On July 31, Aeromexico Flight 2431 crashed in Durango, Mexico, as it was attempting to take off in bad weather. Incredibly, all 103 people on board survived the event, including many from the Chicago area.
One of those survivors was the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, priest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Des Plaines.
We spoke with Sanchez about the crash and how he is coming to terms with his survival. Read our edited Q&A below.
What brought you to Mexico?
I was taking two weeks’ vacation but I was also getting together with family and friends to celebrate my 50th birthday.
What exactly happened? I understand there was bad weather at the airport.
It was a jubilant atmosphere on the plane with my friends and family celebrating different things together.
When we got on the plane we saw clouds that were ominous and we were wondering if they were just trying to get the plane ready quick enough so that we could try and beat the weather. By the time we got onto the runway it had begun to rain pretty heavily, there was even some hail. We were expecting the pilot to say the conditions were not conducive to a healthy takeoff and thought we were going to be delayed to let the weather system go by. Shortly after that, when we get to the runway, I hear the engines rev to max and I guessed we were taking off.
I know a little bit about aviation because I took some flight-training lessons. There are two moments for takeoff. There are two specific speeds that you need, one is called V1 – V is velocity – and that is the point at which the aircraft has reached the velocity where there is enough pressure under the wing to take off. And indeed, the plane did take off. Now, the second one that comes almost immediately after that is V2 – which means that the plane has the velocity to (keep the plane in the air). I believe we had enough velocity to get the tires off the ground but we didn’t have enough velocity to continue the flight.
The weather system was what seems to me what they call a microburst, which is a push of air directly down, and it kept the plane from ascending any more.
Either the plane didn’t have enough momentum or the weather was affecting our ascent and so it kind of belly-flopped on the runway. You could feel the main (landing) gear collapse and the other gear collapse as well. By the time it got to the embankment, one of the things I was most concerned about was, one, that the plane wouldn’t fall apart and then that it wouldn’t roll over. I was praying, “Please God don’t let it roll over.” If the plane rolls over, it’s full of fuel so if the plane rolls over we would probably be all burned up and we probably wouldn’t make it … But happily the plane did not roll over and by the time that the violence of the crash had stopped we all tried to run off the plane as quickly as we (could).
What was the scene like on the plane? I assume people must have been terrified.
Oh absolutely! There was yelling and screaming as you can imagine. No one expects to be in a crash but we understood we were in a bad situation and I have to hand it to the stewardesses who gave the command very strong: “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
When you are in an emergency situation and you have to get off the plane one of things that happens is that people reach for a bag or a phone or whatever it is, and that’s a dangerous thing. You have to get off that plane … and I saw people reaching for things – most of them did. I was one of the ones that got off almost immediately but then I saw the plane was on fire. It was still raining profusely, we were still under that weather system, and thanks to that rain it kind of postponed the flames from spreading to the jet fuel in the fuselage. It gave us precious seconds to get the hell out of there.
I assume you are still mentally processing the experience, but how are you feeling now?
Of course you are always thinking about it and what could have been. When I was on the plane there were two outcomes for me: one was being crushed to death because I was at the front of the plane and the plane was coming down; or I could have been burned to death – the fuel could have just engulfed us all.
What I also tell people is that anyone who has any kind of professional training, it’s amazing how that kicks in. When I got off the plane my first instinct was to minister to people so I went back to help get people out with the stewardess and to just look for those who were wounded.
How severe were the injuries that you saw?
The pilot was pretty bad. I think he had a lot of internal injuries. Most people were able to get out with minimal injuries … but we had a few people, especially a young girl I was with, she got burned because the dragging under the fuselage ignited the fuel and the flames were coming up under the seats. So the girl was severely burned – third degree burns on her legs
Does being a religious man give you a different way of processing this experience as you come to terms with what happened?
I think that when you have a purpose – when you see your role as trying to help others – it helps a little … I think there would be far more regrets had people died in the crash. But the fact that everyone – and I mean everyone – lived, there’s a sense of gratitude and everyone had that.
Has it changed how you’re approaching life now?
Absolutely! You know you are more attentive to life itself. Life has taken on kind of a different color – I hope it lasts awhile. But my particular vocation involves constantly talking about both life here and life after. I meet the sick, I meet with people with issues of death and dying. I deal with people all the time about issues of suffering. I deal with people all the time asking the difficult questions of life. But for me to get that close to it – that it almost happened to me. It’s almost like you are looking at the precipice and you kind of get a sense of how deep the ravine is.