Outside Nashville International Airport
Nikki's shoulder slammed against the seat in front of her as the plane skidded for several more seconds before finally jerking to a stop. Baggage tumbled from the overhead bins. Someone whimpered in the seat behind her.
Ignoring the pain shooting down her arm, Nikki glanced out the window toward an open field, wondering where they'd landed. While the pilot had clearly missed the runway, it didn't look like they'd hit any buildings. But there was no way to see where they really were until they disembarked.
An eerie silence swept through the plane. Nikki glanced around the cabin. The air smelled like smoke and burning plastic. Passengers started moving as she unbuckled her seat belt. She'd heard about the ninety-second rule somewhere. That the first ninety seconds after a crash were the most important. That your odds of survival were much greater if you simply stayed calm and got off the plane as quickly as possible. Because if the plane caught on fire...
Nikki pushed away the thought. Years of crisis training helped stave the panic, but still everything seemed to move in slow motion. She ran her hands across her legs and then her arms and forehead. As far as she could tell there were no signs of blood. No signs of broken bones. All she could feel was a dull ache from the impact of her shoulder that would probably feel sore for the next few days. But shock could cover up pain.
One of the flight attendants spoke loudly, informing everyone to stay calm and to file off the plane in an orderly fashion as quickly as possible, and that emergency personnel were already arriving at the scene. Nikki pressed her hand against her chest. Funny how calm the woman's voice was while her own heart was racing out of control. She was used to dealing with crises happening on a daily basis. But they usually occurred to someone else, and she managed to stay neutral and keep her emotions uninvolved. That's what she did. But this...this was different.
Sunlight filtered through the cracks seven or eight rows in front of them where the plane looked as if it had ripped in two like a child's toy. Her own seat was tilted at a sharp angle with her seatmates slightly above her. Someone opened the emergency door behind them. A flash of lightning from the stormy sky briefly lit up the inside of the plane.
The woman in the middle seat clutched Nikki's forearm as she started to stand up.
"I think he's dead." She was staring at the man beside her, her voice laced with panic. "The man next to me. He's dead."
"You never told me your name." Nikki leaned over to check on the man. Had he even moved since they'd landed? She didn't think so.
"It's Erika," the woman said above the noise of the passengers.
"Erika, I need you to take a deep breath and try to relax. We'll be off the plane before you know it."
Their seatmate was leaning against the window, his hands limp at his sides. His neck twisted at an odd angle. She noticed the air marshal badge clipped to his belt. He couldn't be dead. Could he?
Nikki touched the man's shoulder. "Sir...sir, we need to get off the plane. I can help you if you're hurt."
There was no response.
Balancing with one knee on her seat while reaching around Erika, Nikki turned the man's shoulder slightly, then felt her breath catch. He was staring straight ahead; his glassy eyes were vacant. Surely he hadn't died in the crash. She grabbed his hand and felt for his pulse.
Nothing. No pulse. No breathing.
The man was dead.
Erika's fingers dug into Nikki's forearm. "I need to get off this plane."
Nikki pulled her arm away gently. "It's going to be okay. Just try and take a deep breath. Everyone's going to get off."
"No...No. You don't understand. I've got to get out of here now."
Erika's hands were shaking. Blood trickled down her forehead and across her cheek from a cut above her eye. Nikki fumbled for a napkin from the seat pocket and handed it to her.
"Press this against the cut on your head."
Erika nodded, then shoved past her toward the congested aisle. Someone sobbed in the background. The smell of smoke hung in the air. A flight attendant was giving directions for the passengers to leave suitcases behind and make their way toward the emergency exit at the back of the plane as quickly as possible.
Instinct kicked in. She'd have to deal with the emotional impact of the crash later, but for now, her own fear of what could have happened vanished, replaced by what she'd been trained to do in a crisis.