How to Prepare for a Disaster

Kirsten Clodfelter

Camilla often fantasizes about plane crashes. On the long, tedious commute up the GW Parkway to her two-bedroom apartment in Rockville, she imagines herself on a doomed flight out of BWI airport. She thinks about how smoothly the boarding process and take-off will go, a false promise of what’s to come. Traffic creeps along the interstate—she lifts her foot from the gas pedal and rolls forward before tapping her brakes in unison with the minivan in front of her.

When Harrison told her, Camilla had been standing half-dressed in the doorway of their closet, getting ready for work. Her husband had come up from behind, rested the palms of his hands on her bare shoulders, turning her around. He hugged her for a long time, long enough for Camilla’s limbs to begin to feel like they were filling with colonies of ants from being held so still. When he let her go, she kissed his cheek and pulled a silk camisole over her head. Harrison adjusted the thin strap of her shirt where it twisted and told her, quietly, “I think we both know that this is over.” But Camilla had not, in fact, known this at all. She had let herself believe that they would re-build their marriage, a new beginning, as if hoping for a thing was enough to make it true.

Still, she let Harrison keep the house. She wanted a fresh start. She took Thompson, their cat—now her cat—and was happy to have escaped baggage in the form of three bedrooms and a perpetually soggy, tree-lined backyard. She was ready to forget what their furniture looked like.

Inching north out of D.C., Camilla turns off her audio book and imagines that toward the end of her flight, when they’re close to landing, something goes wrong. There’s an electrical fire, or one of the 767’s two turbofan engines falters—the consequence of an unfortunate collision with a black-tailed godwit that had wandered off course, separated from his mate and the rest of his migrating flock. The reduction of shorebird to a few lingering feathers forces the plane to the ground for an emergency crash-landing, the pilot shouting directions to flight attendants and crew over a crackling PA system, leaving the godwits headed inland one bird short in the right-hand line of their V-formation.

Camilla pictures herself in an aisle seat next to a young redheaded woman who clutches their shared armrest with her eyes shut tightly, a silver rosary disregarded in her lap. With each sudden, terrifying plunge in altitude, the young woman hyperventilates in the darkness next to Camilla, who’s whispering, “Shhh, try to relax,” as a mantra, her arms and head in the crash position, waiting for the oxygen mask to drop.

It’s important to stay calm during an emergency. Camilla and her sister Macie were taught this lesson early. Their father used to stack the picture books his daughters brought to him at bedtime on the nightstand, unread. Instead he coached the two young girls on appropriate plans of action for various emergencies. Before his retirement, he had been the chief of the Bloomington Fire Department for twenty years, so Camilla and Macie had those plans on good authority. Their dad straightened matching flowered comforters across the girls’ shoulders while they lay in bed, Macie in the top bunk, Camilla in the bottom. Staying calm, he reminded them, could be the single dictating factor in surviving or not surviving a disaster.

But despite her exhaustive preparation—the memorization of detailed escape plans or the timed drills to see how quickly she could get to a window, attach, and then climb down the retractable fire ladder that her father insisted they keep in the closet of every second-story room—Camilla has never been in a fire, a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake, a flash flood, a volcanic eruption, a train derailment, a communicable virus outbreak, or a terrorist attack.

She did, however, stay perfectly calm when Harrison told her about the affair. He came back downstairs to the kitchen after breakfast one Saturday while she finished her coffee and watched the news. This was less than two weeks after they’d spent an entire afternoon at a Labor Day cookout at the Claytons’ house down the block, kissing and half-dancing and walking around with their hands in each other’s jeans pockets.

In the kitchen, Harrison stood next to the chair where Camilla sat, watching TV with her until the weather report. He was wearing a faded, forest green button-down that was too short in the arms, and he kept pulling at the sleeves, which fell awkwardly above the knobby bone of each wrist. Out of the corner of her eye, Camilla watched him do this five or six times before he asked her, “Can I tell you something.” Everything about his tone gave him away immediately. His eyes narrowed with what Camilla could only later guess was resolve. She turned off the television, wondering if she was going to vomit. Harrison sat down across from her and took her hands in his. He rubbed his thumbs lightly over her knuckles, the way you deliver grim news to someone you once loved.

The woman was a stranger, thankfully, and Camilla feels this anonymity has been Harrison’s one gift. He started with how they met—an innocent conversation several months earlier in the waiting lounge of a Jiffy Lube. He’d been drinking lukewarm complementary coffee from a Styrofoam cup, she’d been reading a celebrity gossip magazine. He’d been there getting the oil changed in Camilla’s car, a favor for her after an especially stressful week at work. There was a note of surprise in his voice as he told her this, as if it had never before occurred to him that such a banal encounter between two strangers could one day end with him loving someone other than his wife.

After Harrison’s explanation, Camilla gently pulled her hands from his and held them up, surrendering. She told him firmly but without raising her voice, “I’d prefer not to know any more details.” And then, calmly, as her father had taught her, she’d turned the television back on and finished watching the news. Only later that night, after locking herself in the bathroom and turning on the shower while Harrison slept down the hall in the guest room, did Camilla finally allow the crying to come.


Camilla takes the Falls Road exit off of I-270. As traffic thins she accelerates to the posted speed limit for the first time since leaving the parking garage in the city. She points and flexes the foot she’s not using to drive, feeling the tingling crawl of her skin beneath her pantyhose from sitting in the same position for so long. The warm air blowing from the vents makes her lips feel dry.

Camilla imagines the way she will coach the people sitting near her as the smoking plane descends rapidly from the clouds. “It’ll be all right,” she soothes the ponytailed girl in an oversized sweatshirt flying home from college. The girl’s nails are painted electric blue, chipped where she’s bitten them. Her entire face is red and swollen from crying. Camilla squeezes her trembling hand. She tells her, “You’re brave enough to get through this.”

To the nervous, wheezing man returning from a business trip, she says, “Focus on a single moment at a time, don’t worry about five minutes from now. Just breathe.” The man nods and turns one of his cufflinks around and around in the buttonhole on his sleeve.

Then, Camilla pictures herself turning and looking across the aisle at a mother holding a screaming toddler on her lap. In those last minutes before the metal body of the plane strikes the Earth, Camilla struggles to her feet, and once standing, urges the woman to belt her crying son into the seat she’s just vacated. The mother has been rendered paralyzed with fear—Camilla puts her mouth right against her ear. The warmth of the woman’s skin makes Camilla’s ribs tingle, and she speaks low and even, “Let me help you.” Camilla has read the statistics. She knows that infants and toddlers sitting on the laps of their parents do not survive plane crashes. The G-force at impact is too strong. No matter how fierce a mother’s death-grip, physics always wins. The child will be ripped right out of her arms.

Camilla imagines herself strapping the seatbelt across the toddler’s lap, then springing forward to belt herself into a vacant seat three rows ahead. She is lucky. But even if she hadn’t been, it would have been worth it. She would want someone to make this sacrifice for either of her sister’s small children, or for her own, if she had any. Once Camilla finally convinced Harrison that a child was the right choice, that at thirty-five and after ten years of marriage they were ready to be parents, her body overrode the decision. Resilient, she and Harrison rallied, and in the beginning there were nights when they’d sit up late, side by side in bed, reading aloud to each other from fertility books or comparing notes from Camilla’s doctor, making lists of things they could do differently.

But shortly after her thirty-eighth birthday they had their third loss—the third trip to the emergency room, the third unanswered begging to please stay, just a little longer, please, the third car ride home from the hospital in agonizing silence. The afternoon they returned to the house, Camilla saw the red blinking light signaling new messages on their answering machine and burst into tears. Harrison brought her upstairs to draw her a bath.

He leaned against the counter and watched her while she washed the tangled curls of her ash-blonde hair—he looked at her with a tender sort of skepticism, as if she might disintegrate in the water if he didn’t watch her carefully. Once he was sure her bones were solid, he turned and began to rearrange things in the medicine cabinet, his face hidden, and told her that maybe three was enough. Camilla argued and cried and argued again, but in the end Harrison had both health and biology on his side. A few weeks later he came home early from work with a much tinier, feistier Thompson—his orange-spotted fur fluffed up around his little face, chasing a felt mouse inside of a cardboard box—and the issue was not discussed again. That was a year before the woman from the Jiffy Lube—a year before the one disaster for which Camilla had not prepared.

The plane that Camilla is on, when it crashes, stays mostly intact. This is not a mid-air collision or a break-up at cruising altitude from depressurization. When this plane crashes, it falls to the ground from a survivable distance. Camilla has researched the facts. This is something else her father taught her—the more prepared you are, the more you know, the calmer you’ll be.

On average, 56% of passengers and crew live through commercial airline accidents. After factoring for the survivability of the crash itself, most of the variables that account for which side of that percentage an individual will fall are self-determined—counting the number of rows between your seat and the nearest exit when you first board the plane, tightening your seatbelt low across your pelvis, wearing unrestrictive clothing and shoes that are easy to walk in, assuming the crash position and bracing for impact, not panicking.

In the emergency scenario that Camilla envisions on her drive home, the plane narrowly misses colliding with a row of houses in a quiet subdivision. Instead, it makes ground contact in a nearby field without landing gear, skipping and sliding 400 yards or more. When this happens, she is ready. Her oxygen mask is secured over her nose and mouth, her palms are pressed down on the seatback in front of her, one hand over the other, fingers spread wide but not laced, arms out but not locked, head bent and resting against the knuckles of her hands, elbows to ears, eyes wide open, alert. Her feet are pressed flat against the carpeted floor and positioned behind her knees to prevent the instantaneous breaking of her shins upon impact. Her legs are pressed together. She moves her tongue out of the way of her teeth.

Surviving the physical crash is only the first disaster of two. Then comes the difficult part, the part over which passengers have the most control and thus the most room for error—the evacuation.

To get off the plane successfully, the most important thing to remember is this—stay calm. The second most important thing is that jet fuel burns at fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and a flashover can occur in as quickly as a minute and a half. But stay calm. Breathe in. Then out. There are two hundred seventy-nine passengers aboard this flight. Sixteen flight attendants. Three crew members. Two hundred twenty-eight individuals who survive the initial collision. Four of six viable exits. One row of working emergency lights along the floor of the starboard aisle. Ninety seconds. Ninety seconds. To make it out alive, you have to be quick. You have to be prepared. You have to be calm.

Camilla pictures everything—the smoke-filled cabin, the tears in the aluminum alloy frame of the plane, the live, loose electrical wires hanging from the ceiling like black, sparking vines from some exotic jungle canopy.


Fifteen minutes after getting off the interstate, Camilla realizes she’s only a few streets away from her old neighborhood. She tries to remember missing her turn off the boulevard for her own apartment, but she can’t bring the fuzziness of her drive home into focus. It’s been over three months since she’s been here, since she last saw Harrison or their house. She eases into the left lane so she can make a U-turn at the light up ahead, but at the last minute she finds herself compelled to turn into the neighborhood instead.

Camilla thought that the house would look different, that the white jasmine she had planted for a winter garden would be uprooted, that the two wicker chairs on the front porch might be replaced by a swinging wooden bench or a hammock, or even that the siding and shutters would be repainted, as if a new house had dropped on top of the old one in her absence. She imagined she’d coast by and just barely be able to make out the bodies of her husband and his mysterious lover through the bay window by the front door. She had been sure it would be like it was in the movies—she watching from the outside as Harrison and the woman made dinner together, sharing a bottle of wine while they talked and laughed, he reaching up to brush her long bangs off of her face, their bodies already uninhibited, moving with the ease of familiarity.

But when Camilla parks along the curb across the street, her old house is dark. No one is there. Except for a few bags of rock salt in front of the garage door, everything looks exactly as it had when Camilla still lived there. She feels the heaviness of wanting to go back start to build in her chest. It makes her nauseous—her stomach rising with an uncomfortable flutter.

She turns off the heat and unzips her coat, resting the back of her head against the seat. She thinks that since she’s here, she might as well wait. She’d like a chance to talk to Harrison anyway, now that they’ve had a few months apart and can look at things without being so close to them. Camilla thinks this is a good opportunity to tell Harrison how she’s been feeling—that she deserves something different than this, that she could have used more support, that he didn’t make it any easier. But she also wants to touch the rough, dry skin of his hands and tell him that she built plenty of her own walls—that she let her sadness and her disappointment and her anger take over everything, even what had been good, and didn’t they at least owe it to each other, to themselves, to give it another go?


As she attempts to exit the plane, Camilla forces herself to think clearly. She leaves her carry-on bags, even her purse, and squeezes into the aisle. She bends low as she shuffles against the tightly crowded, sweating bodies of the other passengers, making an effort to avoid both the brunt of the smoke above her and the danger of being trampled. She tries to keep track of how many seconds are passing, but time is distorted—she could’ve already been here for days. The noise of the screaming passengers and the hum of what’s left of the airplane builds louder and louder until Camilla forces herself to focus and push the din into the background—to concentrate on the present moment until she is safe.

Camilla twists out of her cardigan and winds it around a gash in the arm of a tall, gray-haired man who’d been sitting one row in front of her, whom she’s now pressed closely against in the mayhem of evacuation. She ties the bandage using her belt as a tourniquet, the way her father once showed her. The man grimaces when she tightens the bind.

“Show me tough,” Camilla tells him.

The man asks through gritted teeth, “Girl Scout? This is impressive.”

When she finishes, he locks her gaze. Camilla notices how delicately the corners of his eyes are creased with worry, that his eyes are the clearest blue she can ever remembering seeing. She wonders if the clarity is an illusion, an effect of the surrounding madness. She decides it doesn’t matter. She presses the hem of her cream-colored blouse to the man’s damp forehead, and even though they’re both stooped close to one another, Camilla has to lift the bottom of her shirt all the way up to her neck to reach him. Smiling, she says, “I’m not usually this forward on the first date, Scout’s honor.” The man, who Camilla would like to think is a little smarter and a little funnier than her estranged husband, takes her hand in his and laughs.

Camilla yells to the passengers over their collective pushing and shouting to stop panicking, to follow her out. With the stranger’s hand still connecting the two of them, she leads her small group carefully and quickly through the smoke and debris to the nearest exit.

Camilla understands then that she will stay beyond the recommended maximum of ninety seconds. She abandons the goal of making it out before the clock runs down to zero, of escaping in one piece so she can return alone to the ugly, small apartment she doesn’t want to think of as hers. She chooses instead to stand at the window of row twenty-seven and assist passengers down the inflated emergency slide. She stays even after she sends down the gray-haired man so someone can stop the bleeding in his arm. She holds her post and takes shaking hand after shaking hand after shaking hand of bewildered, unprepared strangers, helping them to safety. Finally, a breathless and wide-eyed flight attendant reaches Camilla’s section of the plane and waves her off, insistent.

As Camilla takes her place at the top of the slide, she watches the chaos below. The night has suddenly grown quiet, the frantic screaming from the ground now a distant buzzing, and before she takes a single deep breath and lies back, before she crosses her arms over her chest and pushes off from the window, Camilla feels as if in this single moment she can see everything. She is one of the last refugees in the exodus.

Camilla tries to stay near the wreckage so she can continue to assist dazed passengers, yelling for a blanket or a jacket to cover an elderly woman she finds in shock or to help stop the bleeding of a boy’s head wound. She does this until the first responder firefighters, men much like her own father, had he still been alive, pull her away from immediate danger into the back of an ambulance, where some of the other rescuees are huddled together, holding one another in weary disbelief, waiting to be taken from the crash site.

Only then, as her adrenaline begins to dissipate, does Camilla realize that her left wrist is broken. Reporters with microphones and audio recorders and cameras swarm their small group the minute the ambulance stops, shouting over each other to ask what happened, how they feel, how many dead? A woman with blood drying over the entire left side of her face turns away from the EMT trying to bandage her and points to Camilla, yelling, “That’s the woman who got us out, who saved us!” There’s a brief and frenzied moment of pandemonium before the police and hospital security can remove the reporters and get the wounded passengers inside the ER. That next morning and for days after, The Washington Post and The Times run headlines that cite Camilla as a hero, Washington’s own. The President holds a memorial for the victims of the crash, and after a tearful eulogy, he meets with the survivors to commend their fierce spirits. He lauds Camilla personally for her quick thinking, for her choice to help others above herself even while knowing the danger she faced, and then he presents her with a Purple Heart, or a Citizen’s Award, or whatever honor is appropriate to bestow upon civilians who do brave things.


When Harrison pulls into the driveway, Camilla lets him get out of the car before she opens her door. He smiles and waves, but he’s squinting at her as though she’s someone he met only once many years ago and can’t quite place. For the amount of time it takes her to walk up the driveway to where Harrison is standing, it feels like it always did—as if they’ve both just gotten home from work and are getting ready to go inside and start their evening together. Camilla resists the urge to take his hand when she reaches him. She looks right in his eyes instead, hoping he’ll recognize the bright anticipation that’s pulsing through her body without her having to say anything.

“Hey,” he says. He holds out his arms to bring her in.

Camilla presses herself against him and begins talking, but the words are muffled by his heavy coat. When Harrison breaks the embrace and steps back, Camilla holds her smile so she does not give away her disappointment.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m not really sure. I brought myself without meaning to.”

Harrison squints harder. “Are you all right?”

Camilla tries to keep the sharp edge of nervousness out of her laugh. “I mean, I just drove here after work without even thinking about it. Just on autopilot, I guess. I didn’t notice until I was practically in the neighborhood.”

Harrison nods. “An easy mistake.”

“Well, I’m not sure I’d call it a mistake, exactly.”

“Either way.”

There’s a moment where neither of them say anything. Then Camilla tells him, “It’s strange being here.”

Harrison nods but says nothing.

She wishes he would touch her, but he doesn’t, so she fumbles for the next thing to say. “Not strange in a bad way.” The wind blows strands of her hair into her eyes.


“Sorry. I should go.” She waits to see if Harrison is going to look up from the ground at her face, and when he doesn’t, she turns to walk back to her car.

When she’s halfway across the street, Harrison calls her name. Camilla freezes and turns. She feels the warmth of relief spread through her chest as he jogs the distance between them so he doesn’t have to shout. “I feel weird asking this,” he says, “but do you think you could call next time if you’re going to stop by?”

“Oh,” she says. She feels suddenly dizzy, and she nods in agreement while she waits for the right words to come. Finally she finds her voice and tells him, “Yes, of course. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea for either of us to start showing up unexpectedly.”

“Absolutely. Too messy and complicated.”

“Okay,” Harrison touches her arm lightly. “It was nice seeing you.”


The thing is, Camilla thinks, as she turns out of the neighborhood toward her own apartment, people will always need the most help right inside the plane or right out of it, where both victims and rescuers are also the most vulnerable. Ninety seconds just isn’t enough time. And even if the explosion doesn’t happen, even if we do survive after that initial minute and a half, there’s no guarantee—nothing prevents the plane from then igniting at minute three or minute eight instead. If the fuselage is going to blow, then it will. It doesn’t matter, it can’t—there are lives to be saved.

When she pulls into her reserved space in the parking lot of the apartment complex half an hour later, the last hold of twilight has finally dissipated into night. From the glow of the streetlights, Camilla can make out the vague shape of Lynne, her downstairs neighbor, bringing in grocery bags from her car. The wind whips inside Camilla’s unbuttoned coat, a shock of cold that rushes up from her stomach to her neck as if chased. She shivers and hurries to collect her things from the passenger seat, balancing them in one hand: travel coffee mug, cell phone, keys, purse. Her teeth begin to chatter. She waves with her free arm to Lynne. The woman waves back from across the parking lot but doesn’t call hello.

Camilla thinks about the packaged vegetable lasagna in her freezer that’s ready to be put in the oven for dinner as soon as she gets inside. She knows that when she walks through the door, Thompson will be waiting in his favorite hiding spot under the couch, listening for the familiar scrape of the metal lid being pulled from a can of cat food. Once he hears the signal for mealtime, he’ll prance into the kitchen and rub against Camilla’s leg in greeting or thanks—this is their evening routine. Before she climbs the three flights to her apartment, Camilla lifts her head and stares across the blanketed darkness above her. For a moment she searches for two blinking lights that look like stars but are really airplanes, and then she takes in her next breath of cold, January air and doesn’t expel it, holding it in the walls of her lungs, holding onto it like something lost that she’s just found again—hoping for a collision that will light up the night sky.


Art by Kerri Augenstein

Kirsten Clodfelter is a freelance writer living in the Midwest. She’s the author of CASUALTIES, a chapbook of home-front war stories (RopeWalk Press, 2013) and the founding editor of the forthcoming children’s series Feminist Fairytales. Her fiction and creative nonfiction work has been published in Narrative, The Nervous Breakdown, The Iowa Review, Brevity,  Smokelong Quarterly, Rock & Sling, ROAR, storySouth, Green Mountains Review, and The New York Times, among others.

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