Another Plane Crash, Another Ordinary Miracle: Science Saves but God Gets Credit

December 23, 2008

On Sunday Dec. 21, a 737 Continental Airlines jet crashed at Denver International Airport. The plane veered off the runway during takeoff, burst into flames, and broke apart. Thirty-eight people suffered injuries including broken bones, and two were admitted to a hospital in critical condition. According to Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief, "It was a miracle…that everybody survived the impact and the fire." The   miracle label, always a favorite of journalists, was repeated in headlines around the world: "A Christmas Miracle" was popular.

Yet the fire chief’s "miracle" label may stem more from his inexperience with airline crashes than reality. According to Mark Rosenker of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in an MSNBC article about a previous crash, "There is this myth out there that says if you’re involved in a catastrophic aircraft accident the odds are extremely low. [In fact], the odds are extremely high." According to an NTSB study of 568 crashes between 1983 and 2000, only five percent of passengers were killed; the remaining 95 percent escaped unharmed or without life-threatening injuries. In another study of more serious crashes, the odds were better than 50/50 that passengers got out alive. And crashes that occur on the ground, as this one did, often have very high survival rates.

In Biblical times, miracles seemed truly miraculous: walking on water, turning water into wine, that sort of thing. In modern hyperbole, however, a miracle often simply means "unexpected good fortune" from the labeler’s perspective. (Of course, it was not such good fortune that the accident happened in the first place.) Many journalists, preferring sensationalism over statistics, saw the burning metal wreckage and incorrectly assumed the crash was unsurvivable without consulting experts. The traveling public, primed by a fear-mongering news media to assume the worst, dramatically overestimate the dangers of air travel.

The fact that all the passengers survived is almost certainly due to science, skill, and circumstance. Attributing the survival of the passengers to a miracle is an insult to the bravery, skill, and experience of the flight crew, who trained for years to handle just such emergencies. By all accounts, the Continental crew acted quickly and professionally during the emergency. They made sure that all passengers were buckled in for the landing and evacuated quickly.

The   "miracle" designation also ignores the countless engineering safety measures and devices built into the 737. After all, the airplane design is the result of decades of safety engineering. With just under a century of commercial flight, airplanes are safer than they ever have been, and remain far safer than autos on the nation’s highways. Science helps make aircraft materials stronger and lighter, and crashes more survivable (designing impact-resistant fuel tanks, for example, and flame-snuffing foam).

The 100 percent survival rate in the Denver crash was fortunate and wonderful, but it was not an accident, nor was it a miracle; it was the result of careful preparation, thorough training, sound science, and modern technology. Once could argue that God created the accident (or at least allowed it to happen), while it was man and science that saved lives. Give credit where credit is due.