Saturday, June 10, 2017

Les Bourgeois de Calais

Arland had no idea on January 12, 1982, that he would make history and become a hero in less than 24 hours. Little is known about why Arland was where he was on January 13, just that he was a federal bank examiner and likely traveling for business.

The weather in Washington, D.C. that next day was freakishly bad. Snow, ice, and high winds plagued the region and plunged the city into an arctic state. Over 6 feet of snow had accumulated leading to the Washington National Airport to shut down. Prior to cancelling flights and despite repeated warnings, though, the pilot of Air Florida Flight 90 refused to abandon their scheduled trip. As Arland, 73 other passengers, and 5 crew boarded the plane, what would happen next left the world in shock.

As the plane taxied to the runway for take-off, human error was already in play and doom had set in. First, they gave a blind eye to the clearly visible snow building up on the wings as well as the runway and surrounding area. Second, the pilots failed to activate the aircraft's ice protection system while they chose to ignore other on-board warnings that the plane would not make it. Third, it didn't help that the taxi alone took 49 minutes thus exacerbating conditions, and that was after the towing vehicle couldn't even find traction to get the plan going in the first place. What was apparent, however, was that the captain was determined to get the aircraft in the air no matter what.

Upon take-off, the plane struggled to gain altitude, and immediately fell and struck the 14th Street Bridge less than a mile off the end of the runway hitting 7 vehicles, and killing 4 people. The plane then plunged into the Potomac River which was blanketed by jagged ice. When it hit the ice and water, the plane split in two and as the front section of the fuselage sank, the tail section stayed afloat in the water.

This is where things take a turn for the worse, but the better. Of the 79 people on board, 6 survived and they were badly injured. As they scrambled to the tail section to cling on for dear life and seek assistance, not one of them knew it would take so long due to the weather conditions. After 20 minutes of failed attempts to reach the survivors by land, boat, and even dog-paddling, a helicopter from the U.S. Park Police was dispatched to man a rescue. The perilous mission would prove there was and is good reason to have faith in humanity.

When the chopper arrived, a rescue rope was tossed down to Arland, one of the 6 survivors. Despite his injuries and weather conditions, Arland was surprisingly alert. Seeing that the other 5 people were in worst condition than him, he passed the rope to the person next to him. One by one, Arland continued to pass the rope so 3 of the other 5 could be safely hauled to land. That's when the pilots noticed one of the survivors had drifted away from the wreckage and was flailing in the freezing water, stuck on a chunk of ice. She was very quickly dying, and it was all captured on live TV. With two other rescuers who dove into the frigid waters, they were able to save her. The helicopter crew then turned their attention back to the wreckage to pick up the two remaining people. Arland and another woman were now separated by conditions so they lowered the skids into the water to haul the remaining female on board who was too weak to grab onto the rope. When they finally returned for Arland, he was no where to be found. They spent over 30 minutes searching for him before they were called away. Days later, it would be discovered that the wreckage had shifting sucking Arland down underwater causing him to drown.

Les Bourgeois de Calais, by Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), is a bronze statue depicting 6 burghers (politically connected and influential citizens) volunteering their lives to King Edward III to parley surrender on behalf of the city of Calais, France, in 1347. The piece was commissioned by the city in 1884, and it was completed in 1889. At the time, they wished to commemorate the lives of those who willingly gave themselves up at the command of King Edward III, and for the survival of the people of Calais who were embroiled in the Hundred Years' War.

Rodin is best known for his piece, The Thinker, but in all of art history, Les Bourgeois de Calais is known to be one of the most historically famous sculptures ever created. During that period in time, France was losing the battle against England, and as the city of Calais struggled to hold their lines and defense of the city and castle, they fell into starvation. This was when Edward offered to spare the people of Calais if 6 of its top leaders would give themselves up, wear nooses around their necks, and give him the keys to the city and castle. The first of the volunteers was a wealthy town leader named Eustache de Saint Pierre, and he is seen in the piece leading the group to the city gates to be turned over to the crown. It wasn't until Philippa of Hainault, the wife of King Edward III, stepped in and persuaded her husband to show mercy for the sake of the unborn child, Thomas of Windsor (who, ironically, died 1 year after birth).

I picked the Arland Williams story to highlight the significance of this piece because of the incredible amount of compassion and sacrifice he showed in order that others might live. Had he grabbed the rope and held on, who knows? Perhaps the woman seen struggling in the ice would have died instead. Much like Arland and all of the life he still had ahead him, Saint Pierre and the others were also willing to give it all up for strangers. It's even more astonishing to comprehend when you think about the life Eustache must have had. He was rich, influential, and according to painting of him by artist Jean-Simon BerthĂ©lemy, he was handsome, powerful, and well-liked.

Stories of heroism are, nowadays, a dime-a-dozen. Yet, with each, I find myself blown away by the sheer level of compassion and self-sacrifice for the good of others - often strangers. From Medal of Honor recipients to men like Arland and Saint Pierre, I'm reminded of the inherent good in humanity that the world and media would otherwise have you believe didn't exist. Let's none of us forget that, and let's also never forget those who sacrificed their own lives in order that others may live.

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