Monday, August 23, 2010

Tragedy in Paradise

The island of Fernando de Noronha is another one of those isolated islands you sometimes hear about.
This is a sign on a post in front of the airport. As you can see, it’s a pretty long way from almost anywhere.
Like Mauritius, it has been occupied by the English, the French and the Dutch.
Like Diego Garcia, the Americans built an air base there. (Back in the days of the Second World War – it’s longer operative.)
Like Devil's Island, it was once a prison.
These days it’s a Brazilian possession, a maritime national park, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The sea around the island is an important feeding ground for tuna, cetaceans, sharks and marine turtles.
There’s a huge population of resident dolphins.
It has some of the most pristine, most beautiful beaches on earth.
And it is visited mostly by surfers, marine biologists and divers. (See photos here of the Ipiranga, a Brazilian warship sunk in 1987. Click on each to enlarge.)
For most folks in Brazil, Fernando de Noronha had long evoked nothing more than a tropical paradise, a getaway for the favored few.
That changed on the 31st of May, 2009.
On that night, the aircraft you see pictured above flew directly over the island. An Airbus A330-200, registered as F-GZCP and assigned the flight number 447 by Air France, she was on a nonstop flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Just after 10:30 PM AF447 passed out of radar range.
And, some 45 minutes later, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
No one knows exactly where or why.
The black boxes have never been recovered; the exact spot where the fuselage hit the sea has never been determined.
There were 228 people on board.
It was the greatest disaster in the history of French aviation.
On the 5th of June, five days after the disaster, searchers spotted a piece of the aircraft’s tail.
The first two bodies were recovered on the sixth; sixteen more on the seventh; eight more on the eighth.
The media flooded onto Fernando de Noronha, started reporting from there, kept sending out images of recovered victims.
I was in Paris at the time.
I heard the name of the island cited again and again on French television, saw it appear again and again in French newspapers.
Most, in that country, had never heard of the place before the disaster.
Their introduction to it was horrific.
We, in Brazil, can still think of it as a tropical paradise.
I doubt that is the case for the French.
For them, Fernando de Noronha has become one of those place names associated with death and disaster.
Like Verdun.

Leighton – Monday

1 comment:

  1. Leighton, it is always unfortunate when places that are special become irrevocably associated with tragedy. People seem to be more affected by the tragic than they are by remembering the wonderful things that have happened in other places.

    The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up on August 29. That is when it hit New Orleans. My uncle was a priest who had lived in the city for 35 of the 50 years of his priesthood. He died before Katrina. He was a hospital chaplain and I know he would never have left the city even with the mandatory order for evacuation.

    When family would visit, he made sure we met just about everyone he knew. He gave everyone nicknames; in fact, at a memorial service, people who spoke introduced themselves by those nicknames so people could put the names they had always heard with the faces.

    In part because of that habit, after Katrina we had no way of tracking down so many of those people who had been family to him. The handful of real names and phone numbers we had were no longer in service after the hurricane. We have no idea what happened to all those wonderful people.

    We met some of the doctors associated with the hospital and we met his personal physicians when we came when he was dying, but many of them left New Orleans. So many people never came back to the city, that many doctors no longer had practices to which they could return.

    Most of the people we met were those who kept the hospital functioning smoothly, the porters, the kitchen workers, the housekeeping staff. Those were his people. We used to tease him that he participated in more Southern Baptist funerals than Catholic ones. If anyone who worked at the hospital had a death in the family, he would be there. These were the people whose jobs required that they stay and who wouldn't have the money to leave anyway. These were the people who he would refuse to leave. He was ordained in 1945. He certainly saw racism is flower.

    It is hard to believe that New Orleans got less attention in desperate circumstances than third world countries half a world away. There are many people who have a lot to answer for because they let a city, and the people in it, die.