It was the gentle growl of a light plane flying low over the city that snapped me around, eyes searching the sky. We don’t see a lot of them in Central Asia. And, more weird, the sound didn’t come from the usual flight path in and out of the Khan Sharif airport.
We can see that flight path from our high school, and the planes we see are commercial airliners or military aircraft. Or, sometimes, rich people’s private jets.
But this was a single engine light plane, banking away from the city center, and it looked like towards the school in the middle of the lunch hour.
Six hundred of us were outside, kicking footballs on the sports field, playing volleyball or tennis on the courts, or just hanging out.
I saw a lot of other kids stop dead, too, and just stare up at the sky. Not just a quick check, but like, ‘What’s going on?’
We were getting our phones out, sweeping the sky till we found the plane, coming at us head on. Now it was like, ‘What the hell?’
It was dropping altitude, and suddenly kids started running off the sports field, racing for the buildings, screaming, ‘It’s coming down!’
I backed against the Science Block, keeping the plane firmly in the center of my screen. No question it was coming down on the sports field. I was sweating, my hand holding the phone was shaking. Could a plane land there? Could it? Safely? But why? Why was it even over the city?
Instinct kicked in. I’m a journalist’s son. I had to get this. This was a story. I hoped like hell it wasn’t a tragedy. Just a story, okay? Please, just a bit of drama. Bust the plane up, maybe, but no-one hurt.
It looked like that might happen. Coming in over the fence. All the grass ahead. Then the plane bucked like a saddle horse gone rogue. Engine roar. Nose up. Wing down. Dropping sideways like a shot bird. Sickening crunch as plane impacts ground. Small bits in all directions. Silence.
Me running, phone camera fixed on the wreckage growing bigger, filling the screen. Maybe someone is alive. Maybe I can do something, anything. In the distance behind me I hear shouts and screams. Other students are running towards the plane too. All of us with our phones out. All of us hoping we’ll find the pilot alive.
We stop. He isn’t. He isn’t alive, and he isn’t alone. Two dead guys. The pilot and his passenger.
From behind us teachers are shouting, calling us back to the buildings.
One of the boys beside me throws up on the scarred grass.
‘Come on,’ one of the others mutters. ‘Nothing we can do.
‘Yeah. Let’s go.’
They straggle away. I would, too, except my Dad is a foreign correspondent. He tells the world about wars and earthquakes and terrorism and governments who have dirty secrets they want to keep secret. I’ve been marinated in trauma reporting.
I’ve just never seen trauma until this second.
With some teacher bellowing from the buildings, ‘Joel Fleming! Get back here at once!’ I’m filming the two guys in the plane. I’m filming the pilot, who has a small, neat blue-lipped hole between his headset and his right eye.
I’m filming the passenger, who has a pistol in his right hand.
I’m filming the backpack behind the seats that has visible wires, and I’m pretty sure contains explosives. I want to check and make sure, but I think I’m lucky it hasn’t suddenly decided this would be a good time to explode and take out the nasty foreign kid with the camera.
I back away, and not because the teacher is still shouting himself hoarse, and the sirens that have been screaming closer and closer are now inside the school carpark.
Through a mist of tears I look at the pilot who refused to fly into whatever building the terrorist targeted this morning. Who innocently took a charter job, and is now dead on my school’s sports field. Who wouldn’t risk crossing the flight path of a passenger jet, so tried to come down here.
I duck my head for a moment in respect, and slowly turn back to the school buildings, cutting a straight course through the dozen or so emergency vehicles screaming across the grass.
The teacher meets me, purple and spitting with rage. I don’t hear him. Behind him the kids and teachers are massed and in collective shock, staring at the plane, the emergency vehicles, and now the military vehicles spilling out personnel. Of course, most of the kids are not too much in shock to be filming everything.
I snapped out of whatever daze I’d been in, and thumbed my screen with fast jabs that sent the video to Dad.
About then the Principal ordered us all back into the central quad area of the school, where we couldn’t see the plane any more, and I wasn’t sorry. I knew too much about what was in that cockpit. The guys who’d gone out to the plane with me hadn’t looked as close as I had.
We all got told to sit down, packed in tight on the grass, the pavers, or benches if we were lucky. The teachers were all talking on their phones, then to each other, then back on their phones. Staring at us. More muttering to each other. No-one knew what to do. The staff must have training for all kinds of dramas, but maybe not this. All this week and next, the trauma counselors were going to be busy as squirrels in autumn.
Busy with the teachers, before they ever got to us.
Everyone’s phone was screeching with incoming calls from parents. Word had got out all over the city. Kids were in tears answering calls. Voices up at least two octaves. Parents were in total panic. They were trying to get to the school but had run into military road blocks.
I texted Dad and told him about the road blocks, too. I’d never supplied him a story before.
But today some terrorist had decided to fly a plane and explosives into … What? The Presidential Palace? Department of the Army? The Parliament? Or was it called Congress? I couldn’t remember. Didn’t matter. He’d planned on some big, important building, but all he’d achieved was to mess up our soccer field. And kill an innocent man.
My parents both rang me. ‘I’m okay,’ I told them. ‘Just sitting in the quad. Did you send out my story, Dad?’
‘Of course. Well done. Well done! There’ll be updates, but yes, your video’s the first report. Now, you sure you’re okay?’
‘Sure. Just sitting around with my mates. We’ll probably be back in class any minute.’
That was a lie, of course. I felt terrible. I was shaking like I had a fever. Couldn’t get the image of the cockpit out of my head. But I wasn’t telling him that. He’d think I was soft.
Right then, these military types came walking fast into the quad. Not armed, but covered in badges and eagles on their epaulettes and stuff, so we knew they were high ups. Everyone got very quiet.
One of them barked out in English, ‘Who was filming the plane on their phone?’
Um, like… everyone? Are you stupid?
‘Who filmed the plane that landed in the school?’
The purple-faced teacher was looking around for me. I ducked behind someone and looked at my sneakers.
‘Who has filmed the plane?’ shouted the officer.
Nobody moved. Nobody answered.
‘Then everyone will hand over their phones! Now! Every phone! Hand them over!’
Just like I thought. Governments want to keep their secrets, secret. He couldn’t possibly know one of us had filmed what they’d also found by now – that backpack. And the gun. But we’d all filmed the result of that gunshot – a plane calmly coming in to land suddenly convulsively out of control, and crashing.
And so the government was doing what governments everywhere do. Keeping an event secret, from their citizens and the world, because it made them look like not totally in control.
Except … Was this guy living in some previous century? The images had already gone out to everyone’s social media friends.
‘Hand over your phones!’ he ordered the kids sitting right in front of his shiny black shoes. They hunched down and left their phones hidden. He shouted louder, and way at the back Vitaly pulled out his phone and held it high, filming the officer going off his brain.
That really upset him, and he raved and yelled for Vitaly to stop filming and give him the phone. Wing Yan and Farida pulled out their phones and started filming, then Suvash, Ismaila and Sven, and then all of us were pulling out our phones, holding them up, filming the three officers.
For maybe five seconds they just stood there, then they turned like on a parade ground and marched back towards the fallen plane and the dozens of vehicles and crowds of workers and officials that must be out there now, hidden from us by the Science Block.
Phone power. Phones get a bad rap, sometimes, but that day they told the truth to the world, and truth is always power.