What we talk about when we talk about losing a wing

William Langewiesche, The Devil at 37,000 Feet:

The site smelled of jet fuel, which had soaked into the soil and spilled into two small streams that flowed through the forest there. It also smelled of death, or more accurately of organic decomposition, which in the heat was well advanced. Perhaps a hundred soldiers were at work, expanding a helicopter landing zone, and collecting and bagging the victims. They had built a camp out beyond a cluster of wreckage from the Boeing’s wings, where the landing gear could be seen still desperately extended. The main wreckage lay just to the north in a dispersed chaos of torn and twisted metal, shattered machinery, bent hydraulic lines, tubes, wiring harnesses, cockpit displays, cabin seats, and all the transported contents of the airplane—a sad spillage of luggage, purses, briefcases, clothes, medicines, cosmetics, photographs, trophy fish that sportfishermen had been hauling home from Manaus, and thousands of computer parts that the Boeing had been carrying in its cargo hold and that now littered the forest and slumped into a stream. The debris had dug into the earth on impact, and had drawn trees and branches into the tangle. The condition of the dead should be left unsaid, except to note the mercilessness of the slaughter, and the fact that after Gol Flight 1907 hit the ground hardly any corpse remained intact. Carnivorous tigerfish had braved the poisoned streams and were feeding on flesh that had fallen into the water. This is what happens when a wing is severed in flight. The Caiapós are warriors, perhaps, but they were deeply disturbed by the scene.

Langewiesche has always had a distinct flair for clear, powerful writing, but this piece, on the mid-air collision between N600XL and GLO1907, reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Carver’s fiction — sparse, precise, commonplace language that ultimately endows its subject with startling power. I understand the technical details of what happened over the Amazon that day — I understand the technical details of most aviation incidents better than most — but I’ve never read an accident report quite like this before, one that sent shivers down my spine.