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Into the Abyss
An Extraordinary True Story
By Carol Shaben
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On an icy night in October 1984, a commuter plane carrying nine passengers crashed in the remote wilderness of northern Alberta, killing six people. Four survived: the rookie pilot, a prominent politician, a cop, and the criminal he was escorting to face charges. Despite the poor weather, Erik Vogel, the 24-year-old pilot, was under intense pressure to fly. Larry Shaben, the author’s father and Canada’s first Muslim Cabinet Minister, was commuting home after a busy week at the Alberta Legislature. Constable Scott Deschamps was escorting Paul Archambault, a drifter wanted on an outstanding warrant. Against regulations, Archambault’s handcuffs were removed-a decision that would profoundly impact the men’s survival.
As the men fight through the night to stay alive, the dividing lines of power, wealth, and status are erased, and each man is forced to confront the precious and limited nature of his existence.
SOUTHERN BRITISH COLUMBIA COAST
OVERLAND RESCUE ROUTE AND CRASH SITE
Flight route based on an original, copyright © 1984 Library and Archives Canada. Canadian Aviation Safety Board Civil Aviation Occurrence Report, Wapiti Aviation Ltd. Piper Navajo Chieftain PA-31-350 C-GXUC, High Prairie, Alberta, 20 mi SE, October 19, 1984. Report Number 84-H40006, Appendix B.
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
I first learned of my father’s plane crash from the Jerusalem Post. I was twenty-two and working as a journalist in the Middle East. The crash happened on October 19, 1984, but I didn’t find out about it until two days later. I was sitting at my old metal desk with a cup of mint tea and the morning paper. That day it wasn’t regional conflict or politics that caught my attention, but the headline of a short news item buried at the bottom of an inside page: Party Leader Killed in Alberta Plane Crash.
The article was tiny—fewer than fifty words—but its impact was staggering. “Grant Notley, leader of the New Democratic Party in Alberta, and five other people were killed in the crash of their twin-engine plane,” the Associated Press reported in the opening line. I read on in disbelief. Four survivors had spent the night and much of the next day huddled in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures before being rescued. Among them was the provincial housing minister, Larry Shaben: my father.
I dropped the paper, grabbed the phone. My brother James picked up.
“Dad’s fine,” he assured me, but for some reason I didn’t believe him.
“Put Mom on,” I practically yelled.
“He’s okay,” my mother told me. “We were going to call, but it’s been crazy and, well … we didn’t want to worry you.”
I was crying, feeling very far away. “I’m coming home,” I said.
It was Christmas before I could get time off work to return to Canada. Two months had passed and my father’s physical wounds had healed. Inside, however, something elemental had changed. He was subdued, quietly haunted, in a way I had never seen before. He’d lost a close colleague that night and had seen others from our town and the surrounding communities die.
My family had experienced the event firsthand and assimilated its extraordinary details. The survivors of the crash—a rookie pilot, an accused criminal, a cop taking him to face charges, and my dad, a prominent politician—had boarded the plane as total strangers. Men from wildly different backgrounds, they had helped one another survive a long, bitter night in the Canadian wilderness. The story had a mythical quality that tested the bounds of reality.
Distance, the crash’s impact on my father, and the unlikely friendships that formed between the survivors lodged the event firmly in my psyche. Who were these men? What had they experienced on that snowy, fog-drenched night as they struggled together to cheat death? How had it altered them? If I faced a similar near-death experience, would it change me? Would I continue to live my life as I had been living it?
My curiosity was insatiable. Though I peppered my dad with questions, his answers were disappointingly vague or simply not forthcoming. The crash had affected him deeply, but how remained a mystery he kept largely to himself. He refused to discuss the people who had died or what he had shared with the men who had survived.
“It was a long, cold night,” the Edmonton Journal quoted him as saying shortly after the crash. “We talked about things, private things I’d rather not discuss.”
“He has nightmares,” was all my mother would say.
In the months and years following the crash, my father forged extraordinary bonds with his fellow survivors, especially Paul Archambault, the twenty-seven-year-old criminal on the plane. Every so often, the scruffy drifter would arrive unannounced. No matter how busy my father’s schedule was, he always had time for Paul. My dad would talk about these meetings with delight and obvious affection. Their relationship was important to him in a way I never fully understood. He cared deeply about how Paul’s life was progressing and worried during his long absences, as a father would for an itinerant son. After one visit, my dad spoke enthusiastically about a dog-eared sheaf of papers that Paul had brought with him, a manuscript he was writing about his experience that night.
My dad also kept in touch with Erik Vogel, the young pilot who had flown the plane. Every year on the anniversary of the crash, Dad would call him to talk about how lucky they were to be alive. Erik had been just twenty-four—two years older than I was at the time—when the crash occurred. Years later, though juggling the demands of parenthood and my own business, I felt compelled to seek him out. I found him working in a nearby city as a firefighter and living with his family on a quiet tract of land less than an hour’s drive from my home.
I arranged a meeting and drove out to Erik’s farm. The former pilot’s first words to me were “I’ve been waiting years for you.” Over coffee in his kitchen, within sight of a solid wood butcher-block table on loan from Scott Deschamps, the fourth crash survivor, Erik shared his story. Though almost twenty years had passed since the ordeal, he cried as he recounted the events of that night. They had never left him. Nor had his burden of guilt over the deaths of six passengers. When I drove away hours later, I carried his dust-covered leather flight bag—a tote the size of a small suitcase in which he had filed away his pilot logbook, years of airline rejection letters, court documents, photos and every newspaper clipping he had seen about the tragedy or those involved. Sifting through the contents of Erik’s flight bag was like opening the door to a lost world. All of a sudden an event that had seemed surreal came into sharp, dramatic focus. My dad, it turned out, was not the only one to have been transfigured by what happened that long-ago night.
Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who coined the phrase “follow your bliss,” wrote extensively about man’s quest for meaning. According to Campbell, all heroic journeys, from the time of the ancients to the present day, begin with a call to adventure—a challenge or opportunity to face the unknown and gain something of physical or spiritual value. This call often comes in the form of a transformative crisis, an event that kicks out our foundations of complacency and makes us examine universal questions of existence: Why was I born? What happens when I die? How can I overcome my fears and weaknesses and be happy?
Few of us will ever face the kind of life-and-death trauma experienced by the men in this story. Their ordeal forced them to confront the precious and limited nature of their existence on earth. In the words of Campbell, they entered the forest “at the darkest point where there is no path.” How these four men found their way forward that night and in the years that followed is both remarkable and inspirational.
Scott Deschamps—the rookie RCMP officer who had boarded the flight handcuffed to Paul Archambault—was no exception. Unlike Erik, however, it took me three years to persuade Scott to be interviewed. Perhaps more than any of the survivors, he had deliberately, painstakingly, rebuilt his life as a result of his experience. His resistance to share his story, Scott told me, was rooted in its deeply personal nature. He had spent more than a decade trying to understand what had happened to him the night of the crash. He eventually agreed to be interviewed only because of my family connection to the story.
Researching Paul Archambault’s life was far more difficult. How does one go about unearthing details about a vagabond who’d been drifting since he was fifteen? Thinking it was a long shot, I placed ads in newspapers on either side of the country—one in the city where Paul was living at the time of the crash and the other in the town where he’d grown up some 3,800 kilometres away. To my amazement, my phone started ringing almost immediately. Those who called not only remembered Paul, they told me that he had made a lasting impression on them. Though Paul’s parents were dead, an aunt in his hometown of Aylmer, Quebec, contacted me. When I met her, I soon realized that she and her husband hadn’t been close to Paul since he was a child. Nor were they in touch with other members of his family, with the exception of a younger brother who had been institutionalized for much of his early life. They didn’t know the brother’s whereabouts, but told me that he called from time to time.
“When he does, could you give him my number?” I asked without hope. Months later Paul’s brother called. Miraculously, in his possession was the tattered sixty-page manuscript my father had spoken of a quarter century earlier.
By that point, the story had sunk its hooks into me. At its underbelly was a compelling and dangerous truth about the commuter airline industry. Across the globe, barely a week passes without news of a small plane crash. Contrary to public perception, commuter airlines represent the largest sector of commercial aviation in North America and perhaps the world, accounting for more than half of all domestic flights. In Canada, a country characterized by its sparse population and rugged, remote terrain, small planes are a lifeline for residents in isolated, northern communities like the one in Alberta where I grew up. Commuter operations are the workhorse carriers that connect thousands of people to larger population centres and provide a vital source of supplies and medical support.
Bush flying, as it is still known in Canada’s north, has always been a dangerous business—a hard-driving, high-risk profession ranked as one of the deadliest in North America. The pilots are often young and idealistic, driven by a desire for freedom and adventure. With few exceptions they are trying to work their way toward careers with major airlines. First, however, they must pay their dues by building logbook hours flying for small airlines. Some pay with their lives. Inside Erik’s battered flight bag, he’d kept a file thick with articles on dozens of small plane crashes that had occurred in the years since his tragedy. “It’s frustrating to see it happen over and over again,” he told me.
The more I read about the commuter airline industry, or heard about yet another small plane crash, the more shocked I became. A major investigative report on Canadian aviation incidents between 2000 and 2005—before the federal government reduced public access to its aviation occurrence reports—noted that during that five-year period there were literally thousands of reported incidents involving danger or potential danger to aircraft passengers. How was it that the flying public wasn’t in an uproar?
Typically it’s only when large jets fall from the sky that people take notice. Outraged by the body count, they demand government investigations and seek ironclad assurances that the airline at fault addresses safety concerns. Meanwhile, small passenger planes continue to crash with frightening regularity. But apart from the loved ones of those who die, few sound the alarm. When they do, it’s a faint cry in the wilderness that goes unheeded. Even fewer consider the pilots in these crashes—often young and frequently scared—who battle fatigue, terrain, weather or mechanical malfunction on a daily basis.
As is sadly the case when one tries to apportion blame for the vagaries of fate and circumstance, I came to see Dale Wells, the owner of the airline involved in my father’s crash, as the villain in this tragedy. It took me years to summon the courage to talk to Dale. Our eventual rendezvous at an Edmonton restaurant completely reversed my opinion. Dale was both humble and forthright. Like Erik, he had also kept meticulous records. After our meeting he walked me to his car in the parking lot and handed over a massive box filled with files and documents.
“Say hello to your father,” he said as we parted. “I always thought he was a wonderful man.”
My father didn’t live to see me finish this book. In April 2008 he was diagnosed with cancer. He died less than five months later. As I was preparing to board the flight home to Alberta to be at his bedside, I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to bring.
“Your manuscript,” he said.
I’d written only a few rough chapters, but it didn’t matter. He insisted.
I spent two days at the hospital. And during those two days I read to him. It was the last time we were together.
This book is my tribute to my father, Larry Shaben, and to Erik Vogel, Scott Deschamps and Paul Archambault. Their strength, courage and dignity are an inspiring example of how individuals can journey from the depths of tragedy and loss to the riches of lives begun anew.
Fate rules the affairs of mankind with no recognizable order.
LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19, 1984
Erik Vogel was in over his head and didn’t know how to get out. There were half a dozen reasons why the twenty-four-year-old rookie pilot didn’t feel comfortable flying tonight, but with his job at Wapiti Aviation on the line—or so it seemed to him—none of them counted. Erik had been in and out of cloud for most of his outbound flight from the small northern Canadian city of Grande Prairie, Alberta, and had watched wet snow continue to fall. The wheels of his ten-seater plane had touched down at the municipal airport in Edmonton, Canada’s most northerly provincial capital, just as the last light of day was leaving the murky sky. He was running behind schedule and working hard to make up time. Standing 6′3″ with a lean, athletic build, warm brown eyes and a wavy crop of dark hair, Erik appeared every inch a young, attractive and confident aviator. Inside, however, he was scared.
After unloading his passengers and their luggage, he’d crossed the tarmac to the terminal building to collect his outgoing passengers. He glanced at his watch: 6:40 p.m. That gave him only twenty minutes for ticketing and check-in, refuelling, and loading the luggage and passengers for the return flight north. There was no way he’d be off the ground by his scheduled departure time of 7:00.
His only hope was that tonight would be a repeat of last night and that there wouldn’t be passengers bound for the small communities of High Prairie and Fairview, which had tiny airports with no air traffic control. He also prayed that by some miracle he’d pick up a co-pilot. As he approached the check-in counter Erik was overjoyed to see Linda Gayle, Wapiti’s Fort McMurray agent, already selling tickets. Wapiti retained Linda on a part-time basis for the Fort McMurray flights and she wasn’t obliged to help out pilots flying other routes, but tonight she’d decided to do him this favour.
“What have we got?”
“We’re fully booked,” she replied.
“So no chance of a co-pilot?”
Linda shook her head. The seat had been sold to accommodate another passenger.
His stomach churning, Erik asked the question that had been plaguing him ever since he’d talked to the pilot who’d flown the morning schedule. “Any passengers bound for High Prairie?”
“Four,” Linda told him. “Plus two on standby.”
A town of 2,500 people 365 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, High Prairie was on the other side of a high ridge of rugged and densely wooded terrain known as Swan Hills. Because the airport had no control tower, regulations dictated that pilots could fly into High Prairie only in visual conditions, meaning when the weather was clear. The pilot on the a.m. sked had warned Erik that there was a lot of snow on the runway and he’d had a hard time taking off.
As Erik stood wondering how the hell he was going to manage the flight, two men approached. One, about 5′10″, bull-chested and casually dressed with a hedgehog coat of close-cropped auburn hair, dropped his shackled left hand heavily on the counter. Handcuffed to him was another man. Of similar height, he had a brawny build with an unkempt mop of frizzy brown hair, and deep blue eyes that softened the strong angles of his face. Sideburns stretched like woolly carpets down either side of his cheekbones and above his upper lip, a generous arch of moustache curved over small, even teeth.
“Where do you want me to sit?” the first man asked. Below a prominent brow, green eyes regarded Erik intently as he explained that he was an RCMP officer escorting a prisoner to face charges in Grande Prairie.
Erik swallowed hard. He remembered the story of a prisoner getting loose on a charter flight out of Vancouver and trying to attack the pilot.
“At the very back,” he said, regarding the prisoner warily. The man exuded a nervous energy like a charged circuit, and wore only jeans, a wool-lined jean jacket and an open-collared shirt: not exactly appropriate for the weather.
“I’d like to board him first,” the cop said.
Erik nodded, then asked Linda to finish ticketing the passengers while he went to the nearby weather office to see if Luella Wood, High Prairie’s airport manager, had filed her customary 6 p.m. weather report. She had, and the news wasn’t good: the cloud deck was broken at 500 feet and overcast at 900. A visual approach required a 1000-foot ceiling and 3 miles’ visibility.
As he walked back to the counter, Erik surveyed the other passengers in the departure area: four men and two women heading home on a Friday night. He stepped behind the counter and grabbed the PA system mic.
“Attention, passengers on Wapiti Flight 402,” he announced. “I’m not sure whether we’re going to be able to land in High Prairie because the ceiling is so low. If we can’t, we’ll have to go on to Peace River because they have a controlled approach. If there are any passengers headed for High Prairie who don’t want to take the flight, please let me know.”
Erik scanned the faces of the passengers in front of him. Regardless of the weather, they expected him to get them home. They weren’t going to give him an out. He ran a hand wearily across his forehead, trying to erase the tension that had settled there. He’d done what he could. At least if he overflew High Prairie, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.
As he walked outside to load the luggage, an icy wind whipped along the tarmac, wet flakes dampening his face. The airport—a dark triangle of land slashed out of the bald northern prairie—was shrouded in fog and beyond its muted southeastern border, the lights of downtown cast a dull violet glow. A collection of squat buildings flanked the airport’s southwestern perimeter and beside them silhouettes of airplanes perched like frozen birds, wings outstretched as if already in flight.
Erik took a deep, shuddering breath to calm his nerves and tried to focus on the positives. He’d warned his passengers about the flight, so there wouldn’t be any flak if he ended up taking High Prairie passengers on to Peace River. Linda had done the ticketing, so he’d been able to check the weather—a luxury he seldom had time for. He’d even had a dinner of sorts, eating the untouched half of a sandwich left by a Wapiti pilot who hadn’t had time to finish it.
Erik’s efforts to stay upbeat didn’t last. When he got to the plane, the fuelling service hadn’t yet arrived and he had to scramble to get the tanks filled. By the time they finished, he was behind schedule. He hastily piled some of the luggage into the plane’s nose compartment and then crammed the rest into the rear hold behind the seats. Though regulations required that he calculate the weight and balance for the aircraft, he didn’t bother. What difference would it make? Erik didn’t feel he could leave passengers or their luggage behind, and in winter conditions like tonight it would be foolish to skimp on fuel when he didn’t know whether he’d be able to get into the uncontrolled airports on his route. He estimated the fully fuelled, nine-passenger flight would be overweight to the tune of about 200 kilograms, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. The queasy feeling in his stomach grew as he walked back to the terminal to escort the cop and his prisoner outside.
When they arrived at the aircraft he watched uneasily as the constable unlocked the handcuff from his shackled wrist and snapped it closed around the prisoner’s free one. Erik pulled open the hatch and gave the go-ahead to climb aboard.
Behind the terminal doors, Larry Shaben squinted through thick wire-rimmed glasses at the snow falling in white waves across the tarmac. Forty-nine, with a broad, balding forehead, olive skin and enormous brown eyes, Larry was immaculately dressed in a navy suit and brown ultra-suede topcoat. A second-generation Canadian of Arab descent, Larry was an elected member of the Alberta government and the country’s first Muslim Cabinet minister. His executive assistant had driven him to the airport directly from his office at the Alberta Legislature just in time to catch his flight home for the weekend. Now he waited impatiently to board.
The doors opened and the pilot entered, bringing a blast of frigid air with him. It blew the thinning strands of dark curly hair from the crown of Larry’s head and he quickly smoothed them back into place. The politician had watched the pilot frantically working to prepare everything for the flight. He was young and seemed on edge. Larry had detected strain in his voice when he’d made the announcement about possibly not being able to land in High Prairie, and had immediately called home to let his wife, Alma, know.
“I’ll tell you what … if we can’t land and you have to pick me up in Peace River, I’ll buy you dinner.”
Though he hated the thought of Alma driving on the highway in these conditions, there wasn’t another option. And it was only 130 kilometres. Larry would drive the two of them home after dinner and let her sleep in the car.
It had been a gruelling week at the Ledge, as he and his colleagues often called the Alberta Legislature. That morning the government’s fall session had begun. For the next six weeks Larry would spend his days sitting in chambers debating and voting on bills and motions. In preparation for the time away from his office, he had spent the past week working twelve- to fourteen-hour days to get on top of the mountain of paperwork he had to deal with as the Minister for Housing and Utilities.
As he typically did every Monday morning, Larry had flown south from his home in High Prairie to Edmonton, where he rented an apartment five minutes’ walk from the Legislature. By Friday, he was so tired that he couldn’t imagine driving the twenty minutes across the city to the municipal airport, let alone the four hours north to High Prairie. Now that the weather had turned, the thought was even less appealing.
As he’d dashed out to his aide’s car, Larry could feel the chill weight of moisture in the air—unusual for Edmonton, which was prone to brittle cold and clear skies. The city roads had been thick with slushy new snow and Friday night traffic crawled.
When he’d arrived at the terminal Larry had little energy for conversation, but among the cluster of passengers at the check-in counter were some he knew well. One, Gordon Peever, a next-door neighbour whose kids had grown up with Larry’s own, was director of finance at a vocational college near High Prairie. Gordon often travelled to Edmonton for work and that morning he’d caught a ride to the city with a friend to attend a meeting. Gordon had planned to take the bus home that afternoon, but for some reason decided to catch a cab to the airport in hopes of getting a flight. He’d worried he’d be on standby, Gordon told Larry, but had been lucky enough to get a seat after a passenger cancelled. Larry also greeted another local resident, Christopher Vince. The young British-born man had recently moved from Calgary, a city three hours’ drive south of Edmonton in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to take a government job training social workers. His wife, Francis, a schoolteacher, had just started teaching at the local junior high school, and the two seemed to be settling well into small-town life. Larry didn’t recognize the other two men and women in the departure area, but had said hello. As a high-profile elected official, people often recognized him and he prided himself on being friendly and engaging, even at times like this when he felt utterly drained. Fortunately tonight the passengers’ attention was elsewhere. They were abuzz with gossip about the rakish man in handcuffs who had just boarded the plane.
Scott Deschamps stiffly stood guard beside the ten-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain, the only departing plane on a barren stretch of tarmac. Snow had thickened the night, and an icy wind sent shivers through him. His prisoner and all but one passenger and the pilot were already aboard. Scott watched a trim, suit-clad man in his mid-forties hurry across the tarmac, briefcase in hand, and climb the few steps to the cabin. When he’d disappeared inside, the pilot motioned Scott to follow. He ducked through the open door and stood near the rear aisle seat next to the exit. The pilot entered soon after, his tall frame bent almost double as he pulled the hatch closed. He turned the handle and looked over his shoulder at Scott.
“Watch me.” The pilot’s voice was just above a whisper as he inserted the safety pin. “You need to know how to open this door in case of an emergency.”
Dale Wells discouraged his pilots from giving safety briefings to passengers because he felt they frightened them unnecessarily, but Erik wasn’t taking any chances.
- "Gripping and emotionally affecting. . . a deep and satisfying book."—Washington Post
- "[Shaben] vividly recreates how these four total strangers managed to survive the tragedy."—New York Post
- "With Into the Abyss Carol Shaben gives us an astonishing true story of catastrophe and redemption. Shaben writes from the inside out, as in the best non-fiction, creating a nuanced and tightly braided portrait of four men and their shared trauma that is by turns terrifying and deeply humane. Every line in this story rings true."—John Vaillant, author of The Tiger
- "Electrifying...Shaben's riveting narrative is filled with heart and the story is well told."—Publishers Weekly
- "[T]his is a complex, chilling narrative rendered with depth and precision, engaged in both its characters and the larger social moment... A worthy addition to the canon of extreme-survival nonfiction."—Kirkus
- "As a concept, it doesn't get much better [than this]... Into the Abyss is in the best traditions of true-life journalism and grips from beginning to end."—Iain Finlayson, The Times
- "The gripping account . . . is ultimately about the survivors, telling the story in scouring yet respectful detail of the four men who limped away from the fatal crash."—Fish Griwkowsky, Edmonton Journal
- "A story that has haunted Vancouver-based writer Carol Shaben, Larry's daughter, since it happened... She was able to use [Archambault's] story to take readers along on that stormy night, to the side of a mountain where four men struggled to stay alive overnight alongside the six others who had died."—Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun
- On Sale
- May 13, 2014
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing