DENI BRANNING STEPPED DOWN ONTO THE TARMAC, PULLED OUT the handle of her carry-on, and glanced back up at her dad. He was just exiting the commuter plane as he chatted over his shoulder with the man who’d sat next to him on the flight. Doug Branning had never met a stranger, which accounted for his success as a stockbroker. He’d snagged some of his best clients on flights like this.
The oppressive Birmingham humidity settled over Deni like a heavy coat. It’s temporary, she told herself. She wouldn’t have to spend the summer here. Just this last week of May, and then it was back to D.C., her new job, and the fiancé she’d dreamed of for all of her twenty-two years. Yes, it was hot in the nation’s capital, too, and probably just as humid. But its fast-paced importance made it easier to bear.
As her father reached the bottom step, his small bag clutched in his hand, the loud hum of the plane’s engine went silent. A sudden, eerie quiet settled over the place, as if someone had muted all the machinery around them. The conveyor belt purging the cargo bin of its luggage stopped. The carts dragging the luggage carriers stalled.
She smelled something burning.
Her father seemed oblivious to the sudden change, so she fell into step beside him, rolling her bag behind her.
“Look out! It’s coming in too fast!”
She turned back to see the airline employees gaping at the sky. An airliner was descending too steeply from the sky, silently torpedoing toward the runway. “Dad — !”
She screamed as the plane shattered into the runway, the impact vibrating through her bones. Time seemed to stop in a nightmarish freeze-frame, then roll into slow-motion horror as the plane tumbled wildly across the pavement and spun into a building.
Her dad tried to pull away. “In the building, Deni! Now! Let’s go!”
Before she could get her feet to move, the plane exploded, flames bustling around it like a parachute that had finally caught wind. The blast of rippling heat knocked her off her feet, and before she could scramble up, her dad was over her, sheltering her with his body.
“Stay down, honey!”
She struggled to see through the shield of his arms. The fire conquered the broken fuselage, swallowing it whole. She imagined the people inside that plane, crawling over each other in a desperate effort to escape, slowly perishing in the murderous heat. Panic shot through her.
Her father got up and pulled her to her feet. “Come on, we’re going inside!”
“But the people! Dad, the people — ” She looked back, feeling the heat on her face.
“They’re burning,” she screamed. “Somebody has to get them out!”
“They’re trying.” His voice broke as he got back to his feet and grabbed up her suitcase. “There’s nothing we can do.”
She got up, staring toward the wreckage. The crowd of employees who ran to give aid stood helpless, unable to get close. Her father put his arm around her and moved her toward the building. They ran up the steps to their arrival gate.
They were greeted by darkness.
They hurried through the terminal to a window that provided some light. A crowd of people clustered around it, watching the plane burn.
Doug headed for two Delta clerks who stood talking urgently. “Where are the fire trucks? Has anybody called them?”
A distracted employee shook his head. “The phones aren’t working. Everything’s out.”
He grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket, and Deni watched him try to dial 911. But the readout was blank. He shook his head. “It’s dead. My battery must have lost its charge. Try yours, Deni.”
She dug her phone out of her purse and hit the on button. Hers was dead, too. Had both their batteries died on the plane?
She looked back out the window. The plane continued to burn . . . engulfed in a conflagration that wouldn’t be quenched. Helpless airport employees stood back, looking around for help. Someone had pulled out a fire extinguisher and was shooting white foam, but it was like squirting a water pistol at a towering inferno.
Deni thought of herself and her dad sitting on the plane just moments ago. It could have been them out there, trapped in a burning metal coffin.
Gritting her teeth, she pounded her fists on the window. “Where are the stupid fire trucks?”
“I don’t know.” Doug’s whisper was helpless, horrified.
She watched the chaos on the tarmac as employees ran in different directions, looking confused and defeated, shouting and gesturing wildly for help. Some started pointing up to the sky . . .
“Another plane!” someone next to her shouted.
She followed the man’s gaze to another airliner coming in. The others started to scream as that plane dropped too fast, too steep.
She couldn’t watch as it hit the ground, but she heard the deafening sound of another crash, felt the impact shake the building. Screams crescendoed.
Shivering, Deni looked up. The plane was spinning and tumbling across the grass separating the runways.
“Daddy!” She glanced at him, saw the horror in his eyes. She followed his gaze to the sky. Was something shooting the planes down? Were there more to come? Deni slipped her hand into his and felt his trembling. For the first time in her life, she was aware of her father’s fear. And though his strong, protective grip held her tight, she knew everything had changed.
DOUG BRANNING’S MIND RACED TO UNDERSTAND — PLANES falling out of the sky, crashing, burning, people dying . . .
There was a power outage, but that wouldn’t have caused planes to crash. Maybe there was some kind of battle going on in the air that they couldn’t see. If someone was shooting the planes down, maybe they’d also knocked out the power on the ground. Was it some kind of terrorist attack?
In all his uncertainty, he knew one thing. He had to get his daughter to safety. The airport felt like a target for whatever evil hovered above them. He put his arm around Deni and pulled her from the window. He hoped she couldn’t feel his trembling. “Come on, Deni, we’re getting out of here.”
For once in her life she was compliant as he pulled her up the long dark hall, past the empty gates. Several Delta ground clerks came running past them.
“Excuse me,” he called out. “Can anyone tell me what’s going on?”
“Power’s out,” one of them called back. “Nothing’s working.”
“Did the planes crash because the tower’s electricity is down?”
“May have. We can’t say for sure.”
Doug frowned. That didn’t make sense. Didn’t pilots have emergency procedures for situations like this?
Couldn’t they land the planes without an air traffic controller talking
them through it?
He walked Deni past another window and saw the ball of fire, still burning. The other plane hadn’t caught fire, and men rushed toward it, fighting to get the door open. Still no fire trucks had come.
“Dad, what’s going on? What would make two planes crash?”
He shook his head. “No power outage, that’s for sure. One of the planes must have hit a power line.”
“No, the power shut down before the crashes. That’s why things went quiet. I heard our plane’s engine power off at the same time everything else stopped. The luggage belt, the maintenance cars . . .”
Dozens of people were at the second plane now, but they couldn’t seem to get inside. He bit his bottom lip. The passengers had all probably died in the impact. How could anyone have survived?
He didn’t want Deni to see them pulling the bodies out.
“Let’s go to the car.” Still carrying Deni’s suitcase, he headed to the exit. “Maybe we can get a signal on our phones after we leave the airport, and call your mother. She’s probably heard about it on the news and can tell us what’s happening.”
Deni followed him at a trot, hiccuping sobs. He reached the front door, but it didn’t open.
“Power’s out, Dad,” she reminded him.
He turned and found a manual door. As they pushed through it, he was struck with the silence in the street. No cars moved through, and the security guards were probably helping the rescue effort. Doug and Deni hurried across the street into the big parking garage. They’d parked on the fourth level, so they found the stairs and trudged up.
Doug was damp with sweat by the time they reached their level and made their way to his new Mercedes. He used the remote on his key chain to pop the lock on the trunk, but when he got to the car, the trunk was still closed. He pressed the button again, but it still didn’t open. Frustrated, he jabbed the key into the lock, and opened it. He threw their two bags in, slammed the trunk, then tried to open his driver’s door. It hadn’t come unlocked with the trunk, so he manually unlocked it and got in, punching the power locks button to open Deni’s door.