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.



#1 Bj Masters (Guest) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 at 5:40pm

By all means possible Church and State Must be kept seperate.Let knowledge and education rule! for when one has the knowledge one knows that man is the creator and we are our own gods!

#2 Lucretius on Tuesday December 23, 2008 at 11:36pm

Yes, well-said. (If that was supposed to be irony or sarcasm, I couldn’t detect the substance of it)

#3 Bj Masters (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 3:11am

Just Fact! Irony or sarcasm never comes into it. ( from MOI)

#4 Bj Masters (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 3:13am

I meant that to sound nice, ( after I read again sounded sarcastic. sorry

#5 Jeff P on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 6:40am

Well at work yesterday I was treated with another “miracle” story, complete with video footage from CBS.  It appears that a former premature infant who has suffered most of her life, now (at least CP)wheelchair-bound, was about to die of a respiratory infection (this would have been one of many such events in her life.)  She made it again, and the family took a picture of her “angel” in the hospital corridor (it looked like sunlight streaming in through a window to me.) That miracle made national news.

I was reluctant later in the day to relay to them that my dear friend lost his healthy, vivacious, promising and brilliant graduate-student 27 year old daughter in an avalanche in Utah, right before Christmas (they are Lutheran.)  No one’s asking where her “angel” was.  No national news story.

#6 Liam (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 7:26pm

“... crashes that occur on the ground ...”


#7 Lucretius on Friday December 26, 2008 at 10:33am

Sorry, I assumed you meant what you said, but I added a caveat, since one never knows with the internet.

#8 Lucretius on Friday December 26, 2008 at 10:35am

Another quick thought- whenever something like this happens and everyone turns out alright, it’s a “miracle.” Does anyone remember the story of the West Virginia miners who were trapped? At first, it was reported that all but one survived, and people were “thanking God for a miracle.” But then it was announced that the news was mis-reported- only one survivor was rescued, and I believe he later died in the hospital. Talk quickly turned from miracles to lawsuits. Whenever people are saved, it’s a miracle, whenever people die…believers change the subject.

#9 Lisa Rosati (Guest) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 at 9:20am

There is a tendency for many of us to sort through our everyday lives and separate the “miracles” and “curses” from the mundane. Maybe some folks long to control events that are uncontrollable, or they are terrified by life and obsessed with the idea of being under “divine protection.” At the risk of sounding like a garden- variety wannabee psychologist,  the belief in both “curses” and “miracles” is mostly about varying degrees of self-involvement. Most cultures and all of media profit from this type of narcissism in some way. Comments?.

#10 John de Waal (Guest) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 at 3:41pm

I was not going to comment on this piece, although I totally agree with Mr. Radford’s point of view. However, the words “Miracle”, “God”, and “Angels” etc. are so common, that they come out of people’s mouths without them giving it another thought. And the press panders to the public, as we all know.
It would be nice if we could change that perception, but when we’d put a priority to that effort, I think that it would be a bit down a list that includes the wars, the economic downturn, hunger, inequality, injustice, etc., etc., etc.

#11 Takis Konstantopoulos (Guest) on Monday January 05, 2009 at 11:19am

There are many prayer submission sites on the Internet, such as this one. People submit prayers, expecting miracles will happen. Surprisingly, for some of them, they do.

To test the site, I submitted a prayer for the Riemann Hypothesis. However, to-date, my prayer has not been answered.

#12 alex (Guest) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 at 2:16pm

i luv it.

#13 Sharon (Guest) on Sunday January 11, 2009 at 10:48pm

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


#14 Paulo (Guest) on Saturday January 17, 2009 at 2:54pm

This seems a typical straw man argument, for no religious entity has claimed that surviving a plane crash is a “miracle”. 
Journalists say stupid things all the time. This is just another one. 

So your “contradiction” is inexistent…

The banalization of the word miracle is a truly secular enterprise.

#15 Lisa Rosati (Guest) on Saturday January 17, 2009 at 9:58pm

Since Jesus never flew in a large jet, I assume that he never survived a crash either. If he did, what would he say, and would it make good copy?

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