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Random carnage of Shoreham Airshow diaster is truly frightening

By Gail Walker

Published 25/08/2015

The huge fireball which claimed the lives of 11 people after a jet crashed while trying to perform a stunt at Shoreham Airshow
The huge fireball which claimed the lives of 11 people after a jet crashed while trying to perform a stunt at Shoreham Airshow

The Shoreham air disaster numbs the soul. The rising toll of the dead, with their mundanely wonderful lives like ours, appals us. As does the prosaicness of it all. Shoreham, the A27 - here is the quotidian, the familiar, the unglamorous rent apart in a real-life disaster movie.

The pictures and footage that have emerged since Saturday show the transformation of an ordinary corner of southern England into a Dantesque vision of hell.

A slew of film, shot on mobiles and dashcam, spools across cyberspace, bringing ever new and lurid perspectives on the carnage. A jet bearing down on a busy roadway, just feet above the cars. A cockpit amid the tree-tops, the outline of its pilot clearly visible. So distorted, so unreal, it all looks like the work of PhotoShop. If we are ghouls for not being able to look away, we are also very human.

What was striking was the reaction of the spectators. Overwhelmed by the nightmare unfolding in front of them, many simply didn't know how to respond. They stood and stared at the black pall of smoke. Their inadequacy spoke for all of us. Cynics surmise that secretly some people go to air shows because of the risk of disaster, but I've never believed that. They go to airshows to marvel at the tiny craft that won wars, to see breathtaking acrobatic feats of derring-do.

And then there are the emerging stories. Footballers, Matthew Grimstone and Jacob Schilt, of non-league Worthing United, were among those who died, apparently on their way to a match against Loxwood when they were caught up in the catastrophe.

Another of the dead was Matt Jones, a personal trainer. His mother, Hazel, said: "Matt was my boy, a lovely boy". Seven words of irrecoverable heartbreak. Those missing also include a wedding chauffeur and a motorcyclist.

In other words, Shoreham was a harrowing demonstration of how death can just step into the middle of an ordinary sunny Saturday and snatch loved ones away; the type of people we might know.

It is too early to speculate and apportion blame about whether it was pilot error or engine failure, or indeed whether such events, when old aircraft are put through stunts, should ever take place near built-up areas. They are all valid questions but somehow the size, the suddenness, the randomness of the disaster temporarily overshadows all of this. Instead we think 'There but for the grace of God …' We think of fate, chance and happenstance. We read the account of the eyewitness who says that if they hadn't stopped for petrol they would have been, well, right where the plane came down.

We have flown for more than a century now and still there seems to be something primeval touched when death comes from the sky. It appears unnatural, untimely, a metaphorical falling of the skies.

It is hard not to think of the ordinary things those who died must have got up to do last Saturday morning: to shower, have breakfast, watch cartoons with the kids, shutting the front door for the last time, deciding to go shopping or for a coffee with a friend. Of course, none of us can live our lives as if every day was our last day (though some say it's not a bad approach) but it is the idea of incompleteness that horrifies us. How people can be so abruptly stopped in the middle of their lives, when they still had things to do, when people were expecting them to turn up somewhere, to come home again. None of it makes sense; the loose ends that are left.

The last phone calls to parents and loved ones that were never made, the deepest emotions that were never expressed. All that life left unlived, never to be lived. That last 'I love you' still on the lips.

The Shoreham disaster touches our deepest fears. Perhaps that is why so many people in this place, many of whom have known the all too sudden snuffing out of a loved one's life, are so moved by the suffering of strangers. The pattern of life is destroyed, there is no complete story. It is senseless.

Of course, all death is like that. More or less, what happened at Shoreham happens every single day everywhere, most often in ones but sometimes in clusters - the death columns in newspapers testify to that. Disasters occur across the globe and our sympathy and assistance and energy is drained by the headlines and the scale of suffering.

Still, there is something 'awful' or 'awesome' in death from the skies and in the skies. The way the loss of MH370 and then MH17 gripped the globe was partly to do with the seeming fragility of air travel, despite the statistic showing that it remains among the safest modes of travel. The horror of death dropping from the air, indiscriminately, catastrophically, inescapably, has been a recurring nightmare for almost the whole lifetime of human flight.

An almost unbearable fear, deriving literally out of the blue. And no wonder. As with all civilian flight-related tragedies, there is no sense to be found. The individuals involved might be any one of us, at any time. All we can reasonably do is muster ourselves in sympathy beside those who have lost loved ones and hope that everything is now done to ensure such random carnage can be prevented in future.

Belfast Telegraph

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