down on the wing, the woman said, “I’ll watch her. Go help your mother and the other children.”
Ahigbe turned to grasp his mother’s hand and pulled with all the strength in his young arms. In an instant, the three of them were on the wing, sucking in deep breaths. After a few moments, he turned his attention back to the cries of other children carried on the acrid smoke that spewed from the cabin. He took a deep breath and stepped back inside the plane. He bent low and tried to search for anyone alive. The interior of the plane, blurred by the water running from his eyes and a blanket of smoke, was a wreckage of humanity. Ahigbe turned his eyes away from it and focused on the floor as he crawled down the aisle toward the shrieks. His arms and legs wobbled, and a disturbing shiver pulsed through his torso. He wanted to stop, to run back to his mother and sister, but the cries sounded too much like Ika’s. He found one little boy pinned underneath a pair of twisted legs and freed the child. The two boys stumbled to the opening, and Ahigbe handed him to his mother.
“There’s no more time to go back in and search. Call for them,” the woman in white said.
Ahigbe nodded, then called to the other children. “Undo your seat belts. Come here. We have to get off the plane!”
Miraculously, a number of small children worked their way toward him, and he handed them out through the gaping hole in the side of the plane to his mother. Soon half a dozen children were gathered there. They were shaking, crying, and coughing, but otherwise uninjured, standing on the wing of the plane.
Ahigbe paused, sweeping his eyes once more around what remained of the cabin and its occupants. He never had seen death like this before, and he knew the image of it never would leave him. His mother called to him, begging him to get out of the plane, so he did. Once he was on the wing, he looked around for the woman in white.
“C’mon! C’mon!” the woman called, now at the end of the wing, about ten meters from him. “Hurry!”
“Come here,” Ahigbe’s mother said, bending over to pick up Ika, who reached up, eager for the safety of her mother’s arms.
“This way,” the woman called again. She was now off the wing, standing on the floor of the smoldering jungle. Ahigbe, seeing flames rise from the rear of the plane, rushed down the length of the wing as fast as he could, making sure his mother, sister, and the other children were close behind. The wing had shorn off the tops of the surrounding trees as the plane had crashed, and its tip had gouged out a trench in the dirt. It was a small step off the wing to the ground.
“Follow me!” came the voice, now more commanding than before.
Everyone moved toward it, into the overgrowth and away from the plane. The vegetation was too dense for running, as much as Ahigbe wanted to. Leaves slapped his face, and branches pulled at his clothes as he pushed them away to allow others to follow. Up ahead, he saw the woman standing in a clearing, just above them on a small hill. He lost sight of her as a leaf swatted him in the face, but the hill with the clearing was just straight ahead.
In a moment, Ahigbe climbed the hill, panting. His mother was breathing hard behind him, and Ika sobbed softly. The woman was gone, but he saw a path running down the other side, the thick jungle undergrowth chopped back away from it.
“This way!” came the voice from down the path.
The group quickly followed, almost at a run now. A deafening explosion thundered at the scurrying survivors for the second time that day, this time accompanied by a rush of wind and heat on their backs. Ahigbe glanced over his shoulder and saw the fireball turn to oily black smoke as the last of the plane’s fuel was consumed. As frightening as the massive explosion was, he knew they were safe now. He started down the path again, this time following his mother.
The woman led them down the path for about ten minutes. Ahigbe would catch glimpses of her white coat, or hear her call, then lose sight of her as she slipped around another bend. As he struggled to keep up, he tried to place her. He knew he hadn’t seen her on the plane, so where had she come from?
“Over here there’s a road,” she called to them.
Ahigbe burst ahead at a dead run. He knew a road was their best chance at finding help and getting away from here.
“Please, lady, wait!” he shouted, and then his feet hit the gravel road. “Lady!” he called again, searching around for the woman in white.
“Ahigbe!” his mother yelled from behind as she stepped out of the forest, waving him back with one hand as she carried Ika in the other.
“Mama, the lady’s not here,” Ahigbe said as he caught his breath and looked around.
“Where did she go?” she asked, her eyes sweeping the area.
“I don’t know.” The boy shrugged. Ika wriggled, wanting to be put down now, but her mother wasn’t about to let her out of her protective arms.
“Who was she?” Ahigbe asked his mother.
With wide eyes, the woman blessed herself. “Au nom du Père, du Fils et du Saint-Esprit. Un ange,” she said. An angel.