“What a brilliant thing! The new year – a wonderful time for all of us. After last autumn’s events, this really is just what we need: a new beginning.”
Smiling at the camera, Matt was thankful when they cut away from him, back to the fireworks, the crowds of people cheering. He wasn’t in the mood for a celebration.
“What’s wrong? It’s the new year – we can start over now!”
Matt smiled. “It’s a nice thought, Rob.”
“Here, let me get you a drink.” The producer left. He was alone again.
Matt was glad he’d got the job in the studio – he couldn’t stand the cold, and it looked like a film of drizzle was covering London. In here, it was possible to distance yourself from everything that was happening – that had happened.
Only that was impossible.
“Here!” called Robert Ellis, producer of the BBC’s new year broadcast, whom he’d met filming a documentary about airports. It was a boring job, but it had been a way into the industry – and Matt was pleased with the results. – had been pleased with the results.
“Matt?” called Rob, who’d apparently been talking to him.
“Oh, yeah, sorry, I was …” he tried to think what to say, but he was saved as one of the Assistant Director’s herded Robert out of shot, and gave Matt the countdown.
As the others around him started singing ‘Old Lang Syne’, and the microphones placed around the room picking it up, he spoke into his own: “Thank you for joining us tonight, it’s been fantastic – I hope next year brings you much peace and happiness” – unlike last year, he thought – “and” – he gulped. Not now, please not now. He could see Robert frowning at him – “from all of us here, it’s a happy new year! Goodnight!”
The relief washed over him like a stream – it was over.
But it wasn’t over … it would never end. Etched into his memory, what had happened then would haunt him forever—
“Matthew! Are you all right?”
“Yeah – I’m just … I’m—”
“Don’t worry. It’s okay.” Robert comforted him, and Matt was sure this wasn’t your usual presenter / producer relationship.
As the crew packed up around them, the pair sat together.
“Matthew White – I knew you’d pull through”
“You call this pulling through? I’m a nervous wreck. How can I go on presenting if everything reminds me?”
“You’ll learn to control it. To hide it.” Rob sounded as if he’d had experience of something like this before. Matt couldn’t understand how.
“Very different from Heathrow, though, is John F. Kennedy international. And that’s our next stop.”
“Cut!” yelled the director.
Matt sighed – this seemed a very solitary job. But then, it wasn’t exactly like this production had been given the largest budget – or the largest crew. There were 5 of them: Matthew, presenting; Will, directing; Harry, the cameraman; Eddie, the sound engineer; and Robert, the producer. And now, the 5 of them had the fun of travelling (in no less than Business class) transatlantic to New York.
“Harry:” called Will, “I want to try and get a shot as we leave the airport, sort of looking back over our shoulders. If you take the window seat, okay?”
“Yes boss,” said a heavy cockney accent.
“Ed, are you gonna start mixing it all together on the flight?"
“I was going to,” said the Queen’s English.
“It’s an odd juxtaposition, that one.” Robert had taken Matt by surprise.
“Harry and Eddie; they always work together, yet they couldn’t sound more different.”
Matt hadn’t spoken much to the producer – they’d been filming solidly for two days between Heathrow, Gatwick and City, and he hadn’t found the time.
“Yeah,” he muttered.
“Do you want breakfast?” It was 6 o’clock in the morning, on 3rd October.
“Don’t they supply it on the plane?”
Robert laughed – it was an odd, inward laugh – “do you really want to rely on Aeroplane food?”
“Touché” replied Matt, and they headed off to the nearest café. They had an hour to kill.
Sitting over coffee, Matt had bought a copy of the Guardian – Robert, though, seemed to be flicking through the BBC news app on his iPhone. Typical, thought Matthew, he’s loyal to the end! – he hadn’t known then how true that was.
Rob had ordered a cappuccino, Matt a latte. They both had toast and jam, though where Matt preferred raspberry, Rob had apricot. Matt noticed the producer’s packed lunch: he really wasn’t taking any chances on in-flight food. Maybe I should get a sandwich too.
“So, are you interested in airports?” Matt asked. It felt awkward.
“Not particularly, but I’ve got to pretend to be – the execs want you to be enthusiastic, don’t they?”
“Oh. What about the director?”
“Will? He’s mad about planes!” again, he laughed.
The pair chatted for a while: it seemed Rob was relatively new to producing, this being only his third credit. However, he’d been working his way up through the BBC for 7 years. Matt had tried to be a journalist at first, but when that didn’t work out, he attempted to get a job with ITV (on the basis that it’d be easier) but eventually found success here.
“Why didn’t you just look for another career? If I'd wasted 4 years searching for a journalist post, and couldn’t get one…?”
“I’ve always been determined to succeed. Never known another way. If I’ve set out to do something, I always will, in the end.”
Robert smiled – but didn’t laugh – and said, “I’m a bit like that.”
Breaking the tension, Will called. “Guys, the plane’s boarding! Gate 47.”
As Harry and Eddie got their equipment ready, Matt quickly bought a sandwich from M&S. The quintet then walked to gate 47, and passed through into the lounge. Robert now had his professional face on, and was discussing the show with Will. Once again, Matt felt alone.
They boarded without incident, and were all psyching themselves up for the 9 hour flight, which should get them in to New York at approximately midday. Harry had set up his camera looking out the window (the crew hadn’t been best pleased with this) and they all sat, watching the safety announcements. As the plane taxied to the end of the runway, Will leant over and said to Matt, “think about how you can narrate over this footage.” It was a very vague instruction.
Quite suddenly, they accelerated towards the end of the runway.
It was then that it all began.
Staring vacantly out of the window, Matt noticed a sudden movement – a lorry had just burst in through the eastern perimeter fence. He felt the plane accelerate faster. Beside him, Rob swore.
“Listen,” he whispered, “don’t tell anyone – there was a bomb threat under heathrow just as we started boarding. I didn’t think it would effect us, the bomb squad’s predicted detonation time was midday, and they thought they could diffuse it. Just before I turned my phone off, I got an email – it was a fake.”
“So, that truck—”
“Yeah: it’s probably a bomb.”
Matt realised he was breathing heavily. He could imagine the frantic conversations between ATC and all the pilots, and inevitably the emergency services.
“Are you getting this?!” hissed Will to Harry.
It was only now that they began to lift of the ground, sharply (sharper than normal) and suddenly. Over Harry’s shoulder, Matt could see the monitor, the airport getting further and further away as the lorry got closer and closer. Another, identical lorry had joined it, from the western side.
They both reached a standing plane, and drew up either side. Suddenly, time felt agonisingly slow. Nothing happened for perhaps a second, but it felt like minutes.
Matt realised he’d stopped breathing. He thought of everyone else on the plane, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding below. They would be watching movies, reading books, trying to stop their children playing up. They would not know of the danger everyone down there – whom they’d been among just minutes earlier – was in.
On the monitor, there was a small flash, either side of the idling plane. Immediately, the plane itself, recently refilled with fuel, ignited too. A chain reaction began, right down the line, every plane at every gate – even those which had just taken off, in a vain attempt to escape, were engulfed by the fireball.
Again, the plane seemed to accelerate slightly – the pilots knew what had happened, and were trying desperately to outrun the orange cloud. Straight after, it was thrust forwards again, but this time by the shockwave. Then came the sound.
Quite suddenly, all was silent in the plane, as the explosions boomed in the cabin. They went on for perhaps a minute, before swiftly stopping. The last echoes faded away, and people began talking; hyped fear-fuelled conversation, parents calming children, phone calls to loved ones, desperately hoping they weren’t caught in the blast.
In business class, however, a small group of just 5 people, sat, apparently calm. Harry was still filming, knowing it would be almost the only video evidence; Will sat beside him, watching sombrely; Eddie was recording the noise in the plane, also for the archives. Rob and Matt, though, just sat in silence. Rob, no doubt, would be trying to work out where to take production – should they carry on with their documentary, or cut it short, and make an emergency broadcast as soon as possible, recounting their experience and that of others on the plane?
Matt just sat, breathing now, his heart racing. His mind went back to the airport – the managing director, whom they’d interviewed last night. The check-in staff, at 5:00 this morning, jolly despite the hour. The young man in M&S who’d sold him his lunch. Everyone, in the crowded terminal, who’d just been waiting for their plane. All gone, in under a minute.
Head in hands, Matt felt sick. He’d never been good at dealing with extreme emotions – when his dad had died of a sudden stroke, or even his best friend’s brother in a car accident – but this was a whole new level. This pure grief would never go away, would stay with him.—