Lost In Shangri-La
The cabin crumpled forward toward the cockpit. The walls of the fuselage collapsed as though sucked inward. Both wings ripped away. The tail section snapped off like a balsa wood toy. Flames shot through the wreckage. Small explosions rang out like gunshots. Black smoke choked off the light. The air grew bitter with the stench of burning metal, burning leather, burning rubber, burning wires, burning oil, burning clothes, burning hair, burning flesh.
One small mercy was that Nicholson had managed to point the nose of the plane skyward in his attempt to clear the ridge, so the C-47 hit the mountain at an upward angle instead of head-on. As a result, although fire rushed through the cabin, the Gremlin Special didn't explode on impact. Anyone not immediately killed or mortally wounded might stand a chance.
When the plane burrowed through the trees, John McCollom flew across the center aisle, from the left side of the plane to the right. He lurched forward by momentum, turning somersaults as he fell. He momentarily blacked out. When he came to, he found himself on his hands and knees halfway up the cabin toward the cockpit, surrounded by flames. Driven by instinct, he searched for an escape route. He saw a flash of white light where the tail had been. The roof of the cabin had flattened down like a stepped-on tin can, so he couldn't stand. He crawled toward the light, landing on the scorched earth of the mountain jungle, disoriented but with barely a scratch.
McCollom began to comprehend the horror of what had happened. He thought about his twin brother and the twenty-two others on board - all trapped inside and dead, he believed. As he rose to his feet outside the broken plane, he told himself: "This is a heck of a place to be, 165 miles from civilization, all by myself on a Sunday afternoon."
When the Gremlin Special hit the mountain, Margaret bounced through the cabin like a rubber ball. Her first impulse was to pray. But that felt like surrender, and Margaret wasn't the surrendering type. She grew angry. She knew it wasn't rational, but as she tumbled she took it personally, indignant that her dreamed-of trip to Shangri-La had been spoiled by a plane crash. And she still hadn't seen any natives.
When she stopped tumbling and regained her senses, Margaret found herself lying on top of a motionless man. Her fall had been cushioned by his body. She tried to move, but before he died the man had somehow wrapped his thick arms around her. Whether he'd tried to save her or simply grabbed on to whatever was closest to him wasn't clear. Either way, Margaret was locked in a dead man's grip. She felt flames licking at her face, feet, and legs. The air filled with the acrid scent of sizzling hair. Again Margaret thought of relaxing, giving up. Then her fury returned, and with it her strength.
She pried loose the man's hands and began to crawl. She had no idea whom she was leaving behind or which way she was heading - back toward the missing tail or ahead toward the crushed cockpit and into the inferno. As she crawled toward her hoped-for salvation, she didn't see anyone else moving or hear anyone speaking or moaning inside the burning cabin. Whether by luck or divine intervention, she chose the right direction for escape.
Margaret stumbled out the torn-open rear end of the fuselage onto the jungle floor.
"My God! Hastings!" called John McCollom, who'd come out the same way less than a minute earlier.
Before Margaret could answer, McCollom heard a WAC scream from inside the plane: "Get me out of here!"
The Gremlin Special was now fully aflame. McCollom doubted it would explode, but he wasn't sure. Without hesitating, the Eagle Scout-turned-Army lieutenant scrambled back inside, crouching beneath the smoke and fire, avoiding and ignoring the heat as best he could. He inched his way along, following the WAC's pleading voice.
Excerpted from Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff. Copyright 2011 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Excerpted by permission of Harper, a division of HarperCollins, Inc. All rights reserved.
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