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Germanwings and the watercooler

I can't get it out of my mind.

The latest mysterious crash of a jetliner, this one Germanwings 9525 into the French Alps, turns out to have been the deliberate act of a copilot who locked the captain out of the cockpit, turned the autopilot to 96 feet, and breathed normally as the sounds of an increasingly frantic captain pounding on the door to get back in filled the cockpit recorder.  Not until the very last moment, we are told, are screams of passengers audible who (reportedly) didn’t know what was happening until the final seconds of their lives up until the Airbus A320 was “pulverized” on the craggy side of the mountains.

Immediately, humans need to make sense of this. On the first day, protests that the copilot was a completely normal, happy guy.  On the second day, admissions that he had struggled with depression and may have had a romantic relationship going sour at home.   On the day he flew himself and 149 other people, 16 of them German teenagers coming home from a school trip, probably most of them with a great deal they were looking forward to in life, he had a doctor’s note excusing him from work. He tore up the note, put on his uniform, and left for the airport. 

The horror has so many facets and tones and hues to it. I seem to have had the near-universal reaction, which was that I felt physically nauseated at the thought of the terror, the grief, anger – everything before, during, and for years and decades after that depressed copilot put on his hat and walked out the door.  Somehow the image that comes back again and again is the room where living human beings listened to the cockpit recorder for the first time.  They heard cheery banter and unremarkable task-talk for the first half hour of the flight.  Then they heard the pilot leave, then try to get back in.  They heard the steady, normal breathing of the copilot. Hearing the passengers’ screams as they watched the altimeter reading dive steadily to what they know is the altitude of the crash.  Looking around that room, meeting other eyes, knowing they have to tell the loved ones and the about-to-change-forever world what happened.  Knowing that for that instant, which cannot last more than a few minutes, they are the only ones who know it wasn’t an accident.  Who was in that room?  What happened in their lives the day before, the week before they were the first to know? What are their – and our – lives like now that everyone knows and everyone is furious and grief-stricken and feel that their understanding of human beings and reality and the world were just as pulverized there in the Alps as the plane and everything – and everyone – in it?

            If there’s a human language that can stretch far enough to capture what that hour in the room with the flight recorder did to the people who listened, it isn’t one I command.  It seems like every year – several times a year – our understanding of what horrible things human beings are capable of doing to each other has to rearrange itself to accommodate something new that we never dreamed of. Maybe it’s the rearranging that makes me feel nauseated, short of breath, the reason I can't stop reading the endless press reports, can't get it out of my mind.

            How do I silence - or should I listen to it? - the loud chorus in my head about a tragedy that shocked and rocked the world, but to people I don’t have any connection to, in a place I’ve never been, on an airline I’d never heard of.  If there were a water cooler in this office where I work, maybe I’d be talking about it with coworkers (but there would have to be coworkers, and since I work from my home office whenever I can, that couldn’t really happen at all.) 

            This moment shows me (as usual) something about communication.  I needed to write all this down, to help it move from the realm of the unimaginable into reality:  This is what happened this week.  I need you to tell me what you’re thinking and how much this is on your mind, and what part of it do your thoughts settle on?  Your next airplane ride? The grief of the victims’ survivors?  The guilt of the copilot’s parents and romantic partner? Humans, let us gather at the water cooler.

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Kristine Muñoz

Curriculum Vitae




Interpersonal Communication