Commentary

A harrowing trip home from Turnberry

Originally Published: July 21, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Well, I'm in Iceland, which beats the alternative: dead.

Don't know how your Monday went, but mine was fairly typical. I got hopelessly lost near a cow pasture in Scotland while driving from Ayr to the Glasgow airport; I only forgot to drive on the left side of the road twice; I sat behind Tom Watson on a flight to London, and even though I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, I couldn't help but hear him tell a friend that he thought he had hit a perfect 8-iron into the 18th green at Turnberry on Sunday (instead, it bounced through the green, he made bogey, and lost the Open Championship in a playoff).

And, oh, one other thing: I thought I was going to die in an emergency landing at Keflavik International Airport.

Like I said, a pretty typical Monday.

Is it a good thing when you smell something burning in the cabin of United Flight 949 from London's Heathrow Airport on its way to Chicago? And I'm pretty sure we passengers weren't supposed to hear someone on the crew -- either a flight attendant or a member of the cockpit crew -- accidentally yell on the intercom system, "We need to go fast!''

By then the TV monitors had fizzled out. And the lights weren't working. And the electric motors in our seats didn't function. And the flight attendants had quit telling us that they'd have the TVs working "in just a few minutes."

[+] EnlargeReykjavic
Olivier Morin/Getty ImagesA look at Reykjavik, a beautiful spot that could have turned very ugly on Monday.

Instead, they were in full lock-down mode. We were told our United flight had an "electrical problem." More like a burning problem, if you asked me.

At that point the flight on the Boeing 767 from London to Chicago was a couple of hours old. We were over water, and then an announcement was made that the plane was being diverted to Iceland for an emergency landing. What?

The attendant told the 178 passengers to review the emergency instructions located in the seat pockets. The last thing I heard was how to grab my ankles and put my head down when the plane hit the runway.

"We'll tell you to 'brace,'" said the attendant, his voice terse but professional.

It took 25 minutes for us to see land. As we neared Iceland I heard a pair of identical noises. I'm guessing that's when the pilot dumped the fuel load. This was serious.

I'll admit it: I was scared. I said a couple of prayers, and then had two bizarre thoughts: "I'm going to die in Iceland?'' And, "Thank goodness the last thing I ever wrote for ESPN.com wasn't a 'Birdies and Bogeys' notes blog." I swear.

I thought of my wife, my daughters, my pooch, my mom, my brother and sister. And, no joke, I figured I'd be low in the news story. You know, Others Killed.

We didn't know what was going to happen. Nobody told us a thing. We didn't know if we were going to try to land in the water or reach the runway. The closer we got, the more I knew we'd better reach the runway. Even from however many feet we were above ground, you could see the rocky, unforgiving landscape.

I heard the landing gear go down. Good sign. I saw yellow-green fluorescent fire trucks and ambulances in the distance. Bad sign. I waited for the signal to grab my ankles and brace for the worst.

And then we landed.

The plane bounced once, then twice, before deciding to stay put on the ground. There was clapping and cheering in the cabin. But we could still smell something burning, which explains why portable Jetways were leaned against the plane a few minutes after we came to a stop in the middle of the runway.

We were shooed off the plane (don't even dare stop to get your passport, wallet or computer from your carry-ons), and directed to stand behind the fire trucks or in the grassy field between runways. It was cold and windy, but it was also land. And it was safe.

We were given no official explanation of what happened. Firefighters, in full-body and head protective gear, eventually examined the outside and inside of the plane. Hours later the plane was towed to a gate and we were allowed to grab our carry-on luggage. And hours after that we were bused to a hotel in Reykjavik, a very cool-looking city with stunning outdoor artwork, lots of modular architecture, heartachingly beautiful views of the bay, as well as graffiti, KFCs and Taco Bells.

All you need to know about the rest of the night is that when we checked in, "The Simpsons" was on the plasma TV behind the front desk. With Icelandic subtitles. We were slated to take off the following day and land in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon.

I don't know what time I finally fell asleep at the hotel. It was light outside. In fact, it stayed light outside all night. That's how it is here during the summer.

That makes sense. It was literally the longest day of my life. Emphasis on the "life" part.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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