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                   Appointment in Escambia Bay

From the start, I had a peculiar feeling about the trip. “It’s an
emergency,” the caller had said. Down at Escambia Bay, a railroad bridge
was damaged; its swing -trestle wouldn’t open. They wanted a repair crew
from the company I owned, and they wanted it there by six the next

I remember sitting alone in the office after I put the phone down. It was
after working hours and all my men had gone home.  If I accepted the
job, I’d need a barge with a crane and the only one available was twenty-
seven miles away at Chico Bayou. That would mean driving there
immediately; what’s more, I’d have to spend the night on the water
tugging the rig back. Doggone it, I thought, I’m not going to do it.

Yet now, here I was, somewhere in Escambia Bay off the Pensacola
coastline. Little Mac, my tough thirty-foot workboat, was chugging away
with all its diesel cylinders, its nose locked into the barge ahead with
steel cables. It was hard, slow going. The barge was seventy feet long
and thirty feet wide. The crane itself weighed forty tons; it rose above
us fifty feet into the air.  

I flashed a light at my watch. Eight o’ clock. I shook my head and  
nervously chewed my lip.  I didn’t like the spot I was in. It was dark, we
were off course, and a fog was thickening around us. The fog - another
reason for not making this trip. During the past weeks the fog had given
us a lot of trouble, unusually thick stuff, settling in early at night. It
would have been wiser to wait until daytime to get the barge, when the
sun had burned the fog away.  But no, I’d picked up the phone and called
Bill Kenney who lived closer to the office than any of the other men. He
was young, strong and like me, a salvage man and a diver.

Bill’s willingness to work a double shift had seemed to settle it: I would
make the night trip and bring the barge back. But still I’d hesitated. I
put in a call to Janet, and our home phone rang again and again. Janet,
our three girls and I are exceptionally close. I never liked the idea of
being away from them at night, especially all night.  Yet here I was out
on Little Mac. Doing the very thing that common sense said I shouldn’t be
doing. I worried about whether Janet had received the message from the
friend I’d phoned.

Nine o’ clock....

The fog swirled around us like a clammy grey velvet. We were running on
compass; no use trying to spot the channel markers. I reduced the speed
to two knots. “Better go up to the bow and keep a lookout,” I shouted to
Bill over the noise of the engine. “Somebody might be anchored in this
muck.” We were running slow enough to avoid a collision, but I was uneasy.

Zoom! An airplane. The scream of jet engines reverberated around us in
the thick air. We couldn’t see the plane, but it seemed to be flying close
to us, too close.

Zoom! There was another one.  Obviously we must be near one of the
Pensacola airport approaches. I looked up at the crane that disappeared
into the fog above us, and the thought ran through my head, What if one
of those planes clipped that boom ? All of a sudden, I began to have an
eerie feeling, the odd sensation of being some kind of target, a helpless
tool in a plot I didn’t understand, a passenger on a voyage I hadn’t  
wanted to take to a place. I didn’t want to be. I tried to shrug it off.
What was it all about, anyway ?

Suddenly, out of the sky behind us, with a high-pitched whine, came
another plane. I could see it.  It’s lights blurred through the fog, a 727
jet, and it was angling down. “He’s going to hit!” I screamed. Bill rushed
up to me and the two of us watched helplessly as the huge plane plunged
through the fog and slammed into the bay. There was a terrible sound of
rending metal. Fountains of water exploded into the sky as the lights on
the jet went out. Then eerie silence.

Holding my breath. I waited for an explosion; none came. I could see that
the plane hadn’t disintegrated; the fuselage remained intact. Quickly I
ran to our spotlight and started playing it on the 727’s cabin. It was
settling lower as water poured in, but no one seemed to be coming out.
Were they all dead ?

Bill had run into the wheelhouse and was calling “Mayday, Mayday!” into
our radio. I grabbed the wheel and turned Little Mac hard to port, moving
toward the sinking plane. If there were any survivors our big old flat
barge would have plenty of room for them. “Get all the life preservers
you can find!” I shouted to Bill. He collected armfuls, flinging them on
deck. Then he began cleating lines to the barge and throwing the free
ends into the water. The deck of the barge was only four feet above the
waterline. Survivors might be able to grab hold of these lines and pull
themselves aboard.

I steered the rig around the hulk of the plane, approaching it nose to
nose, inching along toward the forward exit.  Careful now, I said to
myself, don’t go too far or you’ll crush the plane like an eggshell. By this
time, dazed-looking people were plunging from the open doorway into the
water. “Jump,” one of the crew members was shouting, “you must jump!”

As we came closer, more and more bobbing heads appeared in the murky
water. Some of the passengers could swim; others couldn’t. Some had life
preservers; some didn’t. Some clutched seat cushions; other’s clung to the
plane’s fuselage. The water seemed to be getting rougher, and a strong
current was sweeping  past the plane, carrying people out into the
darkness. I wondered if anyone had heard our radio call and if help was on
the way.

I lost track of time. It was like a nightmare fishing trip in which Bill and
I fished for survivors. We beamed the spotlight in the direction of their
cries, then urge them to climb the lines that dangled from our barge. Jet
fuel had gushed out of the plane, people were soaked with it. Some of our
lines were getting  too slippery to handle. I knew that the tiniest spark
could ignite an inferno.

By now, since the water was only thirteen feet deep, the 727 had sunk
as far as it was going to go. Most of the fuselage was under water. I ran
the barge over one of the submerged wings and managed to tuck Little Mac’
s flying bridge under the plane’s tail assembly that rose like a silvery
channel marker high out of the water. Bill was on the barge working like a
madman. As first he thought of jumping in to grab some of the people who
were floundering in the sea beneath him, but he changed his mind.  
Instead he clamped his legs around a cleat, and then leaned over the side
to lift the terrified survivors into his strong arms. People straggled
aboard wherever and however they could, gasping, retching, thanking and
then sometimes turning to help others. Among them I spotted a neighbor
of mine, a physician who was an experienced CB operator. “Joe!” I yelled.
“Get on that radio.”  He did and stayed on it, calling for help.

More time went by. There was a lot of shouting and yelling, especially
from the injured trying to get our attention, but there was no panic.
“Hang on!  We’ll get to you,” the people on the board shouted. ‘Swim this
way! We’ll throw you a rope.” Someone put a plank from the barge to the
plane’s fuselage. A few of the injured and weak were slid up onto the plane’
s exposed back until they could be carried across the plank. The first I
saw come across was Bill. He had two people on his back. An when at last
we fished everybody  we could find, Bill dived into the water and sown
into the cabin of the 727 to make sure that nobody was left inside.

Other boats finally found their way to us in the fog bringing help to a wet
and shivering collection of survivors. The main rescue work being done,
though. There had been fifty-eight people aboard the plane. Three of
them were drowned I am still haunted by our failure to save them.

And yet.....

I am also haunted by other feelings. Not a day goes by that I don’t think
why I was in that particular place in the world at that particular time. I
think of the barge with its ample space, its powerful spotlight, its
lifelines, even the large wooden plank lying on its deck, waiting to be used.
I think of my choice of Bill Kenney, and his youth, his strength and his
courage. I think of my reluctance to go on that all-night voyage, and how
I couldn’t seem not to go.

That’s when I know why I went out that foggy night into Escambia -
somebody had made an appointment for me at Escambia Bay.

- Glenn McDonald.