Author Interviews
2:09 am
Tue May 21, 2013

After Crashing In Canadian 'Abyss,' Four Men Fight To Survive

Originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 10:13 am

On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Erik Vogel was uneasy about flying. It was snowing; his plane's de-icer and autopilot weren't working; and his co-pilot had been bumped to fit one more passenger on his 10-seater. But the young pilot was behind schedule and he felt like his job was on the line, so he took off, as he did most days, shuttling between the remote communities that dot the Canadian wilderness.

Author Carol Shaben tells NPR's Steve Inskeep what happened next: "He's hearing these chunks of ice coming off the props and banging like rocks against the fuselage. And he made a calculation error. He thought he was past the high point, but there was another rise of land, 2,500 feet, and he hit that top of that rise."

The plane crashed through a bank of trees, and as the fuselage plowed into the ground, broken bits of plane sheared off the roof like a sardine can. Six people died in the crash, and four men emerged from the wreckage: Vogel; Shaben's father, politician Larry Shaben; a prisoner, Paul Archambault; and Scott Deschamps, the police officer who was escorting Archambault.

The men spent a frozen night shrouded by clouds and forest, wondering if they'd ever be found. Carol Shaben's new book, Into the Abyss, describes their struggle to survive. She and Deschamps discuss how a forest can be short on wood and how the survivors' lives changed after their rescue.


Interview Highlights

On the moment of the crash and what happened afterward

Deschamps: "If you're driving down the road in a car and you run off into the rough for a second, you hear that 'rrrghgh,' and you pull back onto the road. And that's what I heard. Just for a second, something rough. And I remember thinking the plane's not supposed to do that. And before I could even finish that thought, maybe a few seconds later, I just remember everything breaking apart. And that's the last I remember of the crash.

"Then I felt someone tugging on my foot. And it was Paul [Archambault]. And he had found me — he had come back to the plane to find me. There was great agony, with him pulling off chunks of plane before he even got to the dirt that encased me. And I was completely disoriented and I didn't know where I was or what had happened. And it took me probably 10 minutes before I realized the plane had crashed. And I can remember sitting in the plane. I remember looking out the open, broken fuselage at the snow falling, and in the far distance I could see the glow of a fire. And we got by the fire and that's where we sat most of the night."

On the struggle to maintain the fire Archambault had started

Deschamps: "There's a forest of trees — trees, trees everywhere, but not a branch to burn. And that's the truth. You have no axe; you have no way of gathering wood; you can't find fallen wood because there's 3 1/2 feet of snow. And we sent Paul on a constant vigilance for anything that would burn. Fire was life, Steve, fire was life, and at different times during the night we had no fire. And I've been on many search and rescue situations as a Mountie where you'd go into these camps looking for lost hunters or motor vehicle accidents in the back bush, and you find the people, eventually, but you find them as frozen corpses. And I figured that's how we'd be found."

On how the crash affected the survivors

Shaben: "Each of the survivors was completely transfigured by what had happened that night, and all of their lives took sharp turns, if you will. Paul Archambault, who had a long prison record — who, you know, was an accused criminal, a drifter who had been drifting across the country since he was 15 or 16 — he went back. He got on a plane two days later and faced charges, faced a judge in court. And the judge said, 'You are to be commended for your actions and I exonerate you of all charges.' So this ne'er-do-well vagabond who'd had nothing but hard luck was all of a sudden hailed as a hero. So [his life] took a dramatic turn that way. ...

"My dad was changed; he was a changed man. He began to look at his life and judge his worth as a man, from that point forward, by what he accomplished in the extra years he felt he got that others on that plane did not. And he felt like the political life that he had been living, it wasn't enough; he needed to do more. And he floundered for a long time trying to figure out what that was. And after Sept. 11, he became very, very strident about trying to build bridges across cultures, trying to increase understanding and tolerance. And my dad created this incredible philanthropic life and this incredible legacy that I think was a greater tribute than his 16[-year] political career."

Deschamps: "I made a bucket list before bucket lists were made. I had a very profound list of things I wanted to do if I was ever going to get off that mountain. And, you know, there were 10 things, and it took — I just finished them. It took me 25 years to finally finish the last one. ...

"One of the things that was most profound, and I voiced it at the time, was the fact that I was going to die on that stupid mountain and I never had a family. So I went forward very specifically to be a great parent. And I am; I have two wonderful children. I'd never been to university, so when I left the mounted police, I did a bachelor's degree and I went on and I did a master's degree. And I had a whole bunch of other things. Now, I live in peace. And life is good."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On the night of October 19th, 1984, Erik Vogel was uneasy about flying. But the young pilot was behind schedule and he felt like his job was on the line. So he took off, as he did most days, shuttling between remote communities dotting the Canadian wilderness.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It was snowing, the de-icer didn't work, the autopilot didn't work, and his co-pilot had been bumped to fit one more passenger on his 10-seater plane.

CAROL SHABEN: And in the middle of that, he's hearing these chunks of ice coming off the props and banging like rocks against the fuselage. And he made a calculation error. He thought he was past the high point, but there was another rise of land, 2500 feet, and he hit that top of that rise. So it was a miracle that anyone got out of that plane alive.

INSKEEP: Carol Shaben is the author of a book about that crash, a book called "Into the Abyss." Six people were killed. Shaben's own father, a politician named Larry Shaben, survived along with three others: the pilot Erik Vogel, a prisoner named Paul Archambault, and the police officer escorting him.

GREENE: Scott Deschamps was that Canadian Mountie. The moment before impact sticks with him all these years later.

SCOTT DESCHAMPS: If you're driving down the road in a car and you run off into the rough for a second, you hear that rrrghgh(ph). And you pull back onto the road. And that's what I heard, just for a second, something rough. And I remember thinking the plane is not supposed to do that.

And before I could even finish that thought, maybe a few seconds later, I just remember everything breaking apart. And that's the last I remember of the crash.

INSKEEP: OK, we now know the plane crashed through a bank of trees and then, as the fuselage plowed into the ground, upside down, broken bits of plane sheared off the roof - peeled open like a sardine can. But when Scott Deschamps opened is eyes, he only knew that he was trapped, partly buried in the ground.

DESCHAMPS: Then I felt someone tugging on my foot. And it was Paul. And he had found me. He had come back to the plane to find me. There was great agony, with him pulling off chunks of plane before he even got to the dirt that encased me. And I was completely disoriented and I didn't know where I was or what had happened.

And it took me probably 10 minutes before I realized the plane had crashed. And I can remember sitting in the plane. I remember looking out the open, broken fuselage at the snow falling, and in the far distance I could see the glow of a fire. And we got by the fire and that's where we sat most of the night.

INSKEEP: So, Paul managed to start a fire. It's extremely cold and you're in the wilderness. And as I'm reading this I begin thinking about Jack London's "To Build a Fire." A guy who's desperate to build a fire and if he fails, he's going to die. And then as I reading your account, well, the fire goes out, you run out of fuel. What was going through your mind then?

DESCHAMPS: There's a forest of trees - trees, trees everywhere, but not a branch to burn. And that's the truth. You have no axe, you have no way of gathering wood, you can't find fallen wood because there's three and a half feet of snow. And we sent Paul on a constant vigilance for anything that would burn.

Fire was life, Steve. Fire was life. And at different times during the night we had no fire. And I've been on many search and rescue situations as a Mountie where you'd go into these camps looking for lost hunters or motor vehicle accidents in the back bush, and you find the people, eventually, but you find them as frozen corpses. And I figured that's how we'd be found.

INSKEEP: Of course, you were found in the end, just in time. And the four of you survived.

And, Carol Shaben, I'd like to know how people's lives changed after that incident.

SHABEN: Well, Steve, each of the survivors was completely transfigured by what had happened that night, and all of their lives took sharp turns, if you will. Paul Archambault, who had a long prison record; who, you know, was an accused criminal, a drifter who had been drifting across the country since he was 15 or 16 - he went back. He got on a plane two days later and faced charges, faced a judge in court. And the judge said, you are to be commended for your actions and I exonerate you of all charges.

So this ne'er-do-well vagabond who'd had nothing but hard luck was all the sudden hailed as a hero. So took a dramatic turn that way.

INSKEEP: What about your father?

SHABEN: My dad was changed. He was a changed man. He began to look at his life and judge his worth as a man, from that point forward, by what he accomplished in the years - the extra years he felt he got that others on that plane did not. And he felt like the political life that he had been living, it wasn't enough; he needed to do more. And he floundered for a long time, trying to figure out what that was.

And after 9/11, he became very, very strident about trying to build bridges across cultures, trying to increase understanding and tolerance. And my dad created this incredible philanthropic life and this incredible legacy that I think was a greater tribute than his 16 years of political career.

INSKEEP: Scott Deschamps, how did this event change you?

DESCHAMPS: Well, Steve, I made a bucket list before bucket lists were made. I had a very profound list of things I wanted to do if I was ever going to get off that mountain. And, you know, there were 10 things, and it took - I just finished them. It took me 25 years to finally finish the last one.

INSKEEP: What were some of the things on the list?

DESCHAMPS: One of the things that was most profound, and I voiced it at the time, was the fact that I was going to die on that stupid mountain and I never had a family. So I went forward very specifically to be a great parent. And I am; I have two wonderful children.

I'd never been to university, so when I left the Mounted Police, I did a bachelor's degree and I went on and I did a master's degree. And I had a whole bunch of other things. Now, I live in peace and life is good.

INSKEEP: Carol Shaben is the author of "Into the Abyss," the story of four plane crash survivors. Scott Deschamps was one of those survivors. Thanks to you both.

SHABEN: Thank you.

DESCHAMPS: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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