Hear the cockpit recordings from the Gol Boeing 737 passenger plane and the ExcelAire N600XL private jet. (Files are MP3; right-click to download.) The collision happens at 29:23 on the Gol recording and at 1:23:46 on the ExcelAire tape.
What were the odds? There were so many chances for the accident not to occur—so many ways to break the chain that led to it—that a crash investigator later told me it seemed the Devil himself was at play. The men responsible were American pilots and Brazilian air-traffic controllers working the high-altitude jet routes above the Amazon basin in central Brazil. If these were not the sharpest guys around, they were ordinary for the type, until then functional enough, and not so stupid that stupidity alone can explain the disaster that they brought about. It was Friday, September 29, 2006, toward the end of the dry season in northern Mato Grosso State, where the Amazon jungle reaches south along the broad, brown Xingu River. The sky that afternoon was pale and hot. Dolphins swam in the river, as they always have. Turtles lazed on the banks. On the rough dirt road that cuts for hundreds of miles through the forests and clearings, a few vehicles crept along as usual, boiling the dust in second gear and drifting clouds of it across the occasional settlements. The road has a federal designation, BR-80, but it is less a road than a track. It leads from nowhere to the same. During the rainy season it becomes nearly impassable. The settlers who followed it into the jungle call themselves the Forgotten Ones. Those who feel superior to the Indians nearby seem nonetheless resigned to low ambitions in life. When strangers drive by, the settlers pause to watch. This and television pass for entertainment. Otherwise most days go by like all the others. September 29 was a day like those, too. There were no strangers on the ground that I know of. If there was any sense of urgency, it was in the late afternoon, when the few drivers within range of the Xingu River crossing began pushing to make the final ferry, at sundown.
The crossing is in the heart of Caiapó Indian territory, a large and densely forested reserve. The ferry is a barge side-tied to a small tugboat piloted by taciturn Indians. The ferry operation is their only source of income beyond government handouts. The main village is nearby. About 300 Caiapós live there in airy thatch-roofed huts that are tidier than the squalid shacks of the Forgotten Ones. They paint their bodies with geometric designs, but wear Western clothes on top. Some have a penchant for camouflage shirts. Some stretch their lower lips around lip plates. It is an impractical fashion, which makes spitting hard. The men call themselves “warriors,” which must do something for their pride. They are hunters and fishermen who go disappearing into the jungle for days at a time. The women stay home, where they tend to the children and village chores. The village is noisy because of all the comings and goings, the babies who cry, and the constant din of chickens. But on the afternoon of September 29, about a minute before five p.m., two women who had gone into the silence by a stream to wash heard a single roll of heavy thunder. The thunder was strange because the sky was clear. The women returned to the village and reported what they had heard.
In the aftermath the press made much of this Caiapó group, describing them as people close to nature and therefore pure, and with experience so limited to their traditional ways that they understand airplanes as distant iron birds. The reality is more complex. I counted five satellite television dishes in the village, and, out beyond an imposing schoolhouse, found a groomed dirt runway long enough to accommodate high-performance turboprops. The Caiapós certainly know what airplanes are. In fact their leader, a heavyset man named Megaron, sometimes gets around on government-paid chartered ones, and several years ago was flown to New York by the musician Sting to join a campaign for the preservation of Indian lands. Sitting in a council space in the shade of trees, Megaron described his arrival in New York to me—looking out his window and seeing other airplanes in flight, and then watching them land, one after the other, just minutes apart. He had been impressed by the performance of New York Air Traffic Control. So much for the “iron bird” part of the story. Nonetheless, it is true that the Caiapós are not sold on modernity as it is typically defined. They have not, for instance, been Christianized or persuaded to abandon their traditional beliefs, which include the proximity of a parallel world “on the other side,” roamed by the souls of the sudden-dead, with whom only a shaman can talk. Was it possible that the thunder had escaped from there? In some sense it had. But to ride in airplanes is not to have them foremost in mind. No one among the Caiapós imagined that the thunder was the sound of a Boeing 737 hitting the ground.
The same bewilderment afflicted others within earshot of the impact. To the west of Caiapó territory, at the headquarters of a 21,000-head cattle ranch called Fazenda Jarinã, many of the employees heard the thunder and could make nothing of it. The manager of Fazenda Jarinã is a small, lonely man named Ademir Riebero, who told me he knew that the north-south traffic between Manaus and Brasília passes high overhead, and that at night you can hear the airplanes and see their lights. On the evening of September 29, however, when he heard talk of the unexplained thunder, he did not wonder if one had crashed. To me he said, “We just couldn’t imagine it could happen here. Only in São Paulo or places like that.” Indeed, the airplanes that passed overhead were in the least critical phase of flight, cruising high and straight through the cold clean sky, unstressed, and organically resistant to almost any error their crews might make. But then Riebero received a radiophone call from an official he knew, who said, “Ademir, there is a Gol airplane that has disappeared, and it seems to have gone down near you.” Gol is a discount airline named after the drawn-out victory cry in soccer—G-O-O-O-O-L!!! Riebero switched on the television news and saw a map labeled Jarinã on the screen. It was odd how this authenticated the situation in his mind. From the lack of reports from the outstations, he surmised that the airplane had not crashed on the ranch’s holdings. But given the size and density of the bordering jungle, it was not surprising that an entire Boeing could have disappeared.
Later that night, with more radiophone calls coming in, Riebero heard that workers at the neighboring farm had seen an airplane fall. These are the only known eyewitnesses to the accident. The farm where they live and work is small compared with Fazenda Jarinã, but large nonetheless. As something of a plaything it is luxurious and extremely well kept. It belongs to a 24-year-old man in São Paulo, to whom it was gifted by his grandfather. Being rich can be especially pleasant in Brazil—and the Amazon, let’s face it, looks better after it is cut down. The workers were laying a new brick wall when they heard a roar and spotted the Boeing perhaps a dozen miles to the east. It was pointed straight down and seemed to be wobbling and trailing a cloud. At that distance the airplane looked just a few inches long. It disappeared over a tree line and into the forests beyond. No dust or smoke rose into the sky. Some seconds later came the thunder. The workers ran to find their boss, who hurried to a radio and made the first call. That night people at the farm had a hard time sleeping.
Riebero had a long night as well. The Brazilian Air Force called asking to use Fazenda Jarinã for rescue and recovery operations once the airplane was found. Riebero acquiesced because the ranch had the facilities to handle a crowd. God willing, the crowd would include survivors. At 11 p.m. a four-engine Hercules lumbered overhead and began searching through the darkness to the east, ultimately without success: the Boeing’s emergency locator transmitter had apparently failed, because no homing signal was received. The air force kept calling Riebero to keep him abreast. Riebero finally switched off the radiophone to catch some rest. He got up at dawn. For a while the morning was calm, but at 8:30 another Hercules flew low overhead, equipped with a magnetometer of use in detecting metal masses. At nine a.m., Riebero heard that the wreckage had been found.
It lay in heavy forest on Caiapó territory, and was almost impossible to see from above. Air-force helicopters began to settle onto the ranch’s soccer field. A rescue team went out, rappelled down to the crash site, and came back with the news that there would be no survivors. The scene was grim. One hundred and fifty-four people had died. They were innocent men, women, and children. People are insignificant blips on the scale of history, but these had not died peacefully, as one might wish. They had endured a period of absolute terror, and had been torn apart by the force of the impact. It was the worst accident in Brazil’s long aviation history.